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;
- Loose tea packed into a an airtight package – some oxygen
- Loose tea vacuum packed – no oxygen
- Teabag tea where each bag is surrounded by air – a lot of oxygen – much staling
- 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.