Brewing up a storm over a bag that even builders don’t deserve

Accidentally invented by an American a century ago, teabags have never really convinced tea devotees that they’re good for anything other than plant food

I need not tell you, dear reader, of the eager anticipation with which I open my weekly copy of Marketing Week, for it is a pleasure that I am sure you share. And I, like you, start the magazine at the front, for to do so at the back would be to experience, like you, a silent shudder. Last week, however, when my eye fell upon page two I suffered a temporary loss of my fabled equanimity. For there, staring me in the face, was an ad for brand design consultant Springetts.

I ought quickly to add that Springetts is, as far as I know, an estimable company whose skill and adroitness at designing brands acknowledges no peer. I have no quarrel with Springetts. What caused me to recoil and avert my eye was the illustration chosen by the company as an example of its work. It was the packaging for Twinings Everyday – “A refreshing cup of tea for anytime of day”. I concede that for most people that would be an unexceptionable item to behold, a pleasing enough yellowish box bearing a picture of a spout pouring tea into a cup. However, on the bottom left-hand corner was the inscription “80 teabags”, and it was that that aroused my ire.

There are, regrettably, many examples of marketing taking a fine and basic product and, no doubt with the best of intentions, ruining it. Keg bitter is one example; had it not been for the speedy intervention of the Campaign for Real Ale, pasteurised, lifeless and tasteless beer would have driven out the genuine product. The sliced white loaf is another example, only that time the lifeless and tasteless product succeeded in usurping the real thing. But perhaps the best example of all is the teabag.

To me, tea is a beverage of unsurpassed quality, rightly sung as “the cup that cheers but does not inebriate” (though a little inebriation would not come amiss). I shall not go into its long and illustrious history. Suffice it to say that it sustained generations of Britons until it was dealt a terrible blow by the invention of the teabag, a blow that may yet prove fatal as the popularity of tea drinking continues to wane.

The beauty of tea, properly made, is that, unlike coffee, it delivers its promise. I grant you nothing compares with the enticing aroma of freshly-ground roasted coffee beans. But having imparted that unrivalled fragrance, it falls flat. No matter how you might try to convert its smell into a taste – percolate it, filter it, steam it, say prayers over it – it disappoints. But tea should never let you down. And never did, until that black day when the teabag came along.

By a cruel irony, it was invented by accident. In 1908, an American tea importer, Thomas Sullivan, sent out samples of his tea in small silk bags. His customers, being none too bright and, to be frank, American, put the entire bag into the pot, and in doing so stumbled upon the convenient, disposable teabag.

The problem with teabag tea is that it is to real tea what Madonna is to real singing or what Tracey Emin is to real art. The teabag may be good for many things – feeding houseplants, easing aching eyes, soothing burns, removing old furniture polish – but producing an acceptable beverage is not among them. Leaf tea infused in boiled water for three or four minutes is the only way to make a drinkable cup and Twinings, of all people, should know that. As a venerable tea merchant of distinction it should be doing everything in its power to promote real tea, not the execrable substitute that comes in paper bags.

There is only one thing that can be said in favour of the teabag and that it is that it is disposable. However, unlike most such items – the Bic Pen, the Bic Razor, the carrier bag – it is best disposed of before, not after, use.

Should you wish to sample real leaf tea, may I suggest either Yorkshire Tea, produced by Taylors of Harrogate, or Barry’s Tea, blended by a family company based in Cloughmills, County Antrim. Both are strong, full-flavoured teas of the kind favoured by the better kind of builder. For there is within each of us, however repulsive, a divine spark that holds out the promise of redemption, and in the builder, a creature without any claim on human sympathy, it is a preference for good tea.

On another, distant part of the social scale there are those who favour prissy infusions made from hibiscus flowers, camomile and lemongrass, and forest fruits. May their house extensions and attic conversions fall about their ears.

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