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The New Shape
of Teabags


If you grew up in the United States, or in any of a number of industrialized nations, when someone says the word "tea" to you, visions of a flat paper bag filled with unidentifiable, dark, powdery substance, with a string attached to it by a staple, would inevitably flash through your mind. For many of us, tea, in terms of preparation, has never been anything but another beverage like soda or juice, except for the added step of dunking a bag into hot water. But as we move forward, we paradoxically look back to a time when what we consumed was more identifiable with the original product. Thus, there has been a growing popularity of whole leaf tea in the specialty market. But we still are unable (or unwilling) to take time out to follow the tradition of preparation, even if we love the taste of whole teas and herbs. So, like humans always do, we adjust, and find a happy medium: a teabag that can deliver a brewed whole leaf tea in not much more time it takes to crack open a can of soda pop.

Packers are finding that when unique sizes, shapes and materials are used for tea bags they can give the consumer the "best of both worlds" - they can use whole leaf teas and herbs with convenience, adding value and therefore allowing them to charge higher prices. But what are the challenges of these new technologies, and what do members of the industry feel about it? Are they really worth it or simply a waste of time, a passing fad? In such a traditional market as tea, equipment is set up for how it has been used for decades or more. We went around the world to find out how professionals from all sides of the industry feel.

NASA Corporation in Japan has been using pyramid bags since the 1980's.
We chose to focus on the hottest trend in teabags of the moment - pyramid shapes made with silky, food-grade nylon materials, with no glue or staples, and filled with whole leaf tea, fruit, flowers and herbs. A concept that was first launched by NASA/Fuso industries in Tokyo, Japan, in the 1980s especially for green tea, it took until now for the market mature to the point where a large enough group of consumers for it to be profitable were open to such an idea. Today the use of these new bags has exploded, to the point where most specialty packers have at least a segment of their line in a pyramidal shape and/or a nylon material - and changed the shape of the teabag industry.

"Until now the teabag market had been made with the conceptin mind that 'teabags are cheap and convenient.' But we think that the development of these new shapes and materials adds the new idea that teabags can deliver the real taste of tea," says Toshimasa Shiraishi, Manager/Sales, at Yamanaka Industries in Kyoto, Japan.

Tatsuya Hayashida of NASA Corporation says that since pyramid bags have more space inside than the traditional flat bags, it allows room for packers to put what they formerly put in tins, in teabags instead. "When you pack leaf tea in a pyramid bag and put the bag in boiled water, the tea leaf expands and circulates inside the bag, so you can extract very nice flavor from it. Our bag is transparent so it looks attractive to consumers and is better for extraction of tea." The woven mesh filter they use instead of paper has a faster hot water infusion because the size of the openings in the mesh is wider than paper, so that it can extract better taste and flavor. "So there is no need to cut the leaves down into small pieces, and one can enjoy the real taste and flavor of full tea leaves."

The specialty market in the U.S. has really taken advantage of being able to bring whole-leaf tea to consumers who appreciate it, but need a convenient way to enjoy it. Those who look for these types of teas tend to be the high-end, LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumer, and often they and the packers are analyzing the origins and ingredients of everything to do with the product. "We pack extremely high quality tea into our infusers, and are attracting very high quality customers," says Peter Hewitt of Tea Forte, a specialty packer in Massachusetts. Tea Forte's tea infusers are a tall pyramid shape, with a square flat bottom, designed with semi-rigid walls to hold whole leaf teas with large leaves, flowers, and herbs. "Our silken infusers [made of food-grade nylon] are filled by hand in the tea gardens of Asia, as to not disturb the fragile tea. We weave our own material to have the proper flow through properties, rigidity, and visual properties…They stand tall in the cup so that the tip of the infuser never dips under water. The string is natural cotton woven around a aluminum core. This flexible string insures that the string and label willnot dip into the water."

Infusing a Republic of Tea pyramid bag.
Republic of Tea, specialty tea packers in California, offers a line of "open and airy fine gossamer mesh pyramid tea bags that allow top-quality leaves to reach their full potential, unfurl, and expand for even and flavor-rich infusion," says Marideth Post, "Minister of Enlightenment" at Republic of Tea.

For at least the higher-end segment of the retail market, pyramid and nylon tea bags seem to be a great way for connoisseurs to enjoy without the convenience factor removed. This also holds true for higher-end restaurants and hotels. What better way to serve up fine quality tea without having to train staff and use up their valuable time? Nylon and pyramidal bags are indeed making a splash at these fine establishments. "Some restaurants and cafes don't have the resources or the staff to serve full-leaf tea in the traditional format, so this is an ideal solution," says Post.

While these innovative designs and materials attract customer's sense of taste and aesthetics, they also present challenges to everyone involved.

IMA is a manufacturer of teabag machinery in Italy. Paola Dalla Casa of IMA warns that new designs can be costly. "Any time a new teabag shape or design is required, a new machine has to be designed and manufactured. This involves a great economic commitment by the purchaser and a great resources commitment by the producer." He adds that one great limitation for machinery producers is that machines already dedicated to a certain packer (e.g. for a special shape) are almost always covered by exclusivity rights and therefore can't be placed on the market to be used by other customers.

Marc Broeking of Schoeller & Hoesch, manufacturer of teabag paper in Germany, warns that "Packaging machine characteristics typically bind manufacturers to a specific range of shapes. The machinery speed and the maximum utilization of paper rolls are economic factors for all designs of shapes." The production speed of pyramidal bag machines is considerably slower than the traditional single or double chamber bag machine, and due to the triangular shape, production scrap is increased, adding to the bill. The shape also uses up more packaging materials, says Volker Brueck, global sales manager at Teepack, a teabag machinery manufacturer based in Germany. "Therefore, production of these new shapes is less efficient and more expensive and may not be cost / price competitive to traditional tea bags."

However, Shiraishi says this price difference evens out in the end: "Since the triangular teabag is used for high-grade teabags, the slow production rate can be absorbed into benefit by higher prices."

NASA says another challenge in the manufacturing of the bags is that there are no sealing seams on a pyramidal bag. So they use an ultrasonic device (instead of a cutter and heater bar) to cut and seal the nylon and non-woven fabric.

Yamanaka's sleek bags.
While everyone we spoke with felt positive about the new innovations, manufacturers remained wary, sure that this will remain at least somewhat of a niche market, with the traditional bags making up the bulk of their business.

Volker of Teepack says: "The influence on the machine business may not be very dramatic, at least not at the moment. Only new bag shapes lead to a need for new machines. But only some packers see their chance to create or enter a profitable niche by going into a new bag shape. Many others try to innovate the tea, infusion or flavor, but stay with their established bag shapes."

Dalla Casa of IMA agrees: "Generally speaking, packers in the teabag sector stay with a standard teabag, which means in most cases with a double chamber one, and do not change their whole production very easily…They might decide to dedicate a small part of their production to a niche product, but they would always keep the standard teabag for the major market." Dalla Casa goes on: "The most innovative packages represent in most cases a luxury product which is with no doubt dedicated to a particular and small consumption."

Volker of Teepack feels similarly: "We see these new shapes as one of the tea packers' approaches to establish in profitable market niche…Tea business is still traditional, brand logos seem to be long lasting. However we monitor a steadily growing rate of product innovation in some markets, especially in central Europe." He adds: "We see [these shapes] more as the packers' tool to resist to the retailers' price pressure."

Broeking of Schoeller & Hoesch says that while his company "always supports manufacturers, especially brand companies, in looking for something special and extraordinary", he feels there are "no facts to go on for added value created by these atypical shapes" due to the extra cost.

"We do not see these new shapes as a mainstream change in the industry, but more of a temporary variation because packaging machine characteristics typically bind manufacturers to a specific range of shapes…[for us], the typical square size shape is the established design for teabags and it fulfills most of the demand of the market."

While there are obviously obstacles to change in an age-old industry, innovation is a part of our culture - and if it tastes better, is convenient, looks better, and is interesting and new, this trend is sure to play a role in the future of the tea industry. Says Teddy Treu Gronbech of Dansk Tefilter, a tea filter manufacturer in Denmark: "I know the tea filter market is growing due to the increasing interest in all sorts of loose tea... However, the teabag will always be there. As my grandfather once told me: 'Any investment in consumer convenience (laziness) will pay back.'"

Tea & Coffee - March/April, 2005
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