The period from 1904 to 1908 was a bellwether one for tea in the United States, or for those with more traditional tea-drinking habits, the beginning of the end of the practice of enjoying properly prepared tea. In 1904, iced tea was popularized by Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. At about the same time, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan began to send customers samples of tea in hand-sewn tea bags, which were not intended to be used as an infusion method, but customers did so anyway and the tea bag was born. After thousands of years of preparing tea by simply infusing loose leaves in hot water, in a few short years, the ritual of tea drinking became “new and improved” – that is, more convenient and faster.

Yet one person’s creation of a sample bag for tea and another gentleman’s desperate attempt to figure out how to get customers to try more tea during stifling hot summer temperatures could not have spread to the public at large without the ability to market and mass produce these innovations. While many tea specialists like to refer to the evolution of tea as being part art and part science, there is a third component – industrialization – that has played an equally important role. Being able to mechanically produce standardized tea bags at the rate of hundreds of bags per minute allowed moderately priced, yet in many cases, lower-quality tea to be available to a wider tea-consuming public. Within a couple of decades of Sullivan’s introduction of the tea bag, the United States quickly migrated to the tea-bag-brewing habit. Great Britain took much longer and into the 1950’s-60’s was still drinking only a small percentage of their tea from tea bags. Today, according to the UK Tea Council, over 90% of the tea consumed in Great Britain is in bag form, comparable to the popularity of the tea bag in the United States.

In the past, problems with quality have plagued the tea-bag category and to this day most loose-leaf tea drinkers continue to shun almost all tea in bag form. Mass-produced tea bags’ use of muslin, cotton, or woven paper material concealed the contents of the tea bag and with their customers unable to see the quality of the leaves, lower-quality grades of tea were frequently used in tea-bag production, both to lower the price to the consumer and to increase profits to the tea company.

Recently, pyramid-shaped tea bags have improved the standing of the tea bag and the overall taste of the tea. The nylon pyramid bag (or sachet) allows better grades of larger broken loose-leaf teas to have more room to expand and release more of their flavor. Also, the additional space allows for larger herbal ingredients, botanical florals, and fruit pieces in blended teas created for pyramid-style tea bags. These bags also use translucent materials, allowing the customer to more easily see the quality of the tea leaves and other ingredients. While they aren’t necessarily equal to the fuller flavor of loose-leaf teas, contemporary sachets and pyramid bags signal a marked improvement over the limitations of the pillow-shaped tea bag.

While the enthusiasm (and sales) of tea might be at an all-time high in this country, those with a more discerning appreciation of specialty teas sometimes find the reality of their niche category difficult to accept. Yes, a rising tide of popularity of tea raises all boats, including that of loose-leaf tea drinking but it would seem to be a monumental task to raise the percentage of loose-leaf tea consumed to 15%, and to make it to 20% seems virtually impossible. This doesn’t account for new innovations in tea “bag” packaging or other forms of brewing servings of tea that could push the numbers even higher in the opposite direction. Is it any wonder that even small-to-medium-sized tea companies that start out in the loose-leaf tea business quickly gravitate to either creating a line of tea bag offerings or get into the ready-to-drink bottled iced tea market? The tea bag may have had to endure being the object of some derision in the higher echelons of the tea world, but it has been laughing all the way to the bank for over a century now. Although they may not be Lu Yu or Rikyu, Sullivan and Blechynden have in their own way altered the course of tea history. Whether you choose to bury them or praise them is up to you.

First published 26 July 2012.