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Like a majority of my fellow Brits, I pride myself on my tea-making abilities; I know how my friends take theirs and can maneuver a tray full of piping hot mugs. Sadly, that does not a tea sommelier make. Gabrielle Jammal, on the other hand, has a certificate from the International Tea Masters Association—and she really knows what constitutes a good cup of tea.
The encyclopedic tea guru flexes her skills as the resident tea sommelier in New York's Baccarat Hotel, an American Express Fine Hotel & Resorts Property. Here, she's helping people find their perfect brew during Afternoon Tea (it's one of the city's best) or at tea pairing events. She'll passionately explain to guests about tea producers around the world and the complexities in flavors. "My mission is to educate and show people how good tea should taste like and look like," she said.
So is loose-leaf tea always better than teabags? Comparing loose-leaf versus teabag tea "[is] like comparing really great red wine and boxed wine," Jammal said. "They both have advantages one is great for convenience, you can bring it with you, but if you’re sitting home and you want to enjoy a bottle of wine you would go for a vintage cab."
Though there are ways to get the perfect cup from good teabags these days. So put the kettle on and read on for what it all boils down to.
Loose Leaf vs Tea Bags
What is loose-leaf tea? Like it sounds, loose-leaf tea is a tea that's not brewed in a constricting tea bag, it's usually packaged in airtight containers to seal freshness and flavor, and the loose leaves can be steeped multiple times for several cups of tea.
"You get a huge difference in flavors with loose leaf, and usually higher quality of tea over bagged, depending on how it’s processed," said Jammal.
Like coffee and wine, the 159 million daily U.S. tea drinkers are gaining an interest in terroir, flavors, origins, bush to brand, and sustainability of high quality, loose-leaf teas. But even in big cities, some people have limited exposure to anything other than grocery store tea bags.
Although convenient and portable, commercial teabags are now known for lower quality tea, often packaged with the smaller part of tea leaves known as the fannings, or dust, and the bags can be made with bleached paper, staples, or glue that may add chemicals or unwanted flavors to your cuppa.
And while no two cups of single-origin loose-leaf tea will taste the same, teabag tea is usually standardized in flavor, as it's blended with teas from around the world and standardized in size, which isn't always a good thing. "Chamomile doesn’t weigh the same as black tea," explained Jammal. So good teabags should really be sized according to the type of tea inside, and single-origin.
Teabags didn't always have such a bad rep. According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, the teabag was accidentally invented in the U.S. in 1908 when Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, started to send samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags. Instead of emptying out the contents, his customers assumed the bags worked in the same way as the metal infusers. Ta-da. The teabag was born. And while teabags strayed from their luxurious silk and whole-leaf beginnings, artisan tea stores like In Pursuit of Tea and The Tea Spot are slowly returning to high-quality loose-leaf sachets. Unlike most conventional teabags, they're pyramid-shaped for ample tea-expanding space, hand-packed, and biodegradable with no harmful chemicals getting in the way.
How to Pick the Best Tea
"You should always research the company and respect the company before buying the tea," advised Jammal. Check where they source their tea, whether they travel to meet the farmers personally, and always feel free to ask them for help with if you're not sure what you're looking for. Tea brands she recommends include New York's Té Company, which "source directly from the gardens and the farms and they go out and travel four to five months of the year to get their teas," and Kettl in Brooklyn, a brand that specializes in Japanese tea and also travels to source the leaves directly from Japanese gardens.
How To Make Perfect Loose Leaf Tea
To make the perfect loose leaf tea at home you need the right accessories. Jammal's go-to is a six-ounce glass teapot from Silver Needle Tea Company ($25) that dons a built-in strainer at the spout, as opposed to teapots with tea eggs or brewing pieces in the middle. This particular pot's design allows enough open space for the loose tea fo expand. "You don’t want something that's constricting the tea, those tea balls are fine—but if you want the best flavor, you want something that will let the tea open and expand to its fullest," she advised.