Today, tea bags make up about 95% of all tea sales in the US. These bags, however, usually contain the cheapest tea available, producing little more than a brown-colored liquid. With this as the popular standard, it's not surprising that tea's popularity has faded.
The truth is that tea bags are a relatively new invention. When the first leaf fell in Shen Nung's cup, did it have a labeled string attached? We think not. For centuries, tea was enjoyed in loose form, employing a variety of different methods to separate the leaves from the water.
The first tea bags were inadvertently made from hand-sewn silk muslin bags. Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee merchant from New York City, tried to cut sampling costs by sending loose tea in small silk sacks (instead of costly tins, which was what most merchants used at the time). Potential clients, confused by this new packaging, threw the tea in hot water-- bag and all. Thomas started getting many requests for these "teabags" and realized that he had struck gold. The quick and easy clean-up of the leaves (due to the fact that they were still contained in the silk bag) made it enticingly convenient. Teabags first began appearing commercially around 1904, and quickly shipped around the world.
Unfortunately, this convenience came at a high price: flavor. Using bags created the problem of improper expansion of leaves. In order for a tea leaf to fully release its flavor, it needs a great deal of room to expand. Because teas in teabags had less leg room, the quality was diminished. What was the solution? Smaller leaves. This way, they needed less room to enlarge. Due to the fact that they were hidden behind a silk screen anyway, little concern was paid to this fact.
With this decision, the slippery slope of tea began. Because size no longer mattered, merchants could purchase much cheaper grades of tea known as "fannings" or "dust." These are the lowest rankings that tea can achieve, found at the bottom of the tea barrels. This "tea" will certainly add color to your cup, but not nearly as much flavor. After this, companies began to wrap the "leaves" in paper filters, a much cheaper alternative that didn't allow water to flow through to the cup as easily, further reducing quality.
This state of tea mediocrity has now plagued the West for several decades. Most supermarkets still offer only a bottom-of-the-barrel tea product, leaving most consumers to believe that there is nothing better available. But this is a far cry from the abundance of flavor and intoxicating aroma found in a cup of full-leaf premium tea.
Recently, tea vendors have begun brainstorming ways to tackle this problem. One answer that they've come up with is making waves: larger leaves in larger bags. Thanks to modern technology, these companies are now able to use higher-quality bags that allow for more water to flow through, bringing more flavor into the cup.
A complete renovation of the Western mindset on tea may seem like a long shot, but remember this: there once was a time when your choices in coffee were all canned, instant and stale. Most folks are no longer drinking instant coffee. As they begin trying loose-leaf teas, they'll push out old, stale teabags in favor of premium-quality full-leaf tea.