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Tea Bags Vs. Loose-Leaf

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Tea Bags Vs. Loose-Leaf

My love of the leaf started with a tea bag. Specifically, a bag of Sweet & Spicy made by Good Earth that I had when I was 23. I trace my journey into tea back to that first cup, drunk with an air of revelation in the grad student office in Columbia Hall at the University of Oregon.

My story isn’t unique. In fact, the majority of all tea drunk in the US is steeped in tea bags. And as we launch a farmer-owned tea factory, we’re committed to finding cups for the 50,000+ pounds of tea it will produce every year. That means we need our teas to reach many, many more people. And that’s why tea bags are central to the success of our mission. The story of our work and the evolution of the tea bag will soon be deeply entwined. 

A Brief History of Bagged Teas

An array of different tea bags filled with tea.

The story of the tea bag predates our company by about a century. True to tea lore, the exact origin of the tea bag is hotly contested. The leading theory, perhaps because it's the most interesting, attributes its creation to a mistake! Legend has it that in 1908, a New York tea and coffee importer named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of his teas to customers. Rather than use the typical tins, he sent the samples in silken bags with strings. He intended for people to empty the samples of tea from the bags into a teapot, but instead, customers dunked the whole kit and kaboodle into hot water. The convenience of the tea bag, or tea sachet as it’s also known, caught on like wildfire. And rapidly, Sullivan’s grand mistake revolutionized the world’s most popular beverage. 

For the rest of the twentieth century, the design of the tea bag continued to evolve. The most recent significant advancement happened in 1996, when Brooke Bond, the parent company of PG Tips, released the first tea bags shaped like pyramids. The spacious interior of the tetrahedronal bag allowed the leaf to open up more fully than any previous shape. At long last, high-quality tea leaves that need room to expand could finally be put inside tea bags, opening the gateways for specialty tea to be available in bagged form.

Ever since, tea companies have been consistently raising the quality of the leaf inside the bags. In the last decade, thanks to consumer demand, biodegradable tea bags shaped like pyramids became more widely available. It’s an exciting moment to be a part of the evolution leading to higher quality and more sustainable tea bags. Yet even today, there is a noticeable lack of single-origin teas available in bags. Tea bags today remain almost exclusively flavored or blended. So for the rapidly emerging segment of specialty tea drinkers falling for Taiwanese oolongs and Darjeeling First Flushes, there’s a gap. And we see that gap as an opportunity for something new.

How We’re Thinking About Tea Bags Vs. Loose-Leaf

A pyramid tea bag filled with green tea, next to a mound of loose-leaf green tea.

When it comes to tea bags vs. loose-leaf, bagged teas have gotten a bad rap. For decades, tea bags sold in the US were full of low-quality fannings and dust. It led to an expectation among American tea drinkers (myself included) that all tea is bitter or weak, with subtlety and nuance nowhere in the cup.

But with the pyramid-shaped vessels, there’s no reason quality tea can’t be tucked inside. In fact, in our new line of teasset to launch in early October 2022is literally the exact same tea that we offer in loose-leaf, just in a tea sachet. We’ve learned there’s a time and place for both!

The two things tea bags have going for them are convenience and consistency. With a few flicks of a wrist, the tea is made, and the spent leaves can be easily and cleanly composted. Plus, by standardizing the amount of tea in each serving, the tea bag takes the guesswork out of making a good cup. Thanks to the consistency of 2 grams in every serving of our teas, people can be assured the tea will taste solid. This is especially true for pearl-shaped teas that open up and require less leaf than most people think.

If you, like me, look to loose-leaf for the ritual it brings to your day, loose-leaf will always be in a category all its own. Personally, my quiet early morning cup of Kumaon White, made in my favorite gaiwan, requires me to interact directly with the loose-leaf to have the moment I’m after. However, for the cup of Assam Black sitting next to me right now, which I hurriedly made during a Zoom call an hour ago, tea bags deliver what I’m going for in a more efficient manner.

We’re hoping that our tea bags serve as an accessible introduction to our teas and our work. And for those of you who have been customers for a long time, we hope our new line of tea bags make it easier for you to enjoy tea when in a hurry or on-the go. 

“Are Tea Bags Compostable?”

Close-up of a pyramid tea bag brewing in a cup of tea.

That was the question we asked experts for about six months. We spent hours combing through government packaging reports, talking to packaging vendors, and interviewing waste management specialists. In summary, zero waste is a complex topic.

It’s also far more expensive to use biodegradable materials, and the minimums that manufacturers require are daunting for a small company like ours. Yet we knew we would not be satisfied until we could guarantee that no part of our tea bag would end up in the landfill. Not the tea, the bag, the envelope, or the carton. 

And for those of you reading this and thinking that the best way to eliminate waste is by not creating it in the first place….did I mention that we have loose-leaf waiting? 

Into the Future

For the first nine years of our company, we exclusively sold our teas as loose-leaf. As we close in on a decade of working to democratize tea, about 10 decades after Sullivan’s accidental invention did the same thing, it’s exciting to feel like we’re aligning with the leaf’s larger arc. We hope that you’ll join us so that together, we can continue to ensure that tea continues for centuries to come. 

And if you want to drink a cup of Sweet & Spicy, I’ll happily join you. Especially if you want to add a splash of whiskey!

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Blog Author:

Raj Vable, Founder of Young Mountain Tea

Raj Vable, Founder

He has been confounded by the leaf since his first transcendental encounter with white tea in 2010. Three years later, he started Young Mountain Tea to bridge his budding tea obsession with his interest in traveling in the mountains and previous experience creating job opportunities in rural India. He revels in working across cultures and can be regularly found trying to get the rest of the team on board with another outlandish tea project. His favorite teas remain white, and he’s always searching for the next cup of magic. 

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