Food Facts & Lore

The Accidental Tea Bag

Tea dates back to at least 2730 BCE. It is believed it was first cultivated and brewed in China, where tea containers, presumably for steeping herbs in hot water, were found in ancient burial sites. Buddhist monks later established their own tea traditions in Japan. India is also renowned for its tea culture.

The concept of brewing the leaves or herbs for a set time and then removing them from the water is ancient as well. Experimentation with flavor, and possibly also with digestive responses, helped fine tune the tea drinking process naturally, long before the tea bag was invented.

And this brings us to the United States, via tea’s most iconic trading route from India to England. It is New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan who first introduced the tea bag. He had a habit of sending tea samples to his customers, in the form of small silk pouches filled with herbs and leaves.

Sullivan intended for his customers to empty the pouch into a tea-pot prior to infusion, but realized many were placing the pouch directly in the pot instead. When many commented that the weave on the silken pouch was too tight for a proper infusion, he designed a pouch, or sachet, made of gauze. By the 1920’s, commercial production expanded to include paper sachets in two sizes, one for single-brew cups and one for the pot. A string and decorative tag were added at this time.

The tea bag added convenience; it also changed our behaviors around tea. Surveys of tea drinkers reveal how. About 15% of tea drinkers disregard the 5-minute steep rule and more than 50% of tea drinkers leave the bag in the cup while drinking. People who use a ball infuser are more than twice as likely to observe traditional steeping and serving guidelines.