Tea, from the camelia sinenis tree, is the most popular beverage in the world after water, and the most popular hot beverage period. Before the tea bag appeared, barely over a century ago, all tea was sold loose. Today more than 90% is sold in bags (if you include tisanes, or herbal “teas” that figure is about 70%*). For what is arguably the most popular drink in the world, that’s quite a change in a few decades.
At the turn of the 20th century, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan was shipping samples of his product to customers in small silk bags. He expected them to pour the loose tea out before brewing it. But customers didn’t know that and instead plunked the bag into the pot with the tea inside. They quickly found it easier and more convenient than messing about with measuring and cleaning. Sullivan saw the opportunity, and worked on perfecting the design. By 1908 he was selling his bags.
A century before social media accelerated ideas and products, tea bags went viral.** Other American companies started selling hand-sewn fabric tea bags around the same time as Sullivan. In 1930 Salada brought out the first heat-sealed, paper fibre tea bags. The design – a thin flat pouch either round or square – didn’t change much until the 1980s when the pyramidal design was invented in Japan (although not widely used, the design is gaining popularity for whole-leaf teas through companies like Tea Pigs).
While big in the USA, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the tea bag took off in Britain, in the post-war, post-rationing bloom of convenience and newness. In 1953, Tetley was the first British tea company to offer bags and the rest quickly followed. Even in the 1960s, tea bags represented only 3% of all tea sales. But by 2007 that was at 96%!
Tea bags meant convenience: tea became easier to buy, store, and to shelve. Speciality store sales gave way to supermarkets. The image of tea as an elite drink was eroded by the democratic nature of the easy-to-use tea bag. ***
What changed in the tea world was not just the packaging. The bag changed the way consumers saw, evaluated and purchased tea – by brand as opposed to actual product. This meant marketing became an overriding factor in sales.
Tea leaf readers went out of business. Who reads tea bags? The whole art of tasseography has pretty much vanished. (okay losing some cons and carnies isn’t a great loss to society, but we also lost a useful literary trope and cliché…)
It changed the business: companies no longer need hunt for the premium whole leaf, but could instead buy less expensive dust and fannings. That also meant commodification: buyers didn’t have to be so knowledgeable or fussy about the product and its grades as before.
Bag sizes became standardized so consumers didn’t need to fuss over quantities. One bag = one cup regardless of the manufacturer. But it also meant that every cup from that box tasted the same; no longer was each tea an individual experience.
The use of dust and fannings meant faster infusion times: a cup brewed in less time, so the leisurely aspect of tea time was lost (oddly, instant teas never took off the same way instant coffee did, and I have not sampled the liquid instant tea). In fact tea bags steep so quickly that it’s easier to create a bitter brew (which may partly explain the prevalence of milk in tea – although milk can also be healthy because it offsets the calcium-eroding effects of the oxalates in black tea).
The broad range of tea types was reduced and blends became the style rather than individual types. Even today with more choices than ever, about 85% of all tea sold in the USA is black tea, blended and bagged for consistency. Black tea blends are sourced mostly from large plantations in India (Assam province) and Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), and sometimes from Africa, China and even Nepal, too, although few boxes actually identify the regions.
Green tea accounts for 14%, with the remainder a mix including oolong (wulong) and white. Loose teas now account for a mere fraction of that global market (despite my earnest efforts to raise that percentage…).
The history and terroir of tea was eclipsed by marketing boxes instead of types. And yes, like wine and tequila, tea is shaped by the geography, the climate, the altitude, the latitude and the production. Like wine and tequila, tea production is still mostly human powered: from harvesting, to sorting, rolling and drying. And like them, the tea produced one year will be different from that of another because of changes in weather and precipitation. That variety gets lost in commercial blends.
Blended bag teas guarantee consistency and flavour from one cup to the next but tend to make all teas into plonk: acceptable, sturdy beverages but seldom brilliant or delightful. True, there are differences in manufacturers’ blends and you can taste the difference between, say, Yorkshire Gold and Tetley, between Barry’s and Typhoo.****
Many types of tea lost popularity and became expensive speciality items, often difficult to find in modern supermarkets (see if you can find a lapsang souchong or green gunpowder next visit, let alone pu erh…).
But tea shops and speciality teas didn’t disappear. True, many are more expensive than the off-the-shelf box tea, and the average consumer isn’t as well educated about the products and types as a century ago. But there has been a resurgence of interest in teas in the past two decades that has allowed more of these tea shops and products to survive and thrive in a competitive consumer market. Some shops, like David’s Tea, have popped up in malls, aiming at the mass consumer market.*****
Plus, global marketing has opened the door for appreciative buyers to purchase a wider variety of products from smaller, exotic or simply previously inaccessible producers. Whole-leaf teas – even in bags – are coming back.
All of which brings me to our main street an the title of my piece: a cup of mao jian, which I started to enjoy before I sat down to write this article, some days past. Mao jian or XinYang Maojian, is a lovely green tea produced in the Chinese province of Henan. As the Chinese site notes:
It is treasured for its refreshing taste and pleasant aroma. In its legend, nine fairies of the heaven brought the tea down to the human race on the earth. When drinking the tea, you will see the image of nine dancing fairies in the vapor.
Xinyang has a tea history dating back to 2300 years ago – in 1987, at Gushi County of Xinyang, tea was discovered in an ancient tomb. In the past century, Xinyang Maojian has been considered one of the 10 best teas in China.
You won’t find mao jian on the shelves at the local grocery store. But you can find it at the Blue Mountain Tea store in downtown Collingwood, along with yunwu (a green tea sold there as “clouds and mist”) and “go green” – a steamed/pan-fried green from Zhejiang province (which is also the source of most gunpowder tea, and my personal choice for green: longjing or Dragonwell tea).******
And you’ll also get someone who knows her teas much better than I do. I bow in humble appreciation to her knowledge and keen interest. And like always, I urge you to support local retaillers.
Listen, sniff the open jar, and explore her suggestions. Purchase some samples. Try some teas you’ve never had. Try the milk oolong. Try the mao feng. Read, too. It always helps to read and books on tea are as enjoyable as travelogues to exotic places we will, most of us, never likely visit.
With no easy access to quality long jing locally, this lovely, gently fragrant mao jian may well become my favourite green tea. For now, at least.
(Digression: My own journey into tea began many decades back, when both product and resources about tea were slender but still intriguing. I puttered about, mostly, picking up what I could from the disparate sources, without really developing an educated appreciation for the beverage. More of a jackdaw approach. I only really started to go back to tea, to delve into the types and the varieties, to hunt for specific products and learn more about it a few years ago. I am still only that single step along a journey of ten thousand li… but I have developed a much better appreciation for quality green teas than once I had.)
* Tisane is the proper name for the herbal infusion often incorrectly called a tea and should not be confused with a blended or flavoured tea which contains tea leaves. Calling a tisane a tea when it has no actual tea is like calling a cup of black coffee a tequila shot simply because both are beverages: an abuse of the language.
** Before tea bags, other types of infusers were marketed and many are still popular: the metal tea ball and straining/dipping sieve can still be bought, along with various metal, ceramic and silicon infusers sold at every kitchen and most grocery stores. Orwell despised these infusers, by the way.
*** The use of throw-away, environmentally-insensitive, one-serve plastic pods for tea is on the rise, too, making tea an even more pedestrian beverage. My few experiences with them suggest the tea quality is inferior even to no-name, bulk-store bags that are stale-dated. If we are fortunate, this pod fad will go the way of the pet rock fairly soon.
**** From Wikipedia:
The UK market is dominated by five brands – PG Tips (owned by Unilever), Tetley (owned by Tata Tea Limited), Typhoo (owned by the Indian conglomerate Apeejay Surrendra Group), Twinings (owned by Associated British Foods) and Yorkshire Tea (owned by Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate). Tetley leads the market with 27% share, followed by PG Tips with about 24% share. Typhoo is in third place, with about 13% share. Twinings is fourth, with about 11% share, and Yorkshire Tea is fifth, with about 6% share.
You can buy all of these British teas locally, although availability may vary from time to time. Twinnings is the only one I know among them that offers a more robust range of teas, not just the standard blended-cuppa style.
***** For me, the one unfortunate drawback of this resurgence has been the increase in flavoured teas and tisanes. It’s not simply because I don’t care for them personally (I try to avoid sweet drinks): they tend to occupy more shelf space in specialty shops that I would prefer to see dedicated to actual teas. Not to mention the cloying woo-hoo factor of New Age ‘spiritual’ teas. The positive side has been a new crop of well-written and informative books on teas, of which I have several. One can never have too many books, of course.
****** I have to admit that I suspect most of the longjing I drink isn’t actually Dragonwell at all, just ‘regular’ green tea falsely marketed to gullible buyers like me, although I have reason to believe that the loose Dragonwell I buy (at Ten Ren, on Dundas) when I visit Toronto is authentic. There’s a huge market for fake Dragonwell and frankly I don’t think I could tell the difference when it comes in a bag. But the loose tea makes a very nice cup and suggests something finer than the bagged versions.