Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
The tea world is celebrating the 104th anniversary of the simple tea bag, an invention that made a cup of tea convenient and affordable for the mass market. The earliest examples of infusing devices included tea eggs and tea balls, the latter being perforated metal containers that were filled with loose leaves, immersed in boiling water, and removed using an attached chain.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan began sending his customers small hand-sewn silken bags filled with samples of tea. The patrons were impressed, and he was delighted when tea orders began pouring in. The only problem was that his confused customers complained because their tea arrived in the same loose form in which it had always appeared. They wanted their tea in the convenient tea bags he had sent them for sampling. Sullivan decided to give his customers what they wanted, and in 1908, he developed sachets made of gauze. The tea bag was born, and American tea drinkers were hooked. Britain, too, fell in love with the convenience of the tea bag. Nowadays, almost 90 percent of British tea is infused via bags.
I often hear the misstatement that tea bags are filled with nothing but the sweepings from the tea-factory floor. That can be partially true for inexpensive tea bags that have some tea dust in their blends. A bit of tea dust, a by-product of the grading process, is added so that the tea water will turn immediately dark in the cup. But those blends are not as common today and certainly are not what is shaping the modern tea renaissance.
Tea sales in America have increased by 300 percent over the past eight years, thanks in part to the ever-evolving tea bag. Today’s tea bags have adapted to the growing demand for better-quality full-leaf teas, and tea packers are scrambling to keep up with demand by creating improved designs such as pyramid tea bags.
Tea Forté led the revolution several years ago with its tall pyramid teas in designer packaging that caught the attention of celebrities such as Oprah. The company’s objective was to put large, superior-grade tea leaves into a roomier single-use container that allowed the leaves to expand and release their full flavor potential. These new voluminous pyramid bags also allowed the addition of herbs and fruits that would have been too large for earlier tea bags. Every major gourmet tea line now offers a variety of upgraded tea bags to satisfy demand. With an eye toward ecology, many of the newer bags are made of biodegradable cornstarch rather than nylon.
For the serious tea drinker, this tempest in a tea bag is becoming more satisfying as we look for better tea service in cafés, hotels, and restaurants. Those of us who might have looked down our noses at the common tea bag a few years ago have become more accepting of these much-improved steeping devices. Finally, the lowly tea bag is getting the respect it has earned.
Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Benjamin Press. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.