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Tea has a new bag of tricks

Laurie Budgar

April 23, 2008

8 Min Read
Tea has a new bag of tricks

The emperors and high priests of ancient times had two things their peasants did not have: time and money. That may explain why they were the first—and for a long time, the only—people to enjoy tea, sometimes in elaborate ceremonies. It wasn't until the 16th and 17th centuries that discovery of new trade routes made tea more affordable and accessible in Europe and America. Five hundred years later, the drink and all its accoutrements are still daunting to many, forcing them to use bags of compressed "tea dust" if they drink it at all.

The dust is a holdover from the days when tea was dried on multiple layers of screens, explains Shane Hart, Bija Tea category manager for Vancouver, B.C.-based Flora Inc. The whole leaf would stay on top, and the dust would fall to the floor. "The emperor would get the whole leaf," Hart says, and the dust would go to the plebs. In today's tea market, he says, "you've got everything from emperor quality to peasant quality."

But as more people are drinking tea for its health and sensory benefits, they've begun to discover its nuances, much the way people have learned about coffee and wine. And tea companies—particularly those in the natural and organic space—have developed new ways of making high-quality tea approachable to today's commoners.

Numi Tea's flowering teas exemplify this trend. The Oakland, Calif., company takes premium teas and sews them into "flowers"—such as black tea with a string of jasmine petals sewn around it. This style of tea has existed in China for seven or eight years, says Reem Rahim, Numi co-founder and vice president of marketing. "We're trying to take loose-leaf tea to the next level—we call them leaves of art," she says. "The tea leaf starts to expand and unfurl, and the flower comes out, and it's this magical experience." The flowers have a practical side as well. "They make loose-leaf tea steeping very simple and easy—plop one in the pot, pour your boiling water and watch it open," Rahim says. There's no measuring and, at the end, users merely discard the flower.

Bags not created equal
When it comes to American tea consumers, convenience is the name of the game. In fact, Shashank Goel, founder of Chicago-based Ineeka and Treleela organic, biodynamic and fair trade teas, believes that until recently, Americans had plenty of convenience but never had a real cuppa. Goel was born on a tea farm—his family, which owns 12,000 acres in India and supports 25,000 people, has been growing tea since 1861.

"What we found in this country, everybody was all about talk. All they wanted was cheap tea that they would put into great packaging. It was all rubbish inside," Goel says. Deciding he was sick and tired of that approach, he said to himself, "I'm gonna bring the community the best tea that they've ever had," by providing his finest teas and selling them at cost. Goel has no fears of losing his shirt this way. "I can do whatever I want," he says, "because I own the farm. I grow a million [kilograms] of tea; this is a drop in the ocean for me."

But Goel wants to make sure if people are drinking his tea, they're doing it right. "Good leaf tea has to unfurl completely to release the top notes," he says—something that can't be accomplished when leaves are packed into "a lousy tea ball." He feared that Americans would relegate drinking high-quality tea to those occasions when they had time for proper steeping. "I don't want them to drink tea on a Sunday morning. I want them to make it a habit," he says. So, in the midst of deriding fancy packaging and trying to provide the best tea on the market, Goel came up with his own innovative packaging.

He designed the Brew-tache (called the Pochette in his Treleela line, which is geared more toward a mass-merchandise consumer), essentially an oversized square tea bag with tabs that open and fold over the top of the cup. "The tea's already in there. You rip open the top and place it over the cup," he says. "It's an open system; a tea bag is a closed, restrictive system." He says it's the closest thing to replicating tea leaves floating in water completely.

Other companies take a different approach: providing loose-leaf tea in bags that give the leaves plenty of room to unfurl. The biggest trend is toward pyramid-shaped bags. Mighty Leaf, Adagio, Revolution Tea—even Lipton—are all using pyramid bags. "We were one of the first to introduce that pyramid bag shape—in winter 2003," says Jeff Irish, creative director of Phoenix-based Revolution Tea. "We wanted to bring the market a bag that would allow a great volume within the bag for the tea to expand when it infuses with the water—you're going to get a better flavor and more of the color is going to come out of the tea. Also, that bag allows for a premium full leaf, which gives you a greater surface area for the water to interact with. Prior to that bag, or a similar bag in a rectangular shape, you could not get a high-quality full leaf into a bag."

There's also something to be said for the visual effect of long-leaf tea mixed with herbs and fruits in a large, airy bag. "We see tea as a multisensory experience," says Annelies Zijderveld, marketing coordinator for San Rafael, Calif.-based Mighty Leaf. "It shouldn't be relegated to just your palate or your nose. We really want to engage your eyes."

Eco concerns
Not everyone is buying into the big-bag hype, though. Hart, of Bija Teas, acknowledges that flowering teas, or large bags that display the whole flower, kernels and seeds are beautiful to look at. "If you're just having a cup of tea to enjoy the sensory experience … then I completely understand that." But, he cautions, it's not always the best method for brewing. "If you're doing a medicinal tea and looking for health benefits, you want to make sure the cut of your herbs is small enough that you can maximize the effects." Ginger tea is a great example, he says. "If I took a chunk of ginger, the size of a penny, it will take the water a long time to break down that ginger. If we grate it, there's more surface area of the ginger to interact with the water."

Seattle-based Choice Organic Teas still uses classic rectangular tea bags—technically called dual-chamber flow-through bags. "We want organic tea to be approachable for people," says Marketing Coordinator Autumn White. Choice teas sell for about $3 to $5 for 16 bags. "A lot of these big pyramid-shaped tea bags and some of the other materials that are coming out now are going to be priced higher just because the material's more expensive," White says. Instead, Choice focuses its innovation on the environment, using tea bags made of unbleached natural fibers without any glue or heat-sealed polyfilaments (often used to seal stringless tea bags). And, says White, "We just got a new tea-bagging machine that takes the staple out. It just stitches a knot [in the string]. So now the whole tea bag is compostable."

Numi's Rahim has concerns about the pyramidal bags as well. She says they're made of either nylon—a type of plastic—or corn. The corn-based ones claim to be biodegradable, she says, "but [they're] actually made out of a [genetically modified] corn." Neither Irish nor Zijderveld was able to address that issue with any degree of certainty. Nor was QAI certifier Joe Smillie, who says it wouldn't be an issue for organic certification as long as the GMO corn didn't migrate into foods. "You'd have to find out if there's any DNA left in the [corn] starch." Irish defends his company's motivations. "For years here people [have been] drinking from bleached flour bags that are stapled. Nothing's gonna be perfect, but certainly we're trying to be innovative and move in the right direction."

But Bija's Hart has additional concerns. "We haven't gone with the new pyramid bag largely because it's made out of plastic. There's strong problems with estrogen mimickers," he says. Bija uses a combination of unbleached hemp and plant cellulose in its bags, and whitens them with hydrogen peroxide, so there are no dioxins involved. "Even the corn-based polymers break down. If it's something that's that biodegradable, it's not going to hold up for two or three steepings," Hart says.

Revolution's Irish says his company's corn-based Soilon bags do break down—just not in your cup. "It decomposes faster than newspaper—it takes about a month," he says. "Hot water doesn't do anything to it." Actually, according to the bag's manufacturer, Yamanaka Industry, it takes closer to three months to fully break down in compost. Still, says Irish, "A purist would only steep once; you pretty much have extracted most of the essential ingredients and flavor from that first steeping," noting that subsequent steepings render tea lighter and, often, bitter.

Consumers who find themselves baffled by all the bag options may decide the do-it-yourself method is best. For them, Ito En makes an empty mesh tea bag. "You can use actual fresh tea leaves," says Rona Tison, vice president of corporate relations for the company, whose headquarters are in New York and Tokyo. "People have different tastes in terms of strength, and they can adjust" according to those tastes and even according to different moods, she says. "We encourage people to buy [tea] more in bulk … sort of like [they] do with grinding their own coffee." Tison says the empty nylon bags are especially popular among people who travel a lot. "They like that option of taking it with them."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 12/p. 22, 24

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