Photo by Antagain, Getty Images
Photo by Antagain, Getty Images

Tools: 6 Things to Know About Tea Bags

Simple, and in many regards, little changed since its serendipitous invention a century ago, the tea bag turns preparing a cup of tea into a convenience.

Even those purists among you who still insist on the ceremony and romance of loose-leaf tea, you have to admit simply dunking, squeezing, and tossing a wet bag is a lot easier. Read on to learn more about the origins of this popular timesaver.

Born in the USA

New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan gets credit for popularizing the teabag, even though he didn’t file the first patent on it. In 1908, he began sending out samples to customers in small silken bags tied with a string instead of sending the usual tins. But rather than pouring the tea leaves into the pot as intended, the customers simply submerged the bags in hot water. The convenience caught on–no mess, no hassle, and no scraping soggy leaves from the bottom of the pot.

Steeped in the UK

The British were slow to embrace tea bags. Even as late as the early 1960s, they accounted for just 3 percent of the market. “Despite being labeled as yet another example of American vandalism,” observes E. Jaiwant Paul, onetime director of tea giant Brooke Bond India and author of The Story of Tea, “tea bags have forged ahead in Britain and hold a major share of the retail market.” According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, today that share is 96 percent. (See where to sip afternoon tea in Britain in Taking Teas to New Highs.)

The Material Shuffle

The first commercial tea bags were made of gauze. Perforated cellophane was another early option before paper became the norm. Today paper tea bags tend to be a mix of wood and vegetable fibers from hemp and banana. For fine teas, though, “silky” or “silken” mesh bags that allow better water flow and more room for the leaves to stretch and steep properly have become standard. You can also see the tea inside them.

They aren’t really made of silk, though, as Taylor Orci pointed out in Atlantic Monthly recentlybut usually food grade nylon or polyethylene terephthalate.

Some brands now offer sustainable, biodegradable alternatives.

Comes in Two Sizes

Originally tea bags came in two sizes: large ones for a pot and smaller ones for individual cups. When William Ukers wrote his two-volume work, All About Tea, in 1935, he noted four distinct types of individual-sized bags on the market. It wasn’t until 1949 when those rectangular, double-chambered bags so familiar today appeared. They were developed by the German tea company Teekanne, which produced the new style bags in the Constanta, a packing machine that has been sold in 50 countries and still remains in wide use. While pot-size tea bags disappeared as the preference of preparing one cup at a time increased, the short string and decorated paper tag have been dangling from the beginning.

CTC: The Acronym

In 1931, William McKercher, superintendent of the Amgoorie Tea Estate in Assam, India, revolutionized the manufacture of black tea by inventing the CTC (“crush, tear, curl”) processing method. Rather than rolling and twisting the leaves in the “orthodox” manner, a machine cut them into small pieces. The resulting pebbly granules not only brewed a quicker, stronger liquor, but were also a lot more convenient for filling tea bags.

CTC’s popularity grew in the mid-20th century parallel to the popularity of the tea bag itself. Around 95 percent of the world’s black tea is now CTC. (See The World in a Cuppa (Tea) for more on the different kinds of teas and where they come from.)

By a different name

Connoisseurs have long considered tea bags inferior. And not without justification, as they tend to be filled with dust, bits of broken leaves, and CTC granules. But that’s no longer always the case. Leaf-grade teas are appearing in oversized, often pyramid-shaped styles. Just don’t call them “tea bags.” They are “sachets,” “infuser pods,” or “pouches.”

This post is the latest in our #foodtools series that takes a closer look at what lurks in your kitchen drawer.