Loose Leaf tea isn’t something new. What is new, relatively, is the industrial bag. Loose leaves have been drunk around the world for millennia and for many centuries here in the UK. Indeed, we got pretty obsessed by tea, here in Britain, and traversed the globe and paid king’s ransoms to get our hands on the best stuff.
Here is a bill from the Isle of Bute (in Scotland) from June 1712 that shows 3lb in weight of black tea from China was sold to a grand lady for £4 and 10 shillings.
Tea bags were invented in the USA around 1901. In the UK we stuck to our lovely leaves until the 1970’s (in 1968 only 3% of people in the UK used teabags). And then came the moon landings in 1969 and a huge desire to be modern and a dive into the future like space men, man. People started eating freeze dried potatoes; and slices of cheese wrapped in plastic that never ever went bad; and drinking instant coffee and teabags. Ah, the future!
Thank heavens we don’t really have to eat like astronauts, squeezing goop from tubes. Thank heaven for real fruit and vegetables fresh from farms. How wonderful that we can fill our cafetieres and pour-overs and AeroPresses with coffee ground from freshly roasted beans. Oh the joy of a cheese crafted by a cheese maker and the pure delight of a fresh loaf of sourdough. And yes, for real tea.
Somehow we have mostly jettisoned the rest of that stuff as a bad lot, but kept the teabags. We have hung onto tea harvested by machine instead of plucked by hand as though it was somehow a bit too posh. (I’ll come back to posh tea in a bit.) We have been filling our mugs with tea cut and torn by vast industrial machine (the teabag machine process is actually called CTC for Cut, Tear, Curl).
Good leaf tea is made in small batches, carefully, lovingly, by skilled men and women. It’s not torn and cut but pressed and rolled and roasted. And why stuff your tea in a single use bag – an unsustainable use of trees or corn or plastic (even the biodegradable “silken” plastic bags are made from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.) Think of the wasted resources and how many forests are destroyed each day from Britain’s insatiable appetite for bags. And “silken” or paper bags don’t happen by magic - there are solvents and bleaches and glues and nanoplastics involved in their manufacture. They seep into the soil, into the rivers, and into our cups and into our bodies. Loose leaf tea isn’t any more complicated than a cafetiere, and a teapot can last for generations of pleasure.
Lets go back to the future - a sustainable future.