Man has been brewing tea for thousands of years—using loose leaves (photo #1) until the accidental invention of the tea bag in 1904.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TEA BAG
Ships bearing tea from China first arrived in Britain in the 17th century, and their cargo created a drinking passion among Britons. The first teas to arrive were green teas (photo #2), but by the late 18th century, black tea overtook green tea in popularity. It was discovered that milk and black tea—with a lump of sugar—were a perfect pairing.
In the 19th century widespread cultivation of tea had begun in India, a British colony, and overtook the import of Chinese tea to the U.K. At that time, all the tea in the world a was prepared as loose tea, necessitating mesh tea balls, tea eggs—perforated metal containers to hold tea leaves—and other strainers to keep the leaves of the brewed tea out of the cup.
A radical change occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, with the accidental invention of the tea bag. It offered at least four benefits:
The tea leaves could be removed from the hot water at the end of the appropriate brewing period, so they didn’t sit in the pot and leach bitter tannins into the remaining brewed tea.
Tea could be made in individual cups, instead of brewing in a potful.
No lingering, unwanted leaves had to be removed from a poured cup of tea.
The convenience of disposing a tea bag, as opposed to scooping wet leaves from the pot into the trash, was a game changer.
The Accidental Tea Bag: Created To Save Money
In 1904 or 1908—or perhaps earlier*—Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, switched from sending tea samples to his customers in the customary metal tins, to far-less-expensive silken bags. Some clients assumed that the bags were supposed to be used in the same way as the metal infusers, and placed them into pots of hot water. It was accidental birth of the tea bag.
Responding to the customer comments that the mesh on the silk was too fine, Sullivan switched to gauze and created the first purposefully made tea bags. In the 1920s tea bags were widely available commercially, and the grew as the preferred brewing method in the U.S. They were available in two sizes: a large bag for the pot and a small bag for individual cups. A string was attached (photo #3) so the bag could be easily removed. Fabric bags evolved into the less-expensive paper bags.
By the way, the Brits took far longer to embrace tea bags. Here’s the scoop.
The 21st Century Brings Pods & K-Cups
The next leap came in with individual pod/cup coffee machines, which offered options for tea. In order to work in the machine, the tea leaves had to be ground as finely as coffee. This instant-brewing did not produce quality results: Tea leaves need to be brewed for several minutes. contained tea, ground for instant-brewing.
Manufacturers came up with appliances dedicated to brewing tea (but not a lot of them). Seven years ago we bought one of them, the Breville One Touch Tea Maker, happily for a year until the carafe cracked. Turns out there was no replacement carafe. The solution was to buy a new machine for $250, and toss the electric base into the landfill. As the carafe had cracked due to what we believed to be a manufacturing problem (we never knocked it), we declined.
Why the lag in tea-brewing appliances vis-a-vis all the options for coffee?
The U.S. and much of Western Europe are coffee-drinking countries†. While interest in artisan tea has exploded over the past 20 years, the volume† still pales next to coffee.
THE NEWEST TEA BREWER: THE TEFORIA INFUSER
This year saw the debut of second edition of Teforia, a high-tech tea infuser that, like the Breville One-Touch, uses algorithms based on appropriate brewing times to craft the richest and most flavorful cups of tea possible.
The first edition, Teforia Classic, debuted in 2015 at the price of $999. In Silicon Valley, where it was born, that may not be much for an appliance that will sit in a $250,000 kitchen.
But it was out of touch for most of us; hence the Teforia Leaf, for a more affordable $399 at launch, and comparable to mid-range coffee machines. The price is lower by making the smart technology simpler. “Simple” means a dual-core, dual-threaded Intel Atom CPU, a 32-bit Intel Quark microcontroller, 1GB ram and WiFi connectivity.
And unlike the Breville, the replacement carafe is affordable.
 For thousands of years, all tea was loose tea (photo of Darjeeling tea courtesy The Tao Of Tea).
 It was served in small tea cups, holding about two ounces of tea (photo by Yoko Bates | IST). When tea came to Europe, it was served in the standard six-ounce cups.
 The tea bag was invented—accidentally—in the early 20th century (photo courtesy Two Leaves And A Bud).
 The Teforia Leaf, a high-tec tea infuser that creates the scientifically perfect cup of tea (photo courtesy Teforia).
Much more sophisticated than the Breville, Teforia’s algorithms have precise settings for:
Water temperature and volume.
Water agitation and aeration.
Microinfusions—smaller, shorter infusions that allow extraction of just the right flavors from the leaves.
Water quality, via a water filter that “purifies” the tap water in the tank.
“It’s a tea master at your fingertips, crafting each cup exactly as it was intended,” says the company. “A tea may require three or four different microinfusions—each with different settings—to bring out its best flavors….The difference is easy to taste.”
Has any Chinese emperor, or modern billionaire, ever had a better-prepared cup of tea?
*Details vary by source, but per Wikipedia, tea bag patents date as early as 1903. They first appearing commercially around 1904, and were successfully marketed about 1908 by the tea and coffee importer Thomas Sullivan of New York, who shipped his silk tea bags around the world.
†Based on data compiled by Euromonitor International, tea still outsells coffee in populous countries like China and India, as well as the U.K., Russia, Ireland, Chile, Morocco, Turkey, South Africa and Egypt. Here’s a graph on worldwide consumption of tea versus coffee.