teabag over real tea
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Why Teabags Will Never Beat the Real Thing

It is very difficult to find any consumer experience that is worse in the year 2015 than in the year 1900. Teabag tea is the only one I can think of and its persistence comes from the dedicated pursuit of profit over the interests of the consumer. It was first introduced to the world by accident in 1908 by an American tea dealer Thomas Sullivan who began to send samples of tea in silken bags to his customers. They were not meant to be used to brew tea but his customers tried them and must have liked them. The silk was later changed to gauze and then to paper and was made with the string so the teabag could be removed easily from the cup. This is the common story.

Mary Bellis tells a different story. ‘The first tea bags were made from hand-sewn silk muslin bags and I have found tea bag patents of this sort dating as early as 1903. First appearing commercially around 1904, tea bags were successfully marketed by tea and coffee shop merchant Thomas Sullivan of New York, who shipped his tea bags around the world. A machine was soon invented to replace the hand sewing of tea bags’.[i]

 

The question is whether teabags have been good for the tea industry or bad. Click To Tweet

 

Tea in the United States at that time was mostly from China and Japan and this meant that it was a large leaf tea. I have been unable to find the 1903 teabag patent mentioned in the quote above so it is impossible to know if it was intended to be used with a large leaf or small leaf. It does not matter. The teabag process, while it makes the brewing process very simple and convenient, totally wrecks the brewing process itself because it prevents turbulence and limits the amount of hot water that can circulate within the teabag. This is exactly the same problem as exists with all closed tea strainers. This can be easily demonstrated by taking the tea, small leaf or large leaf, out of any teabag and brewing it in a cup and comparing it with the same teabag of tea brewed in another cup. It almost seems that you are using two different products. The fact that over 96% of all tea consumed in the United Kingdom and Australia and 99% in the USA is teabag tea indicates the successful commercialisation of this terrible product.

 

An even bigger problem relates to the freshness of teabag tea. Staling is oxidation and the greater the amount of oxygen in the package the greater the potential for staling Click To Tweet

 

The word terrible is an emotive word and demonstrates that a value judgement has been made. It is necessary to determine the basis on which that judgement has been made. The first question relates to the quality of the product in the cup and, in terms of flavour and strength, there is absolutely no doubt that the product of a teabag has less flavour and less strength than the same tea brewed out of the teabag. By this standard it must be considered a failure. The second question relates to the carbon footprint of a teabag. Nigel Melican discovered that teabag tea has ten times the carbon footprint of loose tea.[ii]

An even bigger problem relates to the freshness of teabag tea. Staling is oxidation and the greater the amount of oxygen in the package the greater the potential for staling. It is possible to compare four different packs of tea;

  1. Loose tea packed into a an airtight package – some oxygen
  2. Loose tea vacuum packed – no oxygen
  3. Teabag tea where each bag is surrounded by air – a lot of oxygen – much staling
  4. Teabag tea where each bag is sealed within an outer pack and the carbon footprint is very bad – restricted oxygen

All that has been written above is fairly simple and should be obvious to anybody who considers themselves a tea expert and writes about tea

The question is whether teabags have been good for the tea industry or bad. Gresham’s law states that bad money drives out good. It was a reference to counterfeit money stopping people trusting genuine coin. I think Gresham’s law applies to tea as well because consumers have lost the taste for tea in the English-speaking world. It has been replaced by the poor results of the teabag resulting in a drop in tea consumption in England. At the same time it allowed tea sellers to include in their range herbal teas that had nothing to do with Camellia Sinensis. What is certain is that the tea industry has not grown at nearly the same rate as coffee. They faced the same problems in the year 1900. Coffee developed technologically while tea stood still except for the teabag which is now accepted by the majority of consumers to make a cup of tea while they have never actually tasted tea from a teapot.

It is time for the tea industry to analyse what has gone wrong and take the necessary steps to show consumers how to make a really good cup of tea, one cup at a time.

 

 

[i] http://inventors.about.com/od/tstartinventions/ss/tea.htm

[ii] http://bonteavant.com/2009/05/teas-carbon-footprint-discussed-at-the-world-tea-expo.html

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10 Comments

  1. Deepak Dutt says

    I have seen teabags in Japan, China, and the US which can be filled with fresh tea leaves of one’s choice, just before brewing. Any comments on how good, or not-so-good those are?

    • Ian Bersten says

      THE TEABAG RESTRICTS TURBULENCE AND YOU WILL ALWAYS GET BETTER FLAVOUR FROM THE TEA MADE LOOSE IN A CUP RATHER THAN IN THE BAG. The process is bad and it cannot be cured.

  2. Vijay says

    I totally agree with Ian. Being working in tea plantation over three dacades and making tea cups every day for myself taught me the difference.

  3. Terry Theise says

    There is no question this author is absolutely correct. Yet it leaves one major problem without a solution – that of the traveler. I am on the road some 100 days each year, and it has proven impossible to travel with the accoutrements for brewing loose leaf tea in my hotel room. It is simply too cumbersome. The best I can hope for is to find at least HALF-decent tea in silk bags, such as are offered by Damman in France and Adagio in the U.S. This is a feeble substitute for the real thing, but it beats Lipton or any of the other commercial bags of fannings and dust. If anyone has a better idea, do please share!

    Terry

  4. Teabags are usually made from low-grade tea or dust. Since the dust (or fennings) has comparative more surface area, the essential oils that give special taste and flavor get evaporated. As a result, you get a cup of colorless, stale and dull tea. Moreover, since teabags lie exposed for a long time, they lose whatever aroma is leftover. Though whole leaf teabags do not have these issues, they are not quite popularly available.

    • Ian Bersten says

      It is the teabag process which is the problem, not the tea. There is no turbulence and hence very poor extraction. Large leaf teabags would be even worse.

  5. About the problem of how to brew better tea on the road, a few ideas come to mind. Most tea enthusiast purists might bring a gaiwan, typically breakable but quite small. An infuser basket would be a more obvious choice, enabling Western style brewing instead, unbreakable and quite small, which come in a variety of styles. Even a mesh basket designed for use in a pot would work as one, the larger size. A small french press also works well, easy to use, better because it isolates brewing tea from air contact, some made from a suitable plastic that won’t pick up residual scents.

    • Ian Bersten says

      It is the size of the leaf that is important. If you use large leaf it is hopeless. grind large leaf into small and make a better cup.

  6. Pingback: Tea bags 101: past, present and potential - Tea Stories | Best Tea Blog | Still Steeping - The Teabox Blog

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