Tea Bags - A Good Idea Gone Bad!
One of my most frequently asked questions is, “Why don’t you sell your teas in tea bags?” I understand the appeal of teabags. It’s one thing to enjoy the process of brewing the perfect cup of tea when you are at home in your own kitchen with your own teapot etc. It’s quite another when you are at the office or on the road somewhere and you just want a quick cup of tea.
Despite the obvious convenience I’ve so far resisted tea bags. Here are the reasons.
Shelf-life: In order to put tea in standard tea bags the tea needs to be milled. The industry buzz-word is “tea bag cut.” This is basically just chopping the tea leaves into tiny bits so they fit easily into the bags using automated tea bag filling equipment. Once the tea leaves are cut into tiny bits, the surface area exposed to air, and thus to the process of oxidation, increases several fold. This, in turn, greatly reduces the shelf life of the tea. A good quality loose leaf tea will maintain its freshness for at least 6 months and often much longer. Once tea leaves are milled and put in tea bags (even if the tea bags are kept in a sealed container) the reasonable shelf life is about 3 months.
Taste: Keeping in mind the above comment on shelf life, old tea is bad tea (with the exception of some puerh teas, which are meant to be aged). But beyond just the premature aging of the tea that comes through accelerated oxidation, even fresh tea served in tea bags can be problematic for taste. This is again due to the surface area problem. This greater surface area not only accelerates aging but also accelerates brewing because greater surface area is also now exposed to the hot water when you brew. One might be tempted to think faster brewing is a good thing. But, in fact it is not. The faster brewing process changes the flavor profile, usually leading to bitterness. Furthermore, in many cases the actual material of the tea bag can be tasted in the brewed tea.
Quality: Tea bags are great example of a good idea gone bad. They were originally an accidental invention. In the early 1900's in the USA, teas were still considered a gourmet product. When fresh shipments of high quality tea arrived, tea merchants would rush samples of the new teas to their best clients, usually in small tins. In 1903 a tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan began sending his tea samples in small hand sewn silk bags. Bear in mind that these were not filled with milled teas but instead high quality whole leaf teas. Some customers just assumed the idea was to drop the whole bag into a cup of hot water and brew right in the bag. It turned out that this did indeed brew a great cup of tea. Customers started asking for their tea to be delivered in the little sample bags.
Mr. Sullivan quickly realized he was on to a good thing. But the silk bags were a bit expensive and the weave a bit too fine for brewing tea. He reportedly experimented with a few options and finally settled on muslin tea bags. Unfortunately, Mr. Sullivan failed to patent his idea (although others did) and soon tea in tea bags was available throughout the USA. So far so good.
Then, some big tea producers realized two things, 1) once the tea is in the tea bag the consumer can’t see the leaves and thus has no visual sense of the tea’s quality or the quantity of tea in the bag and 2) if the tea was milled or crushed you could use a lot less tea for the same strength brew and thus save a lot of money. One side effect of preparing loose leaf teas is something called “fannings.” Fannings are little scraps of tea that break off during various stages of processing the tea. In the old days these fannings were either discarded, or more frequently, swept up and sold as low quality tea to the lowest end of the tea market. Unscrupulous, tea merchants soon realized that what was once a throw away could be packaged in tea bags and sold at a tidy profit and thus began the downward spiral leading to the current deplorable standard for most tea bag teas world-wide.
Cost: We grow sustainably and organically on small farms. We pick much of our tea by hand and much of the processing is done by hand as well. We ship to the USA every month freshly harvested teas whenever growing seasons permit. All of this adds up to a higher quality but unfortunately higher cost tea.
Now imagine if we put this high quality tea in tea bags. Because the tea is not milled, we cannot use automated tea bag fillers, so yet another by hand process. The tea bags would have to be larger in order to accommodate brewing of loose leaves. We grow our teas chemical-free so we need to source all natural and chemically-free tea bags. All of this would add up to a pretty expensive tea on a per cup basis.
But, I haven’t given up: I said earlier that tea bags are a good idea gone bad. The fundamental premise is a good one. Fortunately, I’m not the only person thinking about this and a lot of good ideas have come out in recent years including biodegradable bags made from all organic material and new shapes for tea bags that accommodate larger leaf cuts. I’m convinced that soon I will find a solution that works for us.
Here’s my wish list, all organic bio-degradable bags, bags that are big enough to accommodate expansion of whole loose leaf teas, a tea bag material that is tasteless, a tea bag filling machine that does not destroy the whole leaf teas and all at a price that adds just pennies per cup to the cost.
For you tea bag fans out there, please don’t think I’m not listening. I hear you. I’ll keep working on it and I will be sure to post here when I find the solution.