of the pre-teabag past would have almost certainly been horrified, if anyone would have predicted just how many cups of tea would be brewed using a teabag today. If teabags had been invented in their tea-brewing days, they would have bemoaned the fate of the orthodox large leaf, complaining that the brew from a teabag could never possibly match the subtle flavor and exquisite quality of the liquor brewed from loose-leaf tea in a teapot. Until recently, that is – they would have been right! Over the past couple of years, a teabag revolution has been taking place, and now even real connoisseurs can prepare a high quality, great-tasting infusion from a teabag.
It’s not just the taste and quality that has changed, but the shape too. Now, instead of boring flat rectangles and circles of paper filled with (often poor quality) small tea particles, consumers can opt for rectangular muslin, rectangular nylon gauze, pyramid nylon gauze one cup, pyramid corn gauze (biodegradable) one cup, pyramid two cup, ecological one cup, hand-tied muslin, hand stitched muslin, machine stitched muslin, and tall narrow pyramids decorated with a little leaf.
The pyramid revolution started a couple of years ago, when Brooke Bond launched its paper pyramids with an advertising campaign that suggested the new shape created a small replica of the teapot, and therefore allowed the tea to brew better within a larger space. Brooke Bond said, at the time, that it “had proved that its pyramid bags brewed tea to the peak of perfection.”
The three dimensional pyramid has now been taken to the next stage of style and sophistication, so that the consumer can have a teabag filled with a quality large leaf tea, herb, flower or fruit, and can actually see what’s in the bag. So even those tea drinkers who demand the best and want to enjoy the visual appeal of the tea can also now indulge in the sheer convenience of the bag.
On the traditional single or double chamber rectangular teabag front, IMA responded in 2005 to demands for a no-staple, no heat-seal, ecological and efficient teabag with its IMA C27 machine, which can pack 250 teabags/minute with just a couple of machine-tied knots (one to fix a cotton thread to the bag and another to fix the cotton thread to the label). So there is no metal staple to affect the flavor or startle those who don’t like bits of metal in their food and drink, and the innovative knotting feature apparently allows the machine to pack “naked bags, and a crimped or heat-sealed outer envelope.” The C27 also offers the possibility of carton packing from flat packs in up to four rows of bags.
For it is the trendy gauze pyramid and rectangular bags packed on NASA Corporation’s, the word on everyone’s lips at the moment is Fuso. Right now, everyone is excited about Fuso’s machines. Tea packers can select their next tea bagging machine from a number of technological alternatives, all of which can fill nylon mesh, polyester mesh and non-woven fabric. The different machines will pack naked pyramid gauze bags, naked rectangular gauze bags, pyramids into an outer foil sachet, pyramids into cello outer sachets, pyramids into large rectangular foil sachets, and paper or gauze rectangles into a laminate film outer. The bags are cut and sealed by ultrasound, a technology that Fuso industries have been using for 15 years. A flick of a button on some of the machines allows the manufacturer to switch from pyramid to rectangular bags, and to manufacture a bigger bag (5 grams instead of 2.5-3 grams, for example). The manufacturer just has to fit a different sized forming tube and install a different width of fabric, and the machine is ready to run. I asked Tatsuya Hayashida, of NASA Corporation, which of their current models was proving the most popular, and it seems that the recently launched FP-100S (which packs naked pyramid or rectangular bags), and the FPG-SH (which feeds pyramids or rectangles into an outer sachet) are selling well.
These machines will run nylon mesh, non-woven fabrics and the innovative corn-starch mesh that is totally biodegradable. Hayashida told me, “We sell some rolls to North America already. However, we’ve been testing the material under different temperatures and humidity and documentation on this will be finished at the end of this year. We also hope to start selling pre-tagged biodegradable mesh rolls in the near future.”
Other Teabag Formats
In France, the major packers were off and running down the modern sophisticated teabag route long before any of us in the UK or U.S. had woken up to the new possibilities, Mariage Frères have for several years offered their hand-tied muslin bags that contain top quality large leafed teas. Another long-established French company, Damman, claims to have invented ‘le sachet Cristal’ in France, and sells long rectangular mesh bags with string and tag which “combine all the taste and esthetic pleasures of the tea leaf with the practical aspect of the sachet.” Le Palais des Thés encloses its large leafed teas into a hand-stitched opaque muslin bag, while in the U.S., Mighty Leaf offers its large leafed teas in a square gauze bag, which has its own tag stitched on to the end of the thread that seals the bag. Also, Tea Forte’s tall, slim pyramids in rigid mesh are designed to stand in your tea cup until brewed, and then to be lifted out by the little model leaf that garnishes the tip.
Working on the same principal, but with a do-it-yourself twist, Octavia Tea sells disposable silken gauze bags that can be filled with whatever whole leafed tea or herbal blend you choose in order to create your own home-made gauze tea bag, which can be lifted out of the cup or pot by its own silk thread. This has all the advantages of the gauze teabags in that there is no glue, no staple, no paper and no mess! It also leaves the choice of tea up to you.
These innovative and high quality products have made tea packers think again about how they present the new-style tea bags to the retail and catering market. Ordinary square and rectangular cartons are no longer enough to entice the choosy shopper to this smart new-look teabag. So now, sitting on supermarket shelves are flat-bottomed, pointed-topped boxes, flat-topped pyramid cartons, clear-fronted gift boxes displaying the neat pyramids inside, and the more traditional tins and boxes filled with the silken bags. For use in the catering industry, St. James’s Teas (UK) and Teaosophy (U.S.) pack each of their pyramids into an individual pyramid carton for a neat, stylish, cutting edge presentation; Harney & Sons offer theirs in large, flat, printed foil sachets, which then go into a presentation box to bring to the restaurant table for display; Adagio’s (U.S.) 5 gram bag comes inside a flat, printed foil; té teas pack 15 bags to one flat-topped pyramid and a single bag in a mini version (for food service); Ceremonie, a new company, puts each rectangular mesh bag into a little rectangular box. Great concepts and a welcome change! Of course, if rotten tea is put inside these beautiful bags, the brew will also be rotten, but any company that has chosen to pack its teas in this expensive, eye-catching format is surely not going to shoot itself in the foot by selecting poor quality teas to go inside. What would be the point?
In London, many tea enthusiasts rarely risk ordering tea in restaurants and bars, since tea out of the home is often undrinkable, that they would rather go without. However, there are a few places that now brew with these new silken teabags, and it does make a huge difference. The tea actually tastes like tea and the choice is generally good. So, although these types of bag are more expensive to produce and therefore to buy, it is heartening to see that tea is being treated with more respect by some enlightened food service outlets and that the public at last has the opportunity to drink a quality tea. All we have to say is, “Vive la revolution!”
About the Author: Jane Pettigrew is a world-renowned author and educator on teas. She resides in London.