In today’s tea market, tea bags dominate the scene, accounting for 95% of all tea sales in the US. Unfortunately, most of these tea bags contain the cheapest tea available, resulting in a lackluster, brown-colored liquid. With this as the standard, it’s no wonder that the popularity of tea has decreased over time.
But tea bags are a relatively new invention. For thousands of years, tea was enjoyed in loose form, with a variety of methods used to separate the leaves from the water. Ancient books, such as Lu Yu’s “The Classic of Tea,” offered detailed instructions on how to properly enjoy tea, without any mention of “removing the wrapper by pulling the string.”
The first tea bags were actually a happy accident. Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee merchant from New York City, sent loose tea in small, hand-sewn silk pouches to cut sampling costs. Potential clients mistakenly steeped the tea bags in hot water, silk pouch and all. Sullivan quickly realized the appeal of this convenient method and began selling “tea bags” commercially in 1904.
However, the convenience of tea bags came at a price: flavor. Tea leaves need plenty of room to expand and release their full flavor, which is hindered by the constraints of a bag. In response, merchants began using smaller leaves, which resulted in a drop in quality. This led to the use of cheaper grades of tea, such as “fannings” or “dust”, further reducing quality.
This cycle of mediocrity has plagued the West for decades, with most supermarkets offering only low-quality tea products. But tea vendors are now working to find ways to maintain convenience without sacrificing quality. One solution is the use of larger leaves and bags that allow for more water to flow through, resulting in more flavor.
While a complete renovation of the Western mindset on tea may seem daunting, it’s important to remember that there was once a time when canned, instant coffee was the norm. With innovative and passionate roasters showing consumers the potential of quality coffee, the same can be done for tea. As the quality of tea in local supermarkets improves, the accessibility of premium teas will also increase.