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Specialty teabags - harbingers of great things to come.

In an age when confessionals are so popular as to be passe, let me add my two cents. I regularly drink tea in a teabag. That may not seem like a shocking revelation, but as editor of The Tea Quarterly it comes dangerously close to professional suicide. At least, that used to be the case. Given the proliferation of specialty tea companies offering teabags at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco last month, it seems that the specialty industry is ready to help out the lazy and harassed modem tea drinker like myself.

The history of the teabag begins before the categories of commercial and specialty even existed. In 1908, a New York tea importer by the name of Thomas Sullivan, in an effort to save money, had little silk bags made that would hold tea samples to be sent to prospective buyers. The buyers, in what turned out to be a fortuitous accident, brewed the tea still in the silk bag, and the orders came pouring in. Of course, the customers all complained when the tea was delivered sans that convenient little silk bag. Mr. Sullivan, not one to miss the point, quickly substituted gauze for the silk and proceeded to rake in sizable profits from his new invention.

It wasn't long before those potsized gauze bags were reduced to convenient single-servings. So began the demise of the teabag, ever quicker-infusing, ever more convenient, and ever less wonderful.

Today, specialty tea sellers are just as quick on the uptake as Mr. Sullivan, attempting to offer the public what it wants, convenience and quality. Every specialty tea aficionado who offers teabags does so with his or her own philosophy. I took the time to discuss the recent proliferation of what used to be considered the arch-enemy of the industry with some of the numerous purveyors of fine, high-quality teas in teabags.

Paul Katzeff of Royal Gardens Tea Co. used to be a stalwart champion of the "loose-tea only" philosophy. "I started my company without bags because I believed that only loose tea provided a great cup of tea, and at the time the finest quality teas were only happening in whole leaf. But, something strange happened. I couldn't sell it."

This isn't surprising since loose tea sales represent only 4-5% of the market, and Katzeff, not surprisingly, decided to expand his line to include teabags. However, he was unwilling to cut up the leaves or decrease the weight of tea necessary for what he considers a great cup of tea. "I tried to get my tea in teabags but it didn't work. The bags exploded and I couldn't get them to infuse." It took a long time and a rather startling amount of money, but Royal Gardens now has gauze teabags which measure up to Paul's exacting standards. But, what I wanted to know was why go to all this effort.

"The most important thing," according to Paul, and the driving force behind finding the perfect teabag, "is to get people drinking tea. I'm content to be the Johnny Teabag of the specialty tea industry." While Paul may contend that Royal Gardens is tea for the proletariat, let me assure you that it is fine enough to impress this bourgeois palate.

At what I refer to as The Institute of Tea Mind in San Rafael, CA, more formally known as The Republic of Tea, I found a new and promising source of high-quality tea in teabags. Unlike Royal Gardens, The Republic of Tea began their line last year complete with teabags.

Bill Rosenzweig who carries the title of minister of progress-explained, "Our idea is to meet people where they meet tea. We want to continue to educate people about the pleasures of full-leaf tea, but we're just as committed to a better grade of teabag. Rather than putting our full-leaf teas into a bag, we have instead sought out teas which work well in a bag. Because we use only very young leaves in our bags you can leave them in the cup for a while without getting that heavy tannin taste." Bill would still like to have every tea person eventually find their way to fun-leaf teas, "We look on tea as a whole experience, a 15-minute vacation, if you will. Because of this, we see teabags as a stepping stone or an entre into the market." Another issue, one that Bill addressed but which often goes unexamined, was the waste involved in the teabag form. "With teabags you have the cost of the packaging, the bag, the staple, the tag which all have to be thrown away. This is a topic that we are sure to hear more about in the 1990's; the cost of convenience in modem day life." But, if you're not ready to enter the consciousness-raising world of loose tea, The Republic has just brewed up Organic Assam in their round, unbleached bags.

It's quite a leap from tea mind in San Rafael, CA to good business in Salisbury, CT, but that's the range that high quality teabags encompass. Salisbury is where you'll find Harney & Sons, Ltd., a time-honored source of fine teas. Here as Mike Harney puts it, "Our basic philosophy is to get as close to the experience as we can with a teabag." Harney & Sons, suppliers to many of the Nation's top hotels and restaurants, has always been aware of the need for high-quality teabags.

"Institutions won't use loose tea because it requires too much effort, and they are also very cost competitive," explained Mike. "We do feel strongly about loose tea, but we know we're not going to switch most of our institutional users over. Within the confines of teabags, we try to do the best job possible by using as big a leaf as possible and keeping a low inventory. The turnover is quick enough that we know our customers are always getting fresh tea."

And now for something completely different. Take specialty tea, specifically created for an iced beverage, and put it into a teabag. At Paradise Tropical Tea this is exactly what they do, Ric Rhinehart of Paradise explained, "We do a whole new kind of teabag. It is in fact, the first practical introduction of the teabag to iced tea. We package the tea in a retail format, which is 10 grams of high-quality broken orange pekoe, flavored with tropical fruit nectars." The bag is is designed to be brewed in a drip coffee maker and yields approximately 48 ounces of freshly brewed tea which can then be chilled or poured directly over ice. The uniqueness of this product is that it is so specific, "The teabag combined with the slightly lower brewing temperature of a coffee maker brings out the subtle flavors and aromas of the tropical fruits," says Ric. For like-minded snobs such as myself, I would advocate that you instead use the sun-tea method, and avoid having passion-fruit flavored coffee the next morning. However, if you've ever been served this tea in a restaurant situation, you will find a whole new reason to thank Mr. Sullivan, the teabag originator. It's truly paradise on ice.

As someone who has long awaited and announced the coming of the age of specialty tea, I feel about to be rescued by the teabag. Just when I was starting to feel a bit foolish, here comes a line of products that promise to convert the tea-dust drinking masses into specialty tea consumers. So here, to join the last six years of optimistic forecasts is my 1993 entry: the specialty tea market, currently at about 5%, should triple within the next 7-10 years. The people who are going to turn to specialty tea purveyors like these are people like myself, who know quality and demand it, but are unfortunately operating in a world where they eat lunch at their desks, are dressing uncooperative two-year olds while also trying to read the paper and eat breakfast, and who just want a good cup of tea. Fast!
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:specialty tea in teabags
Author:Moore, Wendy Rasmussen
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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