It’s in the bag – An Irishman’s Diary on tea
“For months our cosy trio spent many enjoyable hours simply tasting paper. This was a novel experience for us.” Photograph: iStock
‘Today I’d like to sit and sip/Forget the world a little bit/Ignore the things I have to do/And just enjoy a cup or two.” Words composed by that most prolific and versatile writer, Anon. And so right, as there is nothing quite like a refreshing cup of tea.
If you are of a certain mature age, you will easily remember a time when there was no such thing as a tea bag. We all drank “loose” tea.
The ritual of making tea was written in stone – warm the tea pot, toss in a teaspoon full of tea per person and one for the pot, use fresh water precisely brought to the boil, let the pot sit for six minutes, then pour. Genuine tea addicts preferred to put the milk in first, the rest of us afterward. Research has shown it really makes no difference which way we choose but no habitual tea drinker wants to believe this.
The Irish have always been and continue to be great tea drinkers. In both terms of quantity and quality we are up there with the best of them. Where once we drank mainly Assam tea (Indian), almost all our teas today come from east Africa, Kenya and Rwanda especially.
Despite the national increase in consumption of other beverages, tea still continues to be Ireland’s favourite. Where once we were the world’s leading tea drinkers, we are now in a commendable second place, with Turkey topping the league at 6.96 pounds (3.2kg) per capita, per annum. The Irish weigh in at 4.83 lbs (2.2kg). Or, put another way, we average five cups per day or, if you prefer, 300 litres of tea per year.
And we drink a far higher-quality tea than Turkey and almost every other country worldwide.
Time was when the “loose” tea was packed in half-pound and one-pound paper bags. Your friendly family grocer (remember him?) purchased his preferred tea in chests or half-chests and then weighed out the tea during slack shopping hours.
Then our tea-making methods changed forever with the introduction of the tea bag.
Not surprisingly the first tea bag was made in America and, as is often the case, happened by accident. In 1907 a gentleman with the splendid Irish name of Thomas Sullivan put some tea into small, silk bags and sent them to his friends. This he did for convenience only, but his friends, not knowing any better, put the bag with the tea into the pot.
They loved it and so the tea bag was born.
In the early 1950s the UK and Ireland were still using loose tea only, but Tetley Tea in London had been monitoring the growing demand for tea bags in America and decided this is where the future lay.
A three-man study group of tea tasters (well, two men and a boy – the gopher, in other words, this writer) was set up to research and acquire from the paper mills tea-bag paper that was absolutely tasteless.
As none of the mills had ever previously been asked to manufacture such a product, nor really understood why, the response was decidedly lukewarm and not very encouraging.
We were never certain if the paper mills took us seriously, but some did repeatedly submit samples.
For months our cosy trio spent many enjoyable hours simply tasting paper. This was a novel, if not unique, experience for us. We were constantly surprised at the many different shades of colour the paper emitted. But they all had a foreign taste. We looked upon this research as an excuse for a break from tea tasting, when we would easily taste over 500 cups daily.
Finally, the Tetley hierarchy lost patience with us, and the mills, and imported container loads from the US.
The rest is history. The great hordes of tea drinkers of the UK and Ireland switched over surprisingly quickly to the convenience of the tea bag. And in time the mills duly manufactured a tasteless, perforated paper.
Today about 97 per cent of tea consumed here is made from tea bags.
Genuine tea connoisseurs who still insist on using loose, large-leaf tea (technically FBOP — Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe), religiously allowing it brew for the stipulated six minutes and making a ceremony of the occasion – are all but vanished. We now use tea bags for convenience and cleanliness.
And no, the tea in the tea bag is not the sweepings off the floor.
In fact it’s a top-quality tea ground down to dust to give us all a “thicker liquor quicker”.