Thursday, June 12, 2008

Happy birthday to the teabag!

I'm sitting at my desk, typing this post, with a mug of hot tea at my right hand. It was brewed in the mug with a teabag (Twining's Irish Breakfast tea, if you're interested).

I'm pleasantly surprised to learn that the teabag is 100 years old this month. What's more, it's an American invention, not a British idea.

Invented by tea merchant Thomas Sullivan in New York City in June 1908, they can now be found in virtually every one of Britain's 24million homes.

But if it wasn't for a handful of confused Americans, the tea bag may never have made it into our cups at all.

They came about only after Mr Sullivan, in an attempt to cut costs, sent samples of tea leaves to potential customers in small silk pouch-like purses.

Unsure quite what to do with the strange little bag, the Americans dunked it into a cup of hot water. And so was born the tea bag.

After complaints that the mesh on the silk was too fine, Mr Sullivan developed sachets made of gauze - a method which was instrumental in today's tea bag design.

But it was not until 1953, when British tea producer Tetley spotted the commercial potential of the bag, that it began to take off here. The firm now sells 200 million tea bags every week.

William Gorman, executive chairman of the UK Tea Council, said: 'Without a doubt the tea bag saved the tea industry.

'There is no way in our busy lifestyles today that we would have had the time or inclination to make tea the old way.'

Tea drinking is seen as a quintessential British tradition, with 130million cups drunk every day. But the initial reaction from Britons who visited America 100 years ago and experienced tea bags for the first time was lukewarm.

Much suspicion surrounded the short string and branded tag attached to the bag.

And there were frequent complaints from tourists who were put out at being served tepid water in which to place their bag.

A major breakthrough came in 1930 when William Hermanson - one of the founders of the Bostonbased Technical Papers Corporation - patented the heat- sealed paper fibre tea bag.

But material shortages in the Second World War prevented mass manufacture, and Britain had to wait until after Joseph Tetley and Co was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1951 to welcome the tea bag revolution.

Convinced the tea bag was the future because of the way it allowed the tea maximum exposure-to the water resulting in a good, strong brew, Tetley persevered with perfecting the bag.

A problem finding a tea bag tissue which did not taint the tea was among the stumbling blocks overcome along the way.

Finally in 1964 the finely perforated bag was developed and the product began to fly off the shelves.

I guess there's always been a certain 'snob value' in using leaf tea. When I was growing up, my family had our own blend of tea: 50% Ceylon black tea, 50% Keemun China tea, with just a pinch of Lapsang Souchong to add a smoky overtone. It was delicious! Of course, to mix it ourselves, we used leaf tea. We couldn't put it into bags. I got used to swallowing the odd tea-leaf now and again.

However, for sheer convenience, the teabag rules. I shall be duly appreciative this month as I go through my regular hundred-plus teabags.



danny said...

Heh, I can't live without tea. It's just plain near impossible.

Unknown said...

Irish Breakfast is good... I like Russian Caravan with a little sliver of sassafras root myself. Although where I live now I haven't found a sassafras tree, so it's been awhile since I've had it.

You can get empty tea bags now and fill it with your own tea. They are slightly odd, but do work well.