A better title would probably be; A comparison between loose leaf tea and tea bag tea, but the current title does state my bias better. 🙂
Probably the biggest difference between loose leaf tea, and tea bag tea, is the quality of the leaf. loose leaf tea is also often called Orthodox, as its production style hasn’t changed since the 1800’s. The Orthodox style of production is based off of the traditional Chinese style. Tea bag tea is associated with the CTC manufacturing method.
The easiest way to remember these two styles is that Orthodox main target is to preserve the leaf as a whole (better price for the less adulterated), while CTC style prefers a more processed leaf (to allow for a quicker brewing method).
A good Orthodox tea is dependent upon good leaf and good processing. CTC requires only a thorough processing. Any size of leaf can be made into CTC. Hail damage, pesticide burn, old leaves, bit of stem, none of it matters as the final product with be uniform.
Orthodox style is much more difficult to make. Careful plucking of young leaves, picked at the right time of the day, carefully monitored. Orthodox style is a craft as the skills have to be learned. CTC leaves are almost pureed and created into a homogeneous diced size (one grade is called Dust, if that gives a size of the product).
That being said, Orthodox and CTC do have some cross over. After a harvest of leaves for orthodox style of production, the plucking table must be ‘reset’ back to the bud leaf. These leaves that were not good enough to pluck for the orthodox (or if the estate adheres to a strict 1 leaf and 1 bud (or 2 leaves and a bud) policy), but still be harvested to reset the tea plants at the same height. Thus most tea estates will produce both Orthodox tea and CTC tea.