According to one oft-repeated legend, tea was discovered in 2737 B.C. by Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who advocated boiling water for health reasons. As the emperor was boiling a pot of water one day, tea leaves drifted on the wind and landed in the water. The ruler tasted it and the rest was history.
The Chinese had likely been tea drinkers long before this incident took place. Regardless of its origins however, for several centuries anyone drinking tea had to steep it the same way as Shen Nung – using loose leaves. Then, around 1904, tea bags made their first known appearance.
A New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan devised tea bags, more or less by accident. Sullivan distributed samples of his tea in small silk bags and, according to some accounts, a restaurateur dunked one of these bags in hot water and tea history was again made.
The United States Patent Office has no record of Thomas Sullivan. In 1921, a man named George H. Peal was awarded a Canadian patent for a non-refillable Tea-Ball “intended to contain just sufficient tea for a single brewing.” Eleven years after that discovery, the first U.S. tea bag patent went to a New Yorker named Simon Cooper.
In the United Kingdom, a veritable bastion of tea consumption, tea bags were slow to catch on. They were introduced in the mid-1930s, but three decades later, less than 10% of tea drinkers there used them. By the end of the millennium that number had soared to 85%. At that time in the United States, 60% of tea was brewed using bags.
These days, tea bags continue to be a quick and convenient method for preparing tea. In recent years, however, as interest in high-end premium and specialty tea had begun to grow, loose leaf tea made something of a comeback.
A relatively recent development in tea technology features the convenience of a tea bag, but allows drinkers to enjoy premium whole-leaf tea. Pyramid tea bags first appeared in Japan in the early 1980s. They are made with room to permit tea leaves to expand while they steep, allowing the full flavor of the tea to come through.