We’ve all heard it. We’ve all tried to explain it. Sometimes the patron buys into your pitch about the merits of loose over bagged, but other times it can be like talking to a wall.

You know what I am talking about here. You might be able to sell them on the quality and taste difference, but as for the convenience factor of loose versus bagged? It can be a real crapshoot.

Although loose leaves have made leaps and bounds in the past few years in terms of popularity, it still surprises me every day when a self-professed tea addict arrives in our store looking for bagged tea (and I am not talking about high-quality pyramid nylon bags that pack loose leaf).

Yes, as scary as it may sound, these customers are looking for the generic, bleached paper sacks that house a substance that, in some cases, tastes no more like tea than coffee does.

So, how do we emphasize the supreme benefits of loose leaf over off-the-shelf bagged tea? Here is what I have been verbally communicating for the past decade and it seems to work more often than not:

  1. Quality.  On balance, premium loose-leaf tea is of significantly higher quality than most bagged tea.  Do you want to drink foul-tasting crud, or do you want to drink excellent-tasting full-leaf tea leaves?
  1. Freshness.  The unfortunate reality is that most tea bags purchased off the supermarket shelves can be almost two years old, essentially stale.  Most people have no idea what fresh teas taste like.  When presented with a taste comparison, they are literally blown away by the flavor profile of a fresh loose-leaf tea.
  2. 3. Lower cost per serving.  This always freaks them out a bit.  Here is the math (which you can do right in front of them): The average cost of 20 gourmet tea bags in a cello-wrapped box in the supermarket ranges from $4.99 to $6.99.  Let us take the median of $5.99.  That is 30 cents a tea bag for about enough tea to make a 12-oz cup.  If you spent the same 30 cents and invested it in loose tea, you would end up with enough tea to make 2-3 cups of tea (depending on the type of tea as well).  If need be, I rip open a tea bag and dump it on a plate in front of the customer to show them how much tea they are actually getting for their 30 cents.  Then I show them 30 cents worth of premium loose leaf.
  3. 4. Environmentally Friendly.  That 30 cents you pay for the tea bag is contributing a hell of a lot of packaging to the planet’s landfills, just for the sake of convenience.  Think about it for a second. First, there is the cello wrapper on the box.  Next comes the box itself.  In the box are 20 individually wrapped foil or paper pouches.  And inside each pouch is a paper tea bag.  Attached to the teabag is a staple, a length of string, and a tag on the other end.  When you rip open the bag and dump the tea on a plate and compare it to 30 cents of loose leaf, the difference is quite startling.  On closer scrutiny, you’ll see that the actual tea in the bag is hidden behind four layers of packaging.  If all that packaging is not bad enough, the actual quality of the tea can be downright atrocious.

In one case, I ordered a Darjeeling and my colleague, Bob, ordered a Rooibos. Our tea arrived in less than three minutes in the trendy new BrewT teapot. The young lady took the time to explain the workings of the device and when to pour, I mean dispense, the tea (the device sits on top of your cup and drops the tea straight down into it). She also said we could refill the BrewT as often as we like. I would be lying if I told you that

I kept my excitement in check with the spectacle unfolding in front of me.  I asked a couple of questions and let her run off to another table.  I looked around and saw many more tables with people sipping tea from BrewTs.

It then dawned on me; this was the image I had in that steak house of what tea service might be like in the future.  Beautifully crafted loose-leaf infusions, properly prepared and served in modern brewing devices by knowledgeable staff.

So, the future was happening here, now, in a hip bistro on Academy Road, in the bustling early morning in a 300-seat pancake house in the burbs, and in a large, renovated turn-of-the-century mansion whose many rooms were converted into plush dining nooks.

It is time for the leaves to unfurl again, to escape the confines of the paper sac and wow the many unsuspecting palates of today’s sophisticated beverage generation.

How can you help perpetuate this?  Ask for loose leaf every time you go out to dine, whether they have it or not.

Demand now outstrips supply and with the added effects of climate change, traditional growing areas are either too wet or too dry at their peak season. Yield and quality fluctuate from year to year.

There was a time I was quite determined to follow suit and adopt a go big or go home philosophy, but that was until the noxious whiff of corporate culture entered our small organization. We had 5 outlets operating in 2005 and I flinched and turned away.  I really was not keen on turning Steeps into the next Starbucks of Tea, even though our regulars were convinced we had conceived the model for a successful rollout.

So, is bigger better, I am inclined to say no, and I mean that for most of the industries and products that service the human race.  The single benefit I see from Big Tea’s proliferation is that young adults, who would normally grab a coke or red bull are opting now for a cuppa over a can.

This means that eventually, purveyors, blenders, and small-scale importers like us will see them in the shops we service.  One headache too many & simple curiosity will lead them to our tea bars. Once we demonstrate what good tea is, the way forward will be much clearer and more mouth-watering too.

Brendan Waye is a Tea Specialist and Sommelier for TG Tea, Inc.

Brendan Waye

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