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The History of the Tea Bag

by Kriszti Nagy on March 18, 2017

The tea bag is a modern convenience, but is it really that clever? 



The "problematic" tea leaves

"Heretofore it has been common to prepare tea ... by putting a quantity of tea leaves in a pot and pouring hot water thereon ... This practice involves the use of a considerable quantity of tea leaves to prepare the desired supply of tea, and the tea, if not used directly, soon becomes stale or wanting in freshness, and therefore unsatisfactory, and frequently a large portion of the tea thus prepared and not used directly has to be thrown away, thus involving much waste and corresponding expense."

Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren  

 

What is a tea bag?

A small porous sachet containing tea leaves or powdered tea, on to which boiling water is poured in order to make a drink of tea.

From the beginning until the early 20th century very little changed about how a cup of tea was made: one would steep tea leaves in a pot, then pour the liquor into cups - but that all changed in 1901.

Historically speaking, packing tea in paper was not a modern invention. In 8th century China, during the Tang Dynasty, paper was folded and sewn into square bags to preserve the qualities of tea. 



How was the tea bag invented?

After many American patent applications for convenient tea infusers (the first one dated as early as 1897), a patent for a 'Tea Leaf Holder' was filed in 1901 by Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The aim was simple: to brew a single cup of fresh tea while no leaves were floating around the cup to spoil the experience.

"Our novel tea-holding pocket is constructed of open-mesh woven fabric, inexpensively made of cotton thread."

Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren

Roberta Lawson Mary McLaren tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag patent loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea
Roberta Lawson Mary McLaren tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag patent loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea

An accidental invention?

Many sources claim that the tea bag was invented by American tea and coffee importer Thomas Sullivan in 1908 when he shipped out samples of tea packed in silk pouches. Using these bags to brew tea became very popular among his customers. Funnily enough, this invention was accidental. His customers were not meant to put the bags in the hot water directly, the tea was intended to be removed first.

This happened 7 years after Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren patented their 'Tea Leaf Holder', therefore Sullivan's customers may have already been familiar with the concept and just assumed that the silk pouches had the same function.  

tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea



The tea bag overtakes loose leaf tea

Fabric was then replaced by filter paper and slowly loose leaf tea began to disappear from the American store shelves during the '30s. Tetley brought the idea of the tea bag to the UK in 1939, but teabags were introduced only in 1952 when Lipton patented its “flo-thru” teabag.

This new way of consuming tea didn't take on as quickly in Britain as in the US. While in 1968 only 3% of all tea brewed in the UK was prepared using a teabag, by the end of the century this number rose to 96%.

tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea

 

The tea bag changed the tea industry: CTC

The industry found that it was not producing enough small grade teas to fill the growing demand for the first tea bags which only allowed the use of small particles of tea. To create large quantities of teas that can be packed in tea bags a new manufacturing method was needed.

CTC (short for 'cut, tear and curl') manufacturing was introduced in some Assam tea estates in the 1930s. Black teas produced with this method have a strong liquor and are perfect with milk and sugar.

The tea leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the tea into small, hard pellets. This replaces the final stage of orthodox tea manufacture, in which the leaves are rolled into strips.

CTC (or mamri) black teas from Assam are traditionally used in Masala Chai so that the strong base tea is not overpowered by the spices and sweeteners. See the picture below showing our Masala Chai and Choco Assam blends. Check out and try our award-winning CTC teas here.

 

How to use tea bags?

There isn't much difference between brewing loose tea or tea bags when it comes to brewing time and water temperature: you can use tea bags for hot and cold brews. There are however big differences in quality and taste. 

Portion sized tea bags generally contain fannings (small pieces of tea that are left over after higher grades of leaf teas are gathered - normally these were treated as the rejects) or dust (fannings with very small particles). Traditionally, CTC teas steep very quickly, therefore you will not be able to steep CTC tea bags several times. You will never be able to extract the flavours and colours you can experience with loose leaf tea. Using a tea bag however can be seen as quicker and cleaner, therefore more convenient.

 tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea

 

Do tea bags expire? Storing tips

When it comes to storing tea bags, you should treat them as if they were loose leaf tea. Tea's enemies are light, moisture and odours. In order to maintain freshness and aromas, never store tea in a transparent container. Use containers that are airtight and opaque. Place the container in cool environments that are well ventilated and are far from spices as tea and tea bags absorb moisture and odour. Just like loose leaf tea, it is not recommended to store tea bags in the fridge as condensation might affect the flavour. 

 

Are teabags plastic free and compostable?

Not all of them. Tea bags are made of materials strong enough to hold the tea in, but light enough to allow the tea to be released into the water. Unfortunately, materials used for tea bags might seem to be 100% paper but they can still contain microplastics. While the tea leaves themselves are obviously compostable, you always have to check how to dispose of your tea bags with the manufacturer.



 

Problem and Solution

The sad consequence of teabag use is not just unnecessary waste. If you worry that due to convenience eating you have no connection with the food you eat, you should worry about losing your immediate connection with the beverages you drink, too. Be aware of the origin of the leaf and its appearance. Buy loose leaf tea (and fill-your-own tea bags if you insist) and always know what you're steeping! 

Do you prefer loose leaf tea or tea bags? Let us know in the comments! :)

 

2 comments
by Kriszti @ Tea Shirt on May 18, 2020

Yes, I understand why it might seem difficult! To us, it seems tea-lovers often switch to loose-leaf once they smell and/or taste proper teas or blends: the experience is so much better, their senses don’t let them go back! The act of making and serving tea is an important part of the experience – using a teabag in a teacup becomes boring :)

by Leexxxx on May 18, 2020

I find it difficult to persuade people that tea made in a pot with boiling water and tea leaves is immeasurably better than a tea bag dunked in a cup of hot water! Recently, a well-known quiz host stated that the proper way to make tea was with a teabag in a cup. Very sad.

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