Clever in concept and commonplace, teabag manufacturing is actually a complicated mix of economics, art, and engineering.
Inventor Thomas Sullivan’s basic 1908 design retains its popularity. Modern tea bags are today made of natural fibers, paper, or bioplastic.They can be round, rectangular or double-chambered, tagless, or tetrahedral — but above all else they are convenient and profitable.
Loose leaf sold in bulk still accounts for the greatest quantity of tea sold in the $93 billion global market but in consuming nations like Russia teabags have been the key value driver since 2002.
Gradually domestic consumers in the great tea producing countries of China, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are seeking the convenience of sachets and the hygienic benefits of packaged tea.
Highly developed countries have long since made the switch.
The British were one of the first nations to ascend what Unilever describes as the the tea conversion ladder [See chart, pg. 37]. In the 1960s tea bags made up fewer than 3% of the vast English market. By 1965 use had doubled to 7% and today 96% of British tea drinkers use tea bags.
Many argue that loose leaf makes a tastier cup of tea but steeping broken or full-leaf is messy. Tea bags take up less space, can be purchased virtually anywhere, are discretely carried in pocket or purse and are filled with an amazing variety of teas and tisanes. While pyramid bags is a format currently challenged by single-serve tea in capsules, according to market researchers NPD and Packaged Facts, common tea bags will remain the preferred format for most of the world for generations to come.
The economics of teabags
Farhad Pirouz, managing director and c.e.o. of dph tea bag machine company in Germany, explains that “the greatest value addition in tea is the packaging segment.” During a presentation at the 5th Global Dubai Tea Forum last April Pirouz said that tea bags account for 12% of the volume of world production but “their sales value is much higher.”
Only 2% of India’s tea is sold in tea bags while 96% of the tea sold in France is packaged in tea bags. Germans drink 92% of their tea in tea bags and American 65%. Vendors in these countries add value by cleaning, blending, flavoring, and packaging tea in numerous formats.
In France tea exports averaged $17.33 per kilo in 2010. India’s tea exports averaged $3.31 and China $3.92 per kilo.
Pirouz points out that for producing countries tea bags are inherently efficient as they require only 1.5 grams of tea versus 3 grams of loose leaf and thus deliver higher value per kilo.
In 2012 India’s domestic tea drinkers consumed 931,000 metric tons of tea leaving only 180,000 for export. Packaging 25% of its 2012 production in teabags would have made available 297,000 metric tons for export, earning 30% to 35% more foreign currency, explains Pirouz.
“In order to meet growing demand, where growth in population and a decrease in production is forecast, is it wiser… (a) to invest in increasing production of tea or (b) invest in improving the infrastructure of our value chain?” asks Pirouz.
The first gauze teabags were environmentally superior to anything sold today. Materials were locally grown and produced, easily degraded, and economical. The gauze did not impart any industrial age flavors. There were no metal staples.
It was the preferred tea bag material through the 1920s until the invention of the crush, tear, curl (CTC) process which pulverized the tea leaves. Some manufacturers prefer gauze to this day. Kusmi’s Luv tea brand in France and Bocchia Caffe Tea in Italy sell gauze tea bags filled with broken leave tea and until recently, King Cole Tea in Canada.
Two years ago a group of enterprising students in Iona, Nova Scotia launched TEAWorks, a line of 5- and 10-count gauze tea bags to replace King Cole.
“The gauze bags make a better tasting cup of tea because it steeps properly,” president Lauren MacDonald, 17, told local newspaper reporters after winning the Junior Achievement competition for broken leaf teas. The hand-sewn bags found a market.
Today’s tea bags are at most 70% to 80% biodegradable. Paper is preferred to cloth with the majority of filter paper made of vegetable and wood fibers sealed with polypropylene that will not readily break down in backyard composting. A fine plastic mesh is sometimes woven into the bagging material to improve permeability and help bags retain their shape. Pyramid bags are made of nylon or plastic bio-resins. Many require industrial composting.
Abacá (Manila hemp) is the natural, sustainable filter material of choice. The strong silky threads are obtained from the leaf stems of this relative of the banana plant to produce abacá pulp for use in specialized long fiber products for the food and beverage industry. Abacá is commercially grown in the Philippines, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Abacá is a sustainable crop with a neutral impact on the environment and also provides meaningful incomes to many families in these developing countries.
The world’s largest user of abacá pulp in food and beverage applications is Glatfelter CFBU. Kai Wulff, general sales manager F&B sector explained that “Glatfelter uses abacá in combination with a range of other natural fibers and specially selected manmade fibers.” The company offers a comprehensive range of standard papers that successfully operate on all specialist conversion machines used in the tea and beverage sector. He added that these special blends provide clients with the desired properties of high wet strength, excellent crimping and heatsealability combined with superior particle retention and infusion properties.
Glatfelter was the first to offer a fully sustainable range of papers under the DYNAGREEN® brand which offer heat sealable characteristics using PLA (Polylactic acid) which is a renewable natural polymer that has a fully sustainable profile and performs successfully across a range of converting equipment, said Wulff.
Retail branding and promotion go hand in hand. In response to customer demand for product and brand differentiation, Glatfelter developed a range of techniques that allow personalization. These range from simple designs using PERFOTEC® to highly sophisticated and complex designs using NELTEC® and WoW PRINTEC® (white on white) technologies, he said.
Glatfelter is the supplier of choice for filter paper in the beverage industry, said Wulff. “Abacá supports our core values of environmental and social responsibility in filter papers,” he said.
The global popularity of pour-over filter coffee presents new demands for filter paper makers. Watching baristas pour water over grinds piled high in a #4 crepe filter may look simple but the whole point is to bring out very subtle aromas and flavors.
“A coffee filter is more than just something to keep grounds out of your drink, it is an important part of the brewing process,” according to Nick Cho at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in Redwood City, Calif.
Paper filaments are typically 20 µm wide allowing particles of 10 to 15 µm to pass. Efficiency describes this retention. Capacity describes the ability to hold coffee grounds while allowing good flow. The ideal filter will permit the free passage of favorful solids and deliver an evenly extracted cup without absorbing essential oils and aromatics.
“We are the supplier of choice because our excellent filtration properties are combined with absolute taste neutrality,” said Kai Wulff, general sales manager food & beverage at Glatfelter’s composite fibers business unit.
The German-based firm is a leader in the manufacture of coffee filter paper developed for single-serve manfuacturers. Glatfelter has developed proprietary composite materials that withstand the high pressures of coffee and espresso makers.
Glatfelter’s papers are extremely versatile, said Wulff. Numerous research and development projects are underway.
Well designed filters are crimped for minimum contact between the brewing space and the dripper sidewalls. The ideal filter essentially floats in the dripper and doesn’t touch the bottom to promote optimum flow.