tea in the grocery storeRecently, I saw a nice report on the costs of brewing teas at home, comparing various loose-leaf and tea bag suppliers. The story reported a price range of $.10 to $.30 per cup with commercial tea bags and a bit higher using “specialty” tea bags. Loose-leaf tea was also mentioned, with costs higher still. Since, as a dealer in premium loose-leaf teas I often encounter questions about cost, I decided to do a little research at my local supermarket and in my own showroom.

In a quick walk down the tea aisle at a local grocer, I found countless brands and choices competing for the buyer’s attention. Boxes of tea bags with 20 to 25 bags per box were offered for between $2.59 and $3.49 per package. One brand, which featured pyramid bags, was selling for $5.09 for 30 bags. The store had a big promo on the 100-count box of “L” for $2.99 (regularly $4.99). Sounds pretty inexpensive, yes? The math works out to somewhere between $.15 and $.17 per bag overall. The “L” brand on sale comes in at $.03 a bag, which is hard to beat. Most of the tea bags contained about 1.5 grams of tea. With a tea bag – not mentioning the quality of the tea leaves – the consumer is pretty much required to accept the infusion strength that can be obtained without using a second bag or oversteeping.

Many of the teas in our collection are priced at $2.95 per ounce. We generally find that, depending on the drinker’s flavor preferences, 1 ounce of leaf can produce 10 to 15 cups of tea. We recommend using 3 grams of leaf per 8 ounces of water. All of our teas can be brewed at least twice, many 4-5 times. But, let’s not count the longevity of the leaves. At $2.95 per ounce and assuming a milder infusion strength (15 cups per ounce), this works out to about $.20 per cup – a whopping $.03 more than the top range we found for the tea bags. Bear in mind, though, that in that $3.49 box of tea bags, you only get 30 grams of tea. For those who don’t speak metric, that equals 1.05 ounces. So by weight, the loose-leaf tea is about $.50 per ounce, cheaper than the bags.

tea comparisonSo how can you get 20 cups of tea out of 1.05 ounces in tea bag form versus only 15 cups out of an ounce of loose-leaf tea? Again, not mentioning anything about quality, the simple answer is surface area. In the tea manufacturing biz, we talk about “cuppage” – the number of cups you can get out of a certain weight of leaf. Without getting too technical and explaining CTC and Orthodox manufacturing, suffice to say that the smaller the leaf particle, the greater the surface area and the faster and more complete the infusion. The tea in that regular tea bag is small-particle leaf, which gives its all in about 3 minutes. Loose leaves take longer to give up their goodness and many are just getting started with the first infusion. The problem is that when you cut, chop, crush, and otherwise maim a tea leaf to increase surface area, the evaporation of all the flavor- and aroma-creating elements is accelerated too. Small-particle tea ages much faster than whole leaves. That’s just physics.

When you look at it, for that $.17 cup of tea from a bag, you compromise on freshness, potency, control over desired strength, depth of flavor, subsequent infusions, post-purchase shelf-life, and the wonderful aesthetics of brewing loose-leaf tea. This doesn’t even take into account the environmental impact of the packaging materials (they used to be trees, you know). Sadly, the box, plastic wrap, and used tea bags (with string and staples) get dumped into landfills.

Now, I don’t want to come down too hard on tea bags. To be sure, some are better than others. They do serve a purpose and there is certainly a market for them – more than loose-leaf tea at the moment. I just think that if cost is the reason someone makes a purchase choice in favor of tea bags, they should do so knowing the actual cost factors and what they get for their money.