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Learning the ropes (er, strings) of the tea string business.

When confronted with the assignment of writing an entire article on tea strings, I must admit I was hesitant. After more than a few uninspiring hours at the computer keyboard, and a few more unenlightening hours poking through my tea library, well, I was just about at the end of my string. The fact is that L like most sane people, had always taken tea strings for granted. One doesn't necessarily wonder at their good fortune as they wrap a teabag string around their spoon and squeeze out the last drop from a teabag. Teabags are just supposed to have strings and they should be long enough and strong enough to accomplish this important purpose.

I finally decided, as my deadline loomed before me, that if I was going to get anywhere I would have to find out who was responsible for this omnipresent and ever-helpful string. I was directed to Threads USA. Threads USA, a Division of Dixie Yarns, has offices in Illinois and North Carolina and is the string supplier for about 80% of the world market. Jim Conrad, director of national accounts, took time out to show me the ropes, (er, strings) of the tea-string business.

For instance, I found out that this little seven-inch piece of string that dangles out of my cup, and that is taken for granted all around the world represents about a 5 million dollar market. Well, that was certainly impressive and grabbed my attention, but 5 million dollars worth of what, I wondered. Was it a polyester and cotton blend, did it come in designer colors, could I order a longer or shorter string? Thank goodness Mr. Conrad is a patient man, because these must have been some of the most inane questions he'd ever heard.

No, there are no polyester strings, no blends, no silk either for that matter. Tea bag strings are only made from 100% cotton string. It's not that the tea bag string manufacturers are close-minded, it's just that 100% cotton is the only material approved by the FDA. In another startling figure, Conrad revealed that with the current volume of tea bag string being produced in the world market, the tea bag string industry annually buys in excess of one million pounds of cotton.

Remembering all the hoopla over bleached vs. unbleached coffee bags a couple of years back, I wondered if the same phenomenon had affected the tea string industry. Actually, this wasn't too far off. "About two years ago," Conrad related to me, "I petitioned the FDA to approve natural string for consumption in the U.S. In the rest of the world they have always used natural string as opposed to bleached. Now about 90% of all tea packers in the U. S. are using a natural rather than bleached tea string."

But what about the designer colors and different lengths, is a fashionable tea string possible? Not likely. If the FDA had to be convinced to approve string that didn't use bleach (a nasty chemical as anyone who's washed a load of whites will know), then red dye No. 4 shouldn't be a problem, but it is. Such is the government, and such is the FDA.

As far as the long and short of tea strings, that's a whole different subject. As Conrad explained, "We make a separate tea bag string for each tea packaging machine. The most universal is the Constanta from Germany, which makes the flow-though bag you see on Lipton's products, as well as some of Bigelow and Twinings. Other well-known machines are those made by IMA in Bologna, Italy, and MIA, an Argentinian machine. "The type of packaging machine is, in fact the most important factor of all in deciding on tea strings." Strength in the thread, which I thought might be important, turns out to be in Jim Conrad's words "overkill." "The main criteria is the overall diameter of the thread, which is important for use in the thread guide," he explained. "But, to truly do justice to all the different packaging machines requires another article in itself."

So, doggedly pursuing what by now had become a more interesting subject I wondered; what about those new round tea bags that are making headlines, like those from Tetley? Why don't these bags have a string or tag? "Well, these bags are packaged on very fast machines," explained Conrad.

Obviously a tea string and tea tag require additional time and skill, so unless you are skilled at removing objects quickly from boiling hot water, you might want to stick to the string (or buy sugar cube tongs, or learn to deftly maneuver two teaspoons). If you have to have the string, you're certainly in good company, 90% of the tea bags produced annually in the U.S. have tea strings. Further, the tea bag string industry is moving into other categories. The cotton string used in producing tea bags is also being used widely today in the manufacture of microwave coffee bags, as companies like Folgers, with Folgers singles, and Maxwell House make forays into the idea of bagged coffee.

So, next time you're dipping your bag of English Breakfast, take a moment to realize what a handy thing is the tea string. It keeps consumers from burning their fingers, it doesn't wick up the color of the tea and look yucky, and it allows the tea packer to run his machines quickly and efficiently.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:tea bag strings
Author:Moore, Wendy Rasmussen
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:906
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