When I was a child, I drank tea because my parents wouldn’t let me drink coffee. I would soak a tea bag in hot water until it made a dark, bitter liquid, then dump in milk and sugar until it was overly sweet, and mostly flavourless. I would sip it to fit in with adults, but I wouldn’t say that it was something I enjoyed.
As a young adult, I tried loose tea on the advice of a friend. It was a totally different drink. Black tea tasted rich and warming. Earl grey had a wonderfully soothing aroma. Green tea had a nourishing earthy taste that made me feel good when I drank it. More importantly, there was very little bitterness, so I could skip the milk and sugar, and enjoy the flavours even more.
The reason why loose tea tastes better is basic chemistry. Tea is damaged by exposure to air. The tea in tea bags is ground to a fine dust, then spread out into thin mesh pouches. The larger surface area accelerates the ageing process, robbing the flavour and aroma.
It may be true that tea bags are easier than loose tea, but with a little equipment they aren’t much easier. Most of the time, I use a simple strainer that sits in the cup like this one (amazon.ca, amazon.com). Measure some loose tea into the basket, pour boiling water over it, and remove the basket once it’s finished steeping. The lid can be flipped to hold the wet basket, so you don’t even need to stay near the sink.
At work, or when I’m travelling, I use a tea thermos with a built-in strainer made by a local company. I put dark teas in the strainer part, steep with the container upside down, then flip and remove both lids to drink. It’s easy to use, and it makes it easy to carry hot tea around without spilling or making a mess.
Loose teas can be harder to find, but there are many great sources online. If there is a tea store in your neighbourhood, going in and selecting a few teas can be a lot of fun. Except for the very highest grades, most good teas aren’t too expensive, especially when compared to premium tea bags.
Once awakened, I started taking a lot of pleasure in hunting down and trying new teas and brewing equipment. I have been researching and experimenting for more than a decade now, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Sometimes I am forced to drink tea from tea bags while I’m in a restaurant or visiting family. Some tea bags that are better than others, but all of them seem lacking compared to my own stash at home. It’s enough that I’ll never forget why I put in the extra effort to enjoy my cup of tea.