Jan 15th 2010 Issue
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The future of the tea bag

Charles Cain - Jan 15th 2010

Savoring convenience

The infamous tea bag

Adagio's pyramid bags

Multiple choice question: Bagged tea is to loose tea what:
        A. Boxed wine is to Champagne
        B. Instant coffee is to Kona
        C. A bottle of beer is to a keg
        D. A 1oz jar of caviar is to a 2oz jar of caviar
        E. All of the above

If you answered anything other than E.) All of the above, you're a tea snob. Just kidding. Maybe. It used to be that bagged teas were markedly inferior to even an untrained palate. Today, while MOST bagged teas are still commodity grade, mass-market products, the gap is shrinking rapidly. Some progressive retailers have even taken the risk of putting (gasp) top quality whole leaf teas into a bag. It remains to be seen whether the average consumer will pay for it.

Before continuing the discussion on the current state of bagged teas, let's go back to the original criticisms of this ubiquitous delivery method for the world's favorite beverage:

1. Tea bags are filled with dust and fannings - the detritus left over from the production of "real tea". The West simply didn't appreciate good tea and we were too lazy or uncivilized to get beyond dipping a bag in warm water (or so the thinking went).

2. Tea bags are too small to allow whole, or even slightly broken leaf teas to properly expand and infuse. The tea bag itself was responsible for the use of dust and fannings.

3. Twinings has always recommended brewing a Black Tea between 3 and 5 minutes for optimal flavor. To their horror, they conducted a study and found that the average black tea drinker dunked that bag for only 45 seconds. The lazy or uncivilized Western tea drinker needs to be served dust and fannings so that some flavor makes it into the cup in 45 seconds or less.

4. Paper tea bags don't allow much circulation of the water and delivered weak infusions.

5. Because tea bags are primarily dust and fannings, or at best CTC teas (finely chopped leaf pieces), they go stale quickly.

6. Because of all the extra packaging, shipping and storage costs, bagged teas are more than twice as expensive as the same tea sold loose.

Historically, these truths were self evident, but over the last few years the simple tea bag has come a long way. Today we have nylon pyramid bags, biodegradable pyramid bags (made with organic if genetically modified material), large paper sachets, etc. These larger bags allow all but the largest whole leaf teas to be sold in bagged form, and negate all but complaint number six in the list above.

Today, the real questions for the tea bag market are:
1. How much of a premium will the consumer pay for premium bagged teas over loose teas? (and how many times the cost of traditional bagged teas)
2. How comfortable will the tea connoisseur be buying a "premium" product in "mass market" packaging?

This second question is playing out in a number of other products who's success or failure will be instructive for the tea industry. Boxed wine is a much less expensive delivery mechanism than 750ml bottles. Current packaging approaches make the difference in flavor negligible, but boxed wines still suffer from an image crisis. Beer distributors have been trying to replace glass bottles with plastic for several years now with mixed results. Finally, the grocery aisles are now filled with "single serving" packages of everything from high quality fish to cheese.

So what IS the future of the tea bag? I ask in part because, with two Fuso machines (for making pyramid tea bags) in-house, Adagio has the option of putting some or all of our tea collection into bags. Loose tea will always have the appeal of ritual and tradition, but will tea connoisseurs also buy their favorite Darjeeling or oolong in bagged form for convenience at the office?

We're going to test this in our new retail store, but I'd love to get some feedback from our customers and friends in the tea industry on this one.

Adagio Teas