In which we give you one more solid excuse to cozy up with a hot cuppa. 

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If I’m being totally honest, I’ve never been much of a tea person. I’ve always liked the idea of it: picture an instagram-worthy scene of me wrapped in a blanket on the couch, curled up with a steaming mug of tea, decompressing from the day. But somehow, I skip straight from coffee to wine and miss everything in between. I’ve been trying to cut down on both, however, and with cool weather approaching and all the purported health benefits of tea, I figured it was time to give tea another shot.

As it turns out, the tea aisle at my local health food store is completely overwhelming. The first time I went, I stood in front of the dazzling array of packages for about 15 minutes before turning around and leaving, grabbing a latte on my way out. There’s the whole dilemma of white vs. green vs. black vs. herbal, which is a conversation for another time. But beyond that, I was torn between boxes of tea bags and bulk containers and packages filled with loose leaf tea. What’s the difference, which is better, and if I want to do tea the “right” way, which should I choose?

With so many questions, I turned to a local expert for answers. Sara Martinelli is the owner of Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder, one of the city’s top attractions and a veritable tea sanctuary that hosts tea workshops, seminars, and traditional tea ceremonies. Which is all to say, this woman knows her tea. Learn if one option is better for your health, which might lead to a more enjoyable tea experience, and what to look for when choosing tea.

Is loose leaf better than bagged tea?

It used to be that most tea found pre-bagged was of sub-par quality, and in order to ensure a high-grade drinking experience you had to brew loose leaf. However, Matinelli says that’s no longer the case. “Both loose leaf and tea bags can be made from quality teas, so the choice really has more to do with the 'style' of preparation," she says. "Some people find it much easier to just use the tea bag, which eliminates the need for any kind of measurement of tea or steeping time. It can greatly increase the efficiency and ease of making a pot of tea. However, there can be great pleasure found in the act of handling the loose tea. You are able to touch, see, and smell the leaves, both in their dry and wet forms. The ritual of brewing the perfect cup can be both relaxing and contemplative, not to mention the ability to create a cup of tea that perfectly suits your own personal preferences.”

Martinellisays that she always brews loose leaf tea at home because she enjoys the ritual, but stashes tea bags when traveling for easier preparation and to ensure that she can have good quality brews wherever life takes her.

Taste and health differences

Some tea experts will say that tea brewed in tea bags won’t yield as flavorful of a brew as loose leaf brewing methods, since the size of the tea bag limits the infusion ability. The difference in taste is fairly minimal for the average tea drinker, but if you have a more refined palate, opt for tea bags that are a bit roomier, such as the pyramid tea bags from Tea Forte. There is also more standardization with your typical tea bag, as they are blended with the intention of uniformity, but again, you probably won’t notice any difference unless you have an especially well-defined palate.

In terms of health benefits, Martinelli says that will remain the same no matter how you brew your tea, provided you are choosing high-quality tea in either case. “Today there are many high-quality teas and herbal blends packaged in tea bags, so using a bag should not be considered drinking ‘bad’ tea,” she says.

What to look for when buying tea

Martinelli says to not overcomplicate the tea-purchasing process, and to just trust your taste buds when deciding what type of tea to buy. She does say, however, to look for teas that are harvested and grown with care, and processed well, which might not always be the most expensive option.

“Let’s say you have a high-quality green tea grown in China. After a meticulous harvest, the best of the leaves will be sold as the highest grade for the most money. The broken leaves might be sold for a less amount, but the flavor will be similar to the high-priced leaves because it’s really the same tea. So it’s not always important to get the most expensive tea, but instead to look for a tea that is most pleasing to the palate. And that is relative to the person drinking the tea.”

If you want to make sure that you are buying high-quality tea, purchase from a reputable online retailer such as In Pursuit of Tea, which has been directly sourcing from tea farms since 1999, or from the online tea shop of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse.

The final word: drink what you like

Martinelli says that at the end of the day, the type and style of tea preparation you choose really just comes down your individual preferences and what makes sense for your lifestyle. Like a true tea lover, she says, “that’s the amazing thing about tea: it can be so versatile and become something special to all kinds of people. From iced tea to a top Darjeeling, the experience is hugely variable and can be found in cultures all over the globe in its many forms and styles.”