There is a lovely tea shop in my home village and my mum and I recently stopped there for a cuppa. The tea tasted really good, which isn’t always the case when you don’t make it yourself. Tea-making is quite an art, and not many people get it right.
Thankfully, our local café does a fine job, not least because they use loose leaves in a pot which gives the tea a depth of flavour that is hard to achieve when using bags alone.
Using leaves is viewed as a bit posh these days, but it wasn’t the case when bags first appeared. My mum recalled a funny story from her younger days when her own mother was visited by an unexpected guest and was quite apologetic when she could only offer tea made with leaves. Tea bags had only landed on British shores a few years earlier in around 1939, and no doubt it became the done thing to demonstrate you were part of the fashionable elite by having them in your home. They left no irritating rogue leaves floating about, didn’t leave sludge at the bottom of the cup, and didn’t make a mess when you emptied the pot down the sink. The refined bag took care of all that nonsense. No wonder my Nana felt bad about offering her guest common or garden leaf tea!
The majority of Brits were late adopters of the sachet of dreams. Loose tea had arrived on our shores in the 17th century from China, with the earliest being a type of green tea that was drunk without milk. By the following century, stronger black teas became popular, and that’s when we began to add milk to make it more palatable. By the 19th century we were sourcing much of our tea from new markets in India, which soon overtook China as our main supplier.
Entrepreneurial minds were always looking for solutions to the perennial problem of messy leaves, and so inventors created little metal infusers known as ‘tea eggs’ or ‘tea balls’ that were suspended either into a pot or a cup on a metal chain.
An American chap called Thomas Sullivan is often credited with inventing the tea bag in 1908, but in fact it was two women, Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that patented a design in 1901 where leaves were placed in individual loose-weave cotton pockets designed for one cup.
Sullivan, who was a tea and coffee merchant, used to send clients samples of his wares inside little drawstrung silk pouches. But those who received them, having seen the Lawson/McLaren invention, mistakenly used the string to hold on to the pouch while lowering it into their cups, rather than opening up the pouch and pouring out the contents as Sullivan had intended.
The little pouches became incredibly popular, and Sullivan spotted an opportunity, realising the silk weave was too fine to allow the tea to brew properly. He set about inventing something similar, but better, and landed on the idea of using a type of gauze rather than silk which would allow the full flavour of the leaves to come through. By the 1930s, the gauze had been replaced by a kind of filter paper, and loose leaf tea began to disappear from US shop shelves.
The well-known tea suppliers Tetley were the first to bring them over from America in 1939 but we, as we Brits tend to be, were a bit wary of this strange new concept, and it wasn’t until 1952 that rivals Lipton sparked a leap in popularity when they patented their ‘Flo-Thru’ tea bag. Having said that, by the end of the 1960s, only three per cent of the population were regularly using tea bags. By the year 2000, though, that figure had surged to 95%.
For me, a good cup of tea is like therapy, and has seen me through many stressful events. I make time every day to switch off from whatever I’m doing and enjoy a pot of proper tea made with good quality leaves.
If you must use bag in a cup, though, please take this tip from an expert. Never, but NEVER, squeeze a tea bag. Instead, just pop it into your cup of just-boiled water and leave it to seep (or steep or mash or brew) until it is just the right colour.
Now there’s a topic for another day!
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 16th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 14th December 2022