*Written by tea'se Specialist Rebekah Thornquist
I’m always talking about how much I love loose leaf over tea bags, but I’ve never dug into what are tea bags and where do they originate.
Today, tea bags make up about 95% of all tea sales in the United States. Ironically, these bags usually contain the cheapest tea available. One way to see this in the color of your brewed tea. A good quality tea will generally have a glossy, golden jewel color, while most tea bags produce more a flat, brown-colored liquid.
Because the cheapest tea available is used in top-selling brands and is the popular standard, it’s not surprising that tea’s popularity has faded rather quickly.
Teabags are actually a relatively new invention and their creation was an accident! For thousands of years tea was enjoyed in loose form with a great variety of different methods to separate the leaves from the water. Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee merchant from New York City, tried to cut sampling costs by sending loose tea in small, hand-sewn silk pouches instead of expensive tins.
Potential clients were confused by this new packaging so they simply threw the tea in hot water-- bag and all. Thomas started getting many requests for these "tea bags" and realized that he had struck gold. The quick and easy clean-up of the leaves (since they were still contained in the silk bag) made it enticingly convenient. Tea bags first began appearing commercially around 1904, and quickly shipped around the world.
Unfortunately, this convenience came at the precious cost of flavor. Tea leaves require a lot of room to expand, and the tea bags restrict this. Because the bags had significantly less room to expand the quality dropped. This resulted in Thomas putting in smaller leaves which required less room to enlarge. Because they were hidden behind a silk screen anyway, there was little concern drawn to this.
This decision began the slippery slope of tea.
Because size no longer mattered, (And come on, size always matters - am I right? ) merchants started purchasing much cheaper grades of tea known as “fannings” or “dust” which are the lowest rankings of tea that they could achieve. In that period, you would find this grade at the bottom of the tea barrels, today you would find them at the bases of factory machinery. This so called tea will add color to your hot water, but hardly any flavor or health benefits.
After this, companies began replacing the hand-sewn silk bags with paper filters. Paper filters are obviously a much cheaper alternative, but it didn’t allow water to flow through the cup as easily resulting in (can you guess?) Lower quality.
This standard of tea has affected the West for several decades. Most supermarkets only offer bottom-of-the-barrel tea products, leaving most consumers to believe that there is nothing better available. This is a far cry from the abundance of flavor and intoxicating aroma found in a cup of full-leaf premium tea. This is exactly why I started Teacups and Blossoms! To spread the word and teach people about tea vast unknowns of the tea world.
Tea vendors today have been brainstorming on ways to tackle this problem, but also maintain the convenience that consumers have grown to love. One way was to produce larger leaves and larger bags. Because of modern technology, companies are able to use higher-quality bags that allows more water to flow through, bringing a more flavorful cup.
Reasons I don’t drink teabags often, excluding the facts I already mention have mostly to do with the packaging.
The cardboard boxes and paper filters offer no protection to your leaves from air, moisture, and protruding scents and flavors. Because it offers no protection, the freshness of your tea is depleted quickly and the flavors of all the other teas on the shelf are mixed together. By the time you get your tea, it has almost no redeeming qualities left.
Many people drink tea for its health benefits and turn to tea bags. Tea bags have little to no health benefits by the time they are steeping in your cup because of the lack of protection and quality. It’s like your fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are most nutritious the day you pick them and slowly decrease in quality the longer you wait to consume them. Tea is exactly the same in that only the freshest and highest quality tea will have the most flavor, aroma, and health benefits.
Overall? I love tea bags because they are convenient, they boxes are cute, but other than that they are not worth the time or money. If you want convenience, you can buy disposable filters for your loose-leaf tea or if you want convenience and to help the environment, then you can get a reusable tea steeper! It’s way easier then you may think to ditch the bags and let it loose.
*Disclaimer - Not all tea bags are created equal. Some have evolved and you can find a few brands that strive to put in quality blends and leave room for expanding etc.. That will have to be a whole other blog post though!
As always, if there are any questions you might have, just let me know!
I hope your day is filled with tea and happiness :)
Born, raised, and residing in sunny California, Rebekah wants to live in a world where everyone drinks tea, books come bundled with pizza, and every “thank you” note is scribbled by hand.As an actress and tea lover, she decided to combine her two loves into Teacups and Blossoms- a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching and sharing with others about the world of tea.When she’s not filming new videos or performing on stage, you can find her reading and re-reading her favorite books, cooking delicious gluten-free recipes, and shamelessly watching seamless hours of Downton Abbey.