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Tea Nanny: All that goes into a bag of tea

  • The convenience of the tea bag tends to outstrip its flaws
  • Poor quality of tea, intrusive material and wasteful packaging are things that work against it

The tea bag is one of those things that we can only view in black or white.
The tea bag is one of those things that we can only view in black or white. (iStock)

It was the best of teas, it was the worst of teas, it was intended well, it suffered in reputation, it finds many takers and as many critics, and some will go so far as to say it’s the worst thing that has happened to tea in the last century.

The tea bag is one of those things that we can only view in black or white. For consumers, its remarkable convenience outstrips every other flaw. But is that a price worth paying?

The short history lesson with tea bags lies somewhere between these two stories—that Thomas Sullivan, an American tea supplier, began sending his tea samples to buyers in silk pouches in 1908. His buyers apparently chose to dunk the entire pouch in hot water, setting off a new trend. The other story is about two American women, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren, who filed a patent in 1903 for a “tea leaf holder" that would carry enough tea leaves for a single cup, hold the leaves together so that the drinker didn’t end up with leaves in their mouth, and was made from a mesh fabric to allow water to circulate through the leaves. Eventually, it was adopted by tea brands and spread steadily across the world.

The material of the tea bag has changed variously from silk and gauze to nylon and muslin. Alongside this, the contents of the bag also changed, from whole leaves to tea-bag teas— broken leaves or CTC (crush, tear, curl) that can release the flavours quickly. But with mass production came the question of what dubious additives it included. Tea bags lost out in character because nobody knew what they stood for. You can liken it to the pav bhaji, a mishmash of yesterday’s curry, its ingredients unrecognizable though it has been rendered more palatable. But then again, one can argue that you can make your tea bags, and choose the tea that goes into them.

However, even if you customize your tea bag, its very design doesn’t allow for the best interaction with water, the very step that results in a good cup of tea. Tea brewing is affected because the bag introduces another layer against the water, and the material of the bag will impact this further. Dunking the tea bag to agitate the water by moving it up and down is not the solution.

With one point in favour and one against, we need a decider. A few years ago, tea expert Nigel Melican’s research showed that the tea bag’s carbon footprint is 10 times more than that of loose leaf tea. All that extra packing and wrapping and bits and bobs attached to it are the culprits.

In short, the tea bag has been around for a hundred years or so—it isn’t likely to disappear soon, and some of its noisiest critics may well call you a philistine if you choose to use it. Indeed, why use it when you have great alternatives, and portable ones at that?

TEA TAKES: Choose from portable tea makers like the Compact Tea Maker from Teabox or the Octavius Green Tea Bottle.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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