Origins of the Tea Bag

Now, as it is probably well known but certainly well documented on this blog, I am a whole-hearted advocate of brewing only loose-leaf teas. I find this method gives better flavor, is better for the environment, and is more traditional. But tea bags are an unfortunate reality of many tea services, which then begs the question: how did they get here?

Funny story.

Old fashioned tea scales. Photo credit

Old fashioned tea scales. Photo credit

Like sticky-notes, slinkies, chewing gum, and paper clips, tea bags were an accidental invention. Thomas Sullivan was a tea importer in 1908. He packaged up the loose leaf tea he was selling in silk bags simply because it was convenient, and then his customers steeped the whole thing including the bag because they didn’t know any better. After a while, some customers started complaining that their tea was NOT in the silk bags (we loose leaf fans can blame them) and Sullivan began to ship all of his tea in bags from then on.

Silk is expensive, so Sullivan switched to gauze sacks instead of silk. And now we have tea bags instead of only loose leaf teas.

Okay, so maybe the story wasn’t that funny, but it was informative!

abaut_tea_Tea_bagsAn important thing to look for when you are buying tea bags (traitors) is for unbleached bags. Any tea bag that is white has been processed with bleach, and when you brew that bag some of the bleach will end up in your tea. That is no good. Stick with unbleached tea bags IF you are going with that method. It’s healthier for your body and you’ll have a more pure flavor of the tea.

Happy brewing this weekend!

The Levels of Tea Service

Afternoon tea has become the catch-all term for any type of tea service. Linguists will say that technically afternoon tea is just any cup of tea you drink after 12:00 pm, but where’s the fun in that stuffy answer?

When you visit a tearoom, there are usually three “levels” of tea service available. The tea drink itself is always a feature; the levels refer to the nibbles served alongside your hot beverage. You can order a cream tea, an afternoon tea, or a high tea. Each one has a different amount and style of sweets or savories, and for authenticity, make sure you know what to expect when you order which one of the three.

Cream Tea

This is considered the lowest tier (no pun intended) of tea service, consisting only of scones, cream, and jam or other spreads…hence the name “cream tea”.  It’s the perfect little repast from the hustle and bustle of the work day. A cream tea is substantial enough to curb your midday hunger, but not so filling that you’ll spoil your dinner.

Cream tea service at Blenheim Palace, Oxford, England

Cream tea service at Blenheim Palace, Oxford, England

One of my favorite things to do while I lived in England was to visit a tearoom in every city, town, or village I visited and partake in a cream tea.

Afternoon Tea

Ah, the umbrella term Americans use to describe all three levels of tea service. Afternoon tea–the true, traditional afternoon tea service–consists of finger sandwiches or light savories, scones and cream/jam/curd/etc, and small treats or cakes. This is the service that most American tearooms and hotels offer to guests. Because there is just a higher quantity of food and there is the finger sandwich course, afternoon tea can replace a full meal (I usually schedule mine as a late lunch) or tide you over until a really late dinner.

Afternoon tea at the Cavendish London Hotel

Afternoon tea at the Cavendish London Hotel

A typical variation of afternoon tea is the celebration or champagne tea. It’s exactly what it sounds like: afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne in addition to your tea beverage. A great excuse to drink before 5:00 pm!

High Tea

High tea is definitely a full meal. Traditionally served at the end of a working class day, high tea has more substantial food such as meat pies, vegetables, quiche, and heavy baked goods possible in addition to the scone and dessert courses. But nowadays high tea is more of a multi-course afternoon tea with the addition of heavier foods rather than the family meal it used to be. What used to be exclusive to the working class of Britain has been taken over and changed into a more elite social gathering. High tea was not meant to be a dainty, china plated affair; it was the meal served to replenish after a long hard day of manual labor.

High tea service

High tea service

So whatever your level of hunger, sophistication, or craving for sweets, there is a tea meal service for you. Just make sure you order the right service for your appetite’s size!

The Tea Dance: Much Better than Prom

What could possibly make the delicious tradition of afternoon tea even better? How about adding music and a dance floor as a side to your scones?

A tea dance is a late-afternoon or early-evening dance (around the same time as afternoon tea! What a coincidence!) that accompanied the afternoon tea meal. Tables would surround the dance floor and musicians and guests would be served the typical sandwiches, scones, desserts, and tea while having the option to waltz, tango, and foxtrot away the clotted cream they just consumed.


A tea dance revived in Hampshire, England

A tea dance revived in Hampshire, England

The first references were in Victorian era etiquette books, but tea dances were then limited to country suburbs, garrison towns, and getaways. Their intention was to offer a well-chaperoned event for eligible young bachelors to meet eligible young ladies. Starting in 1912, the upscale English hotels and restaurants started offering these tea dances and by the 1920s had spread to all the fashionable cities and their restaurants, hotels, and theaters. The Charleston also joined the waltz and tango.

ELT200711220643502953852Tea dances were mostly popular in France, French colonies like Morocco and Buenos Aires, London, and the British resort towns.

Hmmm, maybe this summer I’ll bring the tea dance back to popularity and host a tea dance of my own? Guess I better start teaching all my friends the Charleston!

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