Tea bags and tea. When you think of these, what is the first thing you think about? Perhaps you first thought about Britain, as tea is often seen as a British drink, probably for the last 350 or so years. The story of tea, however, began long before the East India Company.

The origin of tea comes from China, deriving from a legend about a Chinese emperor in 2737. Emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree as his servant boiled water and a leaf from the tree above fell into the water. As a renowned herbalist, Shen Nung tried this infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis and the resulting drink was as we now call tea.

Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China. It became such a favourite that during the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic. It was shortly after this that tea was first introduced to Japan, by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study. Tea drinking has become a vital part of Japanese culture, as seen in the development of the Tea Ceremony, which may be rooted in the rituals described in the Ch’a Ching.

Only in the latter half of the sixteenth century are there brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. These are mostly from the Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries. It was not the Portuguese, however, that were the first to have shipped tea as a commercial import. It was, in fact, the Dutch.

In the last years of the sixteenth century that the Dutch began to intrude on the Portuguese trading routes in the East and by the turn of that century they had secured a trading post on the island of Java. From there, in 1606, the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries in continental western Europe, but because of its high price, it remained a drink for the wealthy.

It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganze that would prove to be a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage. Capitalising on this, the East India Company began to import tea into Britain from China and India, its first order being placed in 1664.

The origin of tea bags

The purpose of the tea bag is rooted in the belief that for tea to taste its best, the leaves ought to removed from the hot water at the end of a specific brewing period. Then there is the added benefit of convenience – a removable device means that tea can be made as easily in a mug as in a pot, without the need for a tea strainer, and that tea pots can be kept clean more easily.

Thomas Sullivan

Thomas Sullivan

A New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan started to send samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags, around 1908. Some assumed that these were supposed to be used in the same way as the metal infusers, by putting the entire bag into the pot, rather than emptying out the contents. Therefore the creation of tea bags was actually an accident – much like the creation of tea itself.

Soon after, sachets made of gauze were developed by Sullivan since customers complained that the mesh on the silk was too fine. This resulted in the birth of the first purpose-made tea bags. During the 1920s these were developed for commercial production, and the bags grew in popularity in the USA. The tea bags were then made into two different sizes – a larger bag for a pot and a smaller one for a cup – and were made first of all from gauze and later from paper.

Despite the enthusiasm of the American population concerning this new invention, the British were wary of such a radical change in their tea-making methods. World War Two also played a role in delaying the popularity of tea bags as there was a shortage of materials, therefore it was only in 1950 that they really took off.

During this time, all manner of household chores were being eliminated by the promotion and production of household gadgets that would assist with these tedious duties. There was a large convenience factor relating to tea bags since the people no longer had to clean the leaves out from the pot. Therefore it was this convenience factor that really boosted the desire for tea bags in Britain.

The different types of tea bags and their history

Credit for this image goes to Time, the link is in the references list at the bottom

At the time when Sullivan popularized the tea bag, many tea bag producers began experimenting with different materials for his tea bags, such as cheesecloth, gauze, cellophane and perforated paper. Paper fibre won out as the preferred tea bag material of the day. Hand-sewn bags were replaced by machine-sewn ones. Later, William Hermanson (one of the founders of Technical Papers Corporation of Boston) invented heat-sealed paper tea bags and sold his patent to the Salada Tea Company in 1930.

In 1944, the typical shape of the tea bag was revised from the ‘sack’ style of

bag to the currently common rectangular style of tea bag. In 1952, Lipton Tea company patented the so-called “flo-thru” bag, which has four sides instead of two and which was intended for those who were brewing in mugs rather than small teacups.

Like the pyramid bag, this style of tea bag encourages more water to flow through the tea leaves and produces a faster-infusing, stronger brew. Amidst heavy marketing, Tetley launched the round tea bag in 1992. It was more of a visual change than a functional one.

round tea bags

The pyramid tea bag shape was invented by Brooke Bond (the parent company of the United Kingdom’s PG Tips, and a tea brand which remains popular in India today). It gives tea 50 percent more room to move than a flat tea bag does, encouraging better infusion, and is similarly suited for mugs and teapots rather than small cups.

the pyramid tea bag

In recent years, so-called ‘tea sacks’ have become popular amongst some full-leaf tea drinkers. These are not a tea bag in the true sense of the word, but are large, tea-bag-like infusers which are made of similar materials and which are disposable. They can be filled with the leaves of your choice and then folded, clipped or tied shut for infusing, then removed and thrown away after the tea is brewed.

The good news is, is that we can provide the tea and tea bags that you want. If you are interested in experiencing the culture of tea for yourself, contact us here, and we can help you out.

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