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  • Writer's pictureFreya Ingva

From humble bag to star of the tea trade

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

To celebrate Afternoon Tea Week, opening on 10th August, we learn how, from humble beginnings, the tea bag became a star of the tea trade.

The invention and popularization of the tea bag revolutionised the tea-drinking habits formed in previous centuries. It was 1560 when tea first reached Europe, carried by a Portuguese catholic missionary.  It is from Portugal that tea spread across Europe initially, reaching England in the mid-1600s. Tea was an expensive commodity imported from China, the type of tea was what we would now define as green tea. The secret of tea was in the hands of and closely guarded by the Chinese who had grown, processed, and drank the delicious brew for aeons. Much happened, and it was only in the 1840s the British managed to begin experimenting with tea in the Indian subcontinent. Finally, they broke the Chinese monopoly and in 1887 started importing black tea with their fast tea clippers directly from two of their colonies at the time, India and Sri Lanka (or Ceylon).  The first tea bag patent was granted on 24 March 1903 and was filed by Roberta C. Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a ‘novel tea-holding pocket constructed of open-mesh woven fabric, inexpensively made of cotton thread'. The device was hand-sewn and not much in use. Till Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea and coffee merchant, unwittingly popularised it in 1908. He had to send out tea samples to win customers for the tea varieties he was representing. He decided to pack his samples in small, clear, sealed silk bags so that the fragrant content would be visible.  Only after orders and comments come in, he discovered his clients were pouring boiling water directly on to the small bags, leaving them to steep as they would have using an infuser.  As the appliance gained popularity, two sizes of tea bags were produced and sold in the 1920s America: a small bag for a single teacup, as we know it today; and a larger one for a teapot. When demand for black tea for tea bags grew by the end of the 1920s, tea estates realised that they needed lower grade teas (fannings and dust) instead of the prized whole and broken leaf grades processed with the orthodox method. A new process to crush/cut, tear and curl (CTC) the leaves by machine was introduced and it is still used today widely.

" A woman is like a tea bag, you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water "
Eleanor Roosevelt

In the United Kingdom, the tea bag began circulating commercially only in 1953, introduced by Tetley. Initially, British people were suspicious and resisted the idea. They preferred using loose leaf tea, but then the pace of modern life took over.  We are at a point now where only about 4-5 per cent of the whole British tea market relies on loose leaf tea. Most often than not, the loose leaf tea is for connoisseurs only, with various degrees of quality, but all with a certain distinction. The remaining 95-96 per cent of the British market is made up of teabags. Tea houses offer a selection of loose leaf teas to enjoy onsite and often double as tea shops, selling favourites to their customers as a treat to enjoy at home. Exclusive tea shops are fewer and tend to be historical and/or world-famous brands. Usually, they have the teabag option in stock, at least for the most popular teas, with the intention of catering for all.

However, fannings and dustings (the bits inside the tea bag proper names) do their job splendidly as the steeping time is reduced. Let's recognise the fact that the commercial tea bag is all about convenience and speed, less about quality and complex flavours. There are a few specialist brands selling exactly the same tea as loose leaves in packaged tea bags.  You might be surprised to hear they are not as wildly successful as expected. Why? People now associate and use the tea bag for a shorter brewing time, dropping it into a mug or flask, often drinking it while on the go. It is unlikely the consumer will sit down and focus on the tea to appreciate it fully. Also, the cost is higher. Further, we have to be conscious that a standard tea bag contains and releases, around 60 micrograms of plastic. The tiny pieces of this microplastic (between 100 nanometres and a maximum of 5 millimetres in size for sealants) end up in our living system and in the environment. While the industry is looking into improvements, some tea bags seem to contain more plastic than others. There is the use, and debate, on bio-plastic. This byproduct, derived from renewable biomass sources, is not all biodegradable and the decaying speed is not always faster than the more common plastic obtained from oil. Currently, you can find tea bags made of various materials, from filter paper to nylon, either square, circular, rectangular or tetrahedral. Most commonly they are sold full, but you can also purchase empty tea bags to fill and carry your favourite tea with you.  They are reusable and vary in style too: some are like small drawstring bags, other like pouches. These are made of cotton or filter paper. There is also the option of a silicone tea bag, but this verges more on the infuser side in my opinion. There is no doubt, the humble tea bag is a favourite for a quick cuppa and it is also the ‘enemy’ of tea leaf readers like me. Tea Leaf Holder patent:

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