How a Chinese Silk Tea Bag Changed the World


Once Upon a Tea Time

Red Silk Tea Bag Filled with Tea Leaves
Red Silk Tea Bag Filled with Tea Leaves

An unknown Chinese Tea Exporter sent a tiny silk bag containing a sample of tea leaves to the New York coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan, in hopes of finding a new market for his tea.  Perhaps Sullivan was unsure of just How To prepare tea and simply tossed the silk tea bag with tea leaf mistakenly into a pot of boiling water to brew. . . Easy Enough!

. . . This could be where the term brewed tea started, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

It may well have been this mistake that gave Sullivan the encouragement to become a coffee AND tea merchant, I am not sure.  But history does show that in 1904 Sullivan began using a patented teabag commercially and I am guessing because he was using boiling water, black teas, were first used in tea bags.

I am sure the Chinese exporter was proud to find a new market for his tea in America and I would guess as he described his new customer’s style of enjoying tea, to his experienced tea drinking friends and colleagues they enjoyed a Really Good Laugh!

Soon thereafter a Chinese visionary invented the tea shredder making placing tea dust into a bag easy! TaDa the Chinese tea market now had not only a way to use tea dust but now the ability to produce even more and sell it! Prior to this it was simply worthless.

So Back to Brewed vs. Steeped Tea Bags

This has long been a question in my mind, why do we so frequently use these words so interchangeably? So I decided to see what my old friend Merriam-Webster had to say! Defines Steeping as:

1: to soak in a liquid at a temperature under the boiling point (as for softening, bleaching, or extracting an essence)

2: to cover with or plunge into a liquid (as in bathing, rinsing, or soaking)

3: to saturate with or subject thoroughly to (some strong or pervading influence) <practices steeped in tradition> intransitive verb: to undergo the process of soaking in a liquid

Steeper noun Examples of STEEP 1.Steep the tea for three minutes. 2. The tea steeped for five minutes. and Defines Brewing like this:

1: to prepare (as beer or ale) by steeping, boiling, and fermentation or by infusion and fermentation

2a: to bring about: foment <brew trouble> b: contrive

3: to prepare (as tea) by infusion in hot water

intransitive verb: to brew beer or ale 2: to be in the process of forming <a storm is brewing>

brewer noun Examples of BREW 1. They brew the beer on the premises. 2. I’ll brew another pot of tea. 3 It feels like there’s a storm brewing.


Well there you go –   We should choose which term based on the type of tea. Using both terms are correct depending on the tea you’re talking about.  For example if you wanted to enjoy a cup of Tibetan Buttered Tea you would brew it because you need to boil it. If you wanted some Indian Chai you would also brew. If on the other hand you choose a more delicate Chinese Dragonwell/Lung Ching you would be steeping using cooler water and a Japanese Sencha steeped cooler yet.

What’s you opinion – Brew, Steep or both?



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