By Amy Cates
Photography by William Dickey
The earliest tea infusers, or tea balls, brought ingenuity and style to the table, offering a solution to spooning out wayward tea leaves and an alternative to preparing a full pot. A curious piece of hardware, the tea ball, unlike any other device, made possible a custom cup of tea. Whether a treasured silver collectible or a modern silicone twist on the original infusers, the tea ball affords a sense of control over the strength and flavor of the tea.
Before the tea ball, tea strainers sifted leaves from the tea. Loose tea was brewed or steeped in a pot, then poured through a strainer into the cup. Often elegant in design, strainers either straddled the width of the cup or were smaller, delicate devices that collected the leaves in a more subtle way. Eventually, tea balls edged out the strainer in popularity.
The mid-19th century saw the widespread acceptance of the tea ball, which at that time was part aesthetic, part utensil. As most were made of ornate silver, these pieces were considered to be decorative essentials as much as they were workhorse gadgets. From simple cylindrical or spherical shapes to baskets, apples, canisters, gourds, and hearts, tea balls were typically two hinged or screwed parts that served as a colander, or strainer, for whole or partial tea leaves. Crafted by names like Tiffany, Gorham, Whiting, and International, as well as individual silversmiths, tea balls became an art form. Tea drinkers’ love affair with infusers was—and is—certainly rooted in the craftsmanship and the charm of the tea ball.
Despite their beauty and historical significance, however, the oldest tea balls didn’t consistently capture the leaves, resulting in pieces floating along the surface of the tea. The upgrade in many of today’s tea balls is a mesh body, which allows free flow of water but no flow of tea leaves.
In the early 20th century, tea balls began to lose their standing to disposable tea bags. When William Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, packaged loose tea leaves as samples in small sachet bags back in 1908, recipients didn’t know what to do with the miniature muslin bags, so they poured water over them, effectively steeping the tea leaves. The disposable tea bag was born. Sullivan had unwittingly changed the course of tea steeping, essentially pushing aside the old-fashioned ball-and-chain infuser as the standard method for preparing tea. After all, the tea bag reduced cleanup, and it traveled well.
Yet infusers and tea balls still have a prominent place at the table. The terms infuser and tea ball are often used interchangeably, but the infuser encompasses a broader set of designs and technologies. Acting as a filter, today’s infuser can float atop the hot water or be immersed deeply in the cup or pot. With spring-action handles or built-in scoops, modern infusers have made steeping almost effortless. The durable and colorful silicone infusers on the market today were preceded—and are still accompanied by—the metal and mesh tea-ball infusers.
Regardless of the design, some general rules apply to using either an infuser or a tea ball. Fill the device only halfway with tea leaves to allow for movement and expansion. This will release optimal flavor. Base your choice of infuser on the size of the tea leaves—the smaller the leaves, or pieces of leaves, the smaller the holes in the infuser.
High-tech or low-tech, silicone or sterling silver, the types of infusers are as varied as the cups of tea they create. Fanciful tea balls, fine strainers, and contemporary infusers illustrate the evolution of steeping, as well as the range of devices that have made infusing a way to customize the beverage and maximize the experience.
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