Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Steeped In History: The Accidental Teabagger!

Did you know that the tea bag was invented quite by accident?  In 1908, a tea merchant in New York named Thomas Sullivan began supplying his customers with samples of his tea in hand-sewn silk bags instead of tin canisters which were costly to ship out.  The customers were supposed to remove the tea leaves from the silk bags and then brew them.  Instead, confused by what they had received, they infused the tea leaves along with the bags into hot water.  When the customers re-ordered their tea, they requested that Thomas supply them with the silk bags as well.  Sensing opportunity, Thomas got one of those Oprah “aha” moments and began shipping the tea in the silk bags.  Over time, these hand-sewn silk tea bags became costly and rather time-consuming to produce. As well, the fabric was far too fine for proper extraction to occur. So, Thomas began producing tea bags using a gauze material instead. 

Baggies from the oldies!

Unfortunately for Thomas, he never patented his tea bag invention. This oversight opened the doors for other tea merchants to create their own versions of tea bags, experimenting with various types of materials to get the best results, and most importantly, patenting their devices.  There are some historians that claim a patent for a fabric-made tea leaf container was already granted in 1903.  Either way, since then, the stage was set in the ever-evolving design of the tea bag. 

Not much information is available as to what ever became of Thomas Sullivan after his discovery. He seems to have disappeared along with the good quality tea that was initially supplied in these baggies.  This raises an interesting point.  Back then, tea was offered as whole leaves.  Somewhere along the line, this changed to what is now being sold as fannings in much smaller tea bags. Really, the tea bag itself is nothing more than a device like an infuser ball used to extract the tea.  It’s what’s inside the tea bag that could make or break a good tea experience.

Lipton Pyramid

It appears that bags of whole leaf tea are making a comeback. Today, tea companies are re-designing tea bags by producing larger-sized packets, experimenting with various shapes, and using different materials in order to offer whole tea leaves, that allow for better expansion and extraction without affecting the flavour. Consumers demand convenience in their busy lives today, but they shouldn't have to sacrifice quality.  This is where tea companies are listening and are continuously re-creating the perfect tea bag for whole leaves.  I think this Tea Forté infuser is pretty impressive:


Just a note: I've done my best to find additional material on Thomas Sullivan with no luck.  If anyone has further information on him, please forward it over.  Would love to read about it!

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