Tea Bags: Consumer Marketing and Product Innovation

Lynne Kiesling

A follow-up to my recent musings on the health benefits of tea, one of my favorite beverages and daily rituals: innovation is occurring in the bagged tea market. This NYT article on new tea bag designs is very interesting, whether you are a tea drinker or not.

Most people are familiar with the flat, square bag typically used for tea, which is occasionally designed with a pleat in it to give the leaves more room to unfurl as they steep. The best flavor from tea comes from leaves that have not been broken down into very small pieces after fermentation and drying. But that’s usually what you get in commercially-packed tea bags:

Look closely at a conventional tea bag in your cupboard or in the paper cup from the local deli. Chances are that instead of leaves it is filled with indistinguishable bits, the detritus left after tea leaves are sifted and graded. The tea industry calls it dust, and the beverage it makes is likely to be rusty-looking and often bitterly tannic. But it no longer has to be, nor is it necessary to brew a whole pot of tea to achieve something better tasting.

One of the best bag innovations of the past few years is a pyramidal nylon mesh bag, which allows the long leaves of tea to unfurl. The pyramid shape creates a three-dimensional space more conducive to getting the best flavor out of long-leaf tea without grinding up the leaves, which can make tea bitter.

Perhaps the surest sign that the tea world is changing is this: Lipton, the world’s largest tea company and a division of Unilever, will start selling tea bags containing long leaf teas in supermarkets nationwide next month.

Instead of paper, the leaves will be enveloped by nylon mesh bags in a delicate pyramid shape.

Lipton is following the lead of American businesses like Harney & Sons, Mighty Leaf, Adagio and the Highland Tea Company, which for several years have sold tea bags filled with high-quality full-leaf teas, ones with complex, often floral, herbaceous, spicy or fruity nuances.

Smelling a trend, new companies, like Revolution Tea, Numi Tea, Two Leaves and a Bud, and Tea Forté, have formed expressly to sell fine teas in tea bags. Harrisons & Crosfield, from England, and the luxury Parisian tea purveyors Le Palais des Thés and Mariage Frères have also introduced tea bags.

Later on in the article a Lipton spokesperson says that people find brewing loose tea “intimidating”. I don’t think that’s really true; I think the problems are portability and convenience. When I’m at home I can make a single cup with loose tea in a ball, bag, or “tea sock”, but if I’m traveling, or at a conference or meeting at a hotel, they are going to want to provide the tea in bags, or I will carry my own tea with me in bags (yes, I do that, really).

I’m also glad that the article refers to the history of the tea industry, and how Lipton (and to a very large extent Twinings) profited by making tea affordable and accessible to more people. It also remarks on the change in the tastes and demographics of the tea market in the US, as more people become familiar with Japanese tea rituals. Very interesting.

3 thoughts on “Tea Bags: Consumer Marketing and Product Innovation

  1. One of the things I learnt from my Vietnamese relatives-by-marriage is that no ball, bag, or sock is necessary. You just place the loose (young delicately-flavored) tea leaves into the cup with the hot water. That’s it. You do end up with leaves at the bottom of your cup–good for fortunetelling.

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