As like so many other culinary inventions, the tea bag was created by accident, but we’ll get back to that in a little bit. First, let’s talk briefly about tea.
The Chinese have consumed tea for thousands of years. They are considered to have the earliest records of tea consumption, with possible records dating back to the 10th century BC. The earliest physical evidence known to date, though, was found in 2016, from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an, indicating that tea was a common beverage as early as the 2nd century BC. The samples were identified as tea from the genus Camellia, and written records suggest that it may have been drunk earlier. People of the Han Dynasty used tea as medicine, but the current word for tea in Chinese only came into use in the 8th century AD.
There are therefore uncertainties as to whether the older words used are the same as tea. The word tu, 荼, appears in Shijing and other ancient texts to signify a kind of “bitter vegetable” (苦菜), and it is possible that it referred to a number of different plants, such as sowthistle, chicory, or smartweed, and the tea we know today. In the Chronicles of Huayang, it was recorded that the Ba people in Sichuan presented tu to the Zhou king. The state of Ba and its neighbor Shu were later conquered by the Qin, and according to the 17th-century scholar Gu Yanwu, “It was after the Qin had taken Shu that they learned how to drink tea.”
The first known reference to boiling tea came from the Han dynasty work “The Contract for a Youth” written by Wang Bao where, among the tasks listed to be undertaken by the youth, “he shall boil tea and fill the utensils and “he shall buy tea at Wuyang”. The first record of cultivation of tea also dated it to this period when tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain (蒙山) near Chengdu. From the Tang to the Qing dynasties, the first 360 leaves of tea grown here were picked each spring and presented to the emperor. However, before the mid-8th century Tang dynasty, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese practice. It became widely popular during the Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
The Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu’s Cha Jing is an early work on the subject. According to Cha Jing tea drinking was widespread. The book describes how tea plants were grown, the leaves processed, and tea prepared as a beverage. It also describes how tea was evaluated. The book also discusses where the best tea leaves were produced. Teas produced during this period were mainly tea bricks which were often used as currency, especially further from the center of the empire where coins lost their value. In this period, tea leaves were steamed, then pounded and shaped into a cake or brick form.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), production and preparation of all tea changed. The tea of Song included many loose-leaf styles (to preserve the delicate character favored by court society), and it is the origin of today’s loose teas and the practice of brewed tea. A new powdered form of tea also emerged. Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea. After the transition from compressed tea to the powdered form, the production of tea for trade and distribution changed once again.
The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-13th century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. By the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stops the oxidation process which turns the leaves dark and allows tea to remain green. In the 15th century, Oolong tea, where the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying, was developed. Western taste, however, preferred the fully oxidized black tea, and the leaves were allowed to ferment further.
Which brings us back to the bag. Tea first arrived in Britain in the seventeenth century and soon altered the drinking habits of this nation forever. The late eighteenth century saw black tea overtake green tea in popularity for the first time, which also accelerated the addition of milk. In the nineteenth century, widespread cultivation of tea in India began, leading to the imports of Indian tea into Britain overtaking the imports of Chinese tea. And in the twentieth century, there was a further development that would radically change our tea-drinking habits – the invention of the tea bag.
The purpose of the tea bag is rooted in the belief that for tea to taste its best, the leaves ought to be 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 teapots can be kept clean more easily. But the earliest examples of removable infusing devices for holding tea were not bags. Popular infusers included tea eggs and tea balls – perforated metal containers which were filled with loose leaves and immersed in boiling water, and then removed using an attached chain.
It wasn’t until an American tea merchant, named Thomas Sullivan, in 1908 started sending out samples of tea in silken bags that the tea bag started on its journey. His customers 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. It was thus by accident that the tea bag was born!
Responding to the comments from his customers that the mesh on the silk was too fine, Sullivan developed sachets made of gauze – the first purpose-made tea bags. During the 1920s these were developed for commercial production, and the bags grew in popularity in the US. Made first from gauze and later from paper, they came in two sizes, a larger bag for the pot, a smaller one for the cup. The features that we still recognize today were already in place – a string that hung over the side so the bag could be removed easily, with a decorated tag on the end.
Thus, the tea bag grew in popularity and it is only recently that whole leaf teas, free of bags are making a comeback in the US.