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Tea Materials

By Randy Altman

The world of brewing tea has certainly come along way. With the proliferation of gadgets, papers, sachets, t-sacs, infusers, to name a few, tea will surely demonstrate how this specialty focus is making its way to the mainstream.

Tea needs help in the brewing process, since very few people simply put the loose leaf in the bottom of the cup or teapot. Some experts do this, but it tends to cause over-brewing as the tea continually sits in the water. The world of brewing tea has changed over the last several years, with the proliferation of infusers galore. Increasingly common are open-mouthed paper filters where the consumer has the fun of putting in whatever amount of tea he or she chooses. This is good for the tea trade because the imbiber has a more intensive interaction with the beverage, solidifying the bonding with the product.

These infuser pockets are not to be confused with the parallel trend of pyramid tea bags, often called sachets. Pyramid bags are pre-filled with a larger leaf than regular tea bags, but the key is that they are in fact a teabag; ready to use. The paper infusers are more than just fun, as Serendipitea reports they are popular for “to go” orders because the long sleeve stays put as the tea brews. Serendipitea also reports the infusers are trendy for iced tea, which is one reason the new devices are selling well. Approximately 80% of the tea drunk in the U.S. is consumed as iced tea.

Still, making your own brew is associated with the realm of specialty tea. The specialty tea shops, whether catalogue, internet, or bricks-and-mortar, are the main vehicles for selling the infusers. Other methods for the imbiber to handle the loose tea are also trending upward. The Republic of Tea reports that as sales of loose continue to grow, their People’s Brew Basket moves more products in tandem. This item is not paper, it is a polymesh nylon that can be continually reused and fits over a mug. I use this Brew Basket everyday because it allows for the most amount of tea with the best visual availability and aroma. Republic of Tea also sells a stainless steel brew basket for the same price as the nylon one.

Serendipitea sells the Telia paper tea infuser. Telia is a registered trademark of the Dansk Tefilter company located in Denmark. I appreciate the directions, which state, “store the tea filters in a dry place, away from items with strong odors.” Such directions are relatively rare and educate the public about tea. In prominent letters, the box reads “Loose Tea Filters” and the large size is 9.1 inches (232 mm) long, of sufficient size for large tea pots. Dansk Tefilters also states in big letters “Unbleached” on both front and back and this seems to be a positive selling point. The goal of such infusers is succinctly stated on the front, “Make great tea conveniently.” Telia has a simple construction, without an expanding fold at the bottom, and the price point for the product is a bit less than the more complex paper infusers.

Mention should be made of the pyramid bags, even though they are pre-packed. There is competition in even this narrow category. Revolution Tea claims to be the first to come out with a 100% biodegradable pyramid tea bag. This was in March 2005. The substance used to manufacture the bag is a corn starch derivative, more technically polylactic acid yarn. Revolution reports sales of pyramids up this year, and has 4 Fuso machines churning out the pyramids. Revolution says demand for the pyramid is so great they are considering converting a majority of their bags to this type.

This article excludes a vast array of infusers that do good work, such as metal-mesh tea balls of wide width, and specialized tea pots with infusers built into the centers. These count as “tea material” but the trend toward paper infusers is so great that the spotlight must be shined on them. Another paper infuser is the t-sac tea filter, described as the “ultimate loose tea brewer.” The corporate name is t-sac GmbH based in Hannover, Germany and the t-sac is a Registered Trademark. The company has been

developing filter systems since 1982. The entire company focuses on filter development and they have patented their design. The t-sac infuser is the exact product often sold by specialty tea companies in the U.S. and around the world. The design of the infuser is close to perfection. It is made of wood cellulose and cellulose from Manilla fiber. The source of the fiber is the Philippines and Ecuador, which yield “extremely high strength of paper.”

Amazingly, one square meter weighs only 16 grams, which is considerably lighter than coffee filter paper. When the paper arrives, quality control methods kicks in, and the paper is examined by a computer. The t-sac meets the strict German food laws. And the product is good for retailers. The company states, “t-sac products make the retail shelf more appealing as they complement the tea offering.” The item is naturally brown because it is unbleached. Since the 1980’s there has been a concern over the chlorine used in bleach to turn paper white. Most infusers are unbleached.

T-sac makes filters in sizes from one mug serving to large pot. Many specialty tea companies sell 2, 3, or 4 sizes. The simple filter hugs the side of a mug or pot, no holder is necessary. The company states, “a bottom fold, which opens automatically provides enough volume for the tea to properly infuse …with patented opening for easy filling and ability to stand up in your cup or pot.” T-sac summarizes its corporate goal, “modern methods of preparing tea are in great demand.”

T-sac is really a dominant figure in the tea brewing field. Even the Republic of Tea, which tends to stick with its own methods, sells t-sac on its web site. The English Tea Store, which exists only on-line as a web site, sells four sizes of t-sac. They state as a selling point that the infusers are chlorine-free and unbleached. The president of English Tea Store is Lisa Hickey. Their toll-free number, 877-734-2458, has a sophisticated component that I wish more company phone numbers would adopt. The English Tea Store number tells you what “position” you are in among those waiting in the “queue.” When I called, the computerized answering system said, “you are in queue position one” and this is good customer relations. Kevin Hickey, vice president and co-owner, reports sales of t-sacs as “steady” but says the best seller is the Mesh Wonder Ball 2 inch infuser and sales of the mesh ball about double packs of the t-sacs.

Coffee shops that also sell tea are increasingly venues for infuser bags. These outlets obviously introduce the infuser to entirely new category of imbibers. I have spoken to young professionals, in their ‘20s, a prime consumer demographic, who have had their first experience with an infuser in their regular coffee shop when they ordered tea instead of coffee. In coffee shops, the process usually involves the store clerk, not the client, putting the tea in the infuser. Thus, the customer receives the cup with the infuser already in it. There is no specific fee for the infuser, just one price for the cup of tea.

Paper infusers are relatively low cost. One company with a focus on accessories is Tao of Tea, founded in 1997 and now with 35 employees. The enterprise, located in Oregon, is owned by Veerinder Chawla and is oriented to wholesale operations. They sell the paper infusers in boxes of 100 at a wholesale price of $6.50 for the small size and $7.50 for the large size, which generally go to cafes and restaurants. An interesting non-paper strainer sold by Tao of Tea is the bamboo infuser. I asked how one would keep this clean, and was told “tea is a natural antiseptic” and not to worry about the bamboo. I also was told it lasts a long time.

Tao of Tea has a tea shop for imbibers to relax in. The website is unusual in that it has a membership service available only to paying customers who are given a password.

Tao of Tea reports that paper infusers are growing in use as more consumers discover the superiority of loose tea. As a wholesale-oriented operation, these imbibers would tend to be in cafes and restaurants. As a further sign of this wholesale approach, the infuser is listed under “food service equipment.”

Note must be made of a tea infuser at the other end of the price range, far above the average. Gypsy Tea states, “Support Fair Trade in Nepal with a purchase of a beautiful, custom designed sterling silver tea strainer. Taste the honor of Fair Trade through every steep.” This silver strainer, shaped like a spoon, can be yours for $145. The demographic is very upscale, even wealthy. Silver does make a wonderful gift, and I have twice been given silver, including one rather heavy, as awards in India for my tea work. The slogan for Gypsy tea is “a tea for all your senses” and the sterling spoon strainer does appeal to the eye.

The paper filters have a parallel in the “cotton tea sock” in that both can be filled by the consumer. The main difference is that the tea sock is reusable. Ted Jones, owner of Tea Trader in Calgary, Canada reports that, “they last for a reasonable time.” He also states they require washing in hot running water. Tea socks have a neck with a loop to assist handling. Tea Trade stocks two sizes. The manufacturer is Das Teenetz of Germany, which produces five sizes. They are unbleached, chlorine-free cotton. The cotton socks come with a holder that is a round plastic ring with a handle with small sharp points for attaching to the sock. The sock is then lowered into the hot tea, with the handle above the hot water.

SpecialTeas of Connecticut uses the Finum paper infuser. The Finum goes by the name “true-flavor filter” and comes in several sizes. A new item is the Finum “tea stick” that holds up the infuser even in extra short cups. Another new product is the slim tea filter for small teapots and mugs. Finum is made by the Riensch & Held GmbH company of Hamburg, Germany, founded in 1845. The company’s trade icon is a turtle and they

have attained ISO 9001:2000. The company focus is “household filters.” The boxes of filters have in red background “aromatreu” and the simple phrase, “easy-fill flap and expanding base.” In large letters is the appeal to the imbibers, presumably usually women, “make your own teabags.” The approach is for super-premium tea, as the label states, “for finest loose tea.” Finum has won design awards, and Germany seems the center for paper infuser development. The true-flavor filters are made of abaca pulp, cellulose and sealing fibre. Abaca is a Philippine plant, “musa textilis” used in making a wide range of products, including rope and fabrics.

The Finum has an extra flap of paper at the bottom for its “expanding base” to hold the tea. These are really ingenious devices, yet simple and appealing to use. While most other filters state “unbleached” and even the large-size Finum states this, interestingly the extra large states “bleached with oxygen.” Thus, the extra large Finum has the distinction of being white instead of the brown of so many of the others. The extra-large are big enough for food service use. The Finum boxes are trilingual for the most part. One small insignia is only in German, which I translate as “the green spot” and apparently refers to the environmental friendliness of the product.

Harney & Sons, one of the largest specialty tea companies, also uses Finum. Their 100-count package is different from Specialties, even though both packages are direct from finum. Harney & Sons has the added labelling, “no holder needed” and this indeed is a benefit of these paper infusers; they hug the side of the mug or tea pot. Full-size loose leaf can fit readily into these infusers, but the educated imbiber should not discount higher-quality smaller leaf. The newly trendy South India region has many fine teas in the smaller leaf sizes, for example. The paper infusers are a welcome marriage of convenience with premium and super-premium tea.

An advantage over metal infusers is nothing to clean. For shops selling tea “to go” the paper infusers can’t be beat. The infusers are sold by specialty companies as an item on which a profit can be made. However the major role of these products are for the fun and convenience of the imbiber, including those with the full range of knowledge about tea. The infuser can help bring the consumer in tactile, aromatic and visual contact with the tea. The general consensus is that paper infusers are a growing trend. It is nice to see something so simple be a good harbinger for the trade.

Tea & Coffee - July, 2007

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