Like many aspects of the tea story there is some debate about the history of the tea bag. Brewing tea dates back to about 2737BC. Emperor Shen Nung boiled up leaves, from a tea tree, which fell into his water. He enjoyed the flavour so much it became a regular drink or rather medicinal cure.
In later centuries it became popular as a drink from the camellia sinensis plant, which is the sole source of tea these days. The method of brewing remained unchanged for many centuries. Then………
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Why were tea bags needed
Obviously the reason for the invention of the teabag was convenience. It is much easier to use a teabag than brew fresh leaves every time you make a cup of tea.
Before the invention of the tea bag a whole pot of tea was made by pouring hot water over leaves in a tea strainer. Alternatively, the tea leaves were placed in a tea pot, water poured over them, and left to steep. For tea to taste good the leaves are removed after brewing it. A tea bag is easy to pull out of the cup or tea pot and no mess ensues.
In the early 1900s two women in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Roberta C Lawson and Mary Molaren, filed for a patent for a “tea leaf holder”. In their application they described the current method of making tea in a tea pot
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.
So they wanted to make a single cup of tea which could be drunk immediately while fresh and not waste tea leaves. Their preference was a design which kept the leaves together and not floating in the cup when drinking the tea.
They went on to describe a novel tea-holding pocket constructed of open-mesh woven fabric. They gained approval for their application but it appears it may not have been successful for them.
Tea bag invention was a mistake
A short time later, the stories go, a New York tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, was asked to send samples of teas to his customers in bags. They would be easier to handle, customers could see the product, smell it, tip it into a pot and taste it. Sullivan put the tea leaves into small silk pouches and when the customers received them they were placed directly into hot water. They asked for more “tea in bags” and so the tea bag began. It provided exactly what the two ladies from Milwaukee had been trying to design – hassle free, tasty tea in a single serve.
Today’s Tea Bag
Around the world millions of cups of tea are brewed from tea bags each day. The packaging has been modified many times. Some of the first commercial tea bags were made of gauze as it was less expensive than Thomas Sullivan’s silk. They continue to change, often made of filter paper which is a blend of wood and vegetable fiber. Bags for some finer teas and even herbal tisanes are often made of silky fabric or even muslin. They provide room for the leaves to stretch out and steep properly allowing the full flavour to come through.
There are also reusable bags. Usually made of muslin they can be filled with tea of your choice and brewed in a cup or pot. After use they are dried out, emptied and able to be used again.
Shapes and makes of all kinds
Tea bags allow for the use of fannings, or dust, which is leftover from processing high quality teas. Many of the cheaper lines selling in huge quantities are like this. Thankfully supermarkets these days stock a range of quality and often some very fine teas are available in bags.
Leaf grade teas contain whole leaves rather than dust and broken pieces. These may be found in different shaped containers such as pyramids or fuller pouches.
You might also find teas packed in sachets, infuser pods, tea sticks to appeal to the tea “connoisseurs” who often consider tea bags inferior.
The tea bag shaped like a pyramid is a popular one now. It gives the tea room to brew, the leaves are able to spread out and maximum flavour extracted. Generally they are see through enabling the tea drinker to see the whole leaf.
Needless to say little has changed since the invention of the first tea bag over a century ago. Preparing tea bag tea is convenient, easily made in a cup or pot without mess of loose tea leaves.
Enjoy your next cup of tea as you ponder the history of the tea bag. Dunking or dangling is permitted! It adds to the mindful experience of tea making.