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All hail the humble tea bag

23rd October 2012

Tea will always hold a treasured place in the nation's heart. The statistics speak for themselves; around 165 million cups of tea are consumed in the UK every single day.

Tea bags are the country’s preferred method of choice. Yet, despite consumer’s loyalty and commitment to their favourite brand, the myth still endures that the humble and hard-working tea bag is, in some way, the poorer cousin to pot-brewed loose leaf tea.

"It is simply not correct that the tea used in tea bags is of an inferior quality," says Bill Gorman, Executive Chairman of The UK Tea Council.

Ironically, the blame for this misconception lies partly with the tea industry itself.

"During the tea-making process, the tea leaves will naturally break up into pieces," Bill goes on to explain. "About 150 years ago, as these different grades, or sizes of leaf were being standardised, the very small particles that were produced at the end of the process were named dust. The public translated that term to mean that the contents of their tea bags contained the inferior sweepings off the floor."

Nothing could be further from the truth. The tea contained in a tea bag is exactly the same quality of the equivalent loose leaf. It’s just a different size. In fact, it is better to have the finest grade of tea inside a bag because the increased surface area gives a faster brewing time. And that speed and ease is what makes the tea bag so successful.

Size may not matter when it comes to making that perfect cup of tea, but other factors certainly do.

Not all teas are created equal. A cheaper tea bag is likely to contain leaves grown in an area that is not traditionally renowned for its tea production, such as Argentina, Iran or Turkey.

And then there’s the production process. Tea is a natural product, so the process is critical in ensuring that the leaf retains its quality from bush to pot. Irrespective of whether the tea is hand or machined plucked, it is the way it is handled from garden to factory that determines the eventual quality. Similarly, you can have the best quality tea in the world, but if someone falls asleep by the drier and the batch is over-fired, then it’s worse than useless.

A group of teabags waiting to be turned into a refreshing, hydrating cup of tea...In addition, cultural stigmas have added to the myth. There aren’t many products in the UK that can escape the spectre of the class system and tea bags have certainly fallen victim to snobbish attitudes ever since they were introduced to the mass market in the 1950s.

At the end of the day, it is all about choice. And from this perspective, loose leaf and the tea bag are comfortable stable mates. Tea bags are perfect for those hectic mornings or for the office tea break. Loose leaf fits the bill for leisurely Sunday afternoons.

Yet, the importance of the humble tea bag cannot be overstated: 96% of the tea we consume in this country is brewed with a tea bag. So isn’t about time that it receives the recognition it deserves?

Well, in a way it is. The process has come full circle as specialist tea brands are marketing their loose leaf tea in smart, well-designed pouches.

But really the figures speak for themselves.

"It is no exaggeration to say that the tea bag has single-handedly saved the British tea industry," concludes Bill.

Time to get the kettle on…

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