Dunking a tea bag in and out of a mug of steaming water is one of those behaviors that many people do, despite never specifically being told to. Maybe we unknowingly picked it up by watching others around us do it, or maybe we saw it on a cult-favorite British television show and decided that was the proper way of doing things, but we certainly didn’t get the idea from the instructions on the back of a box of tea bags. Almost always, the instructions say something like, “Steep for 3 – 5 minutes.” That just means let the bag sit in hot water, no dunking required. So I wanted to find out: Is dunking a tea bag actually a technique, or is it just a ritualistic habit?
In my quest to understand why we dunk tea bags, I had to first understand what a tea bag really is and how it works. Tea snobs insist that the hot beverage made from a tea bag is of a lower quality than the one made from loose leaf tea. It made me wonder if that was actually true, and if so, whether the bag had anything to do with it. Does a tea bag get in the way somehow and retard flavor?
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It turns out that tea snobs are sort of full of it. It’s not about the bag, but what’s inside. To make loose leaf tea, whole tea leaves are harvested from the small C. sinensis shrub and then treated differently depending on whether they’re destined for black or green tea, along with some other preparations like oolong—any other type of “tea,” like chamomile or mint is usually distinguished as “herbal tea,” because it comes from a plant other than C. sinensis. To make black tea, the leaves are withered and then fermented, while green tea comes from steaming freshly picked leaves and avoiding fermentation altogether. If you’ve ever had black or green tea, you’ll know that they impart very different flavors despite coming from the same plant, and it’s down to the preparation. But in the process of preparing the leaves in these different ways, some crumble, shatter, or begin to disintegrate, creating what is professionally known as “fannings,” but is basically just tea dust.
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This dust becomes the stuff of tea bags because the dust is often so fine it would slip right through the holes in the type of tea infuser used with loose leaf tea. It also ends up creating a darker, stronger tea generally than loose leaf, which might be what people are reacting to when they say there’s a difference. But when a tea is graded, that just tells you how intact the leaves are, not how good the drink on the other end will be.
The tea bag itself as we know it today was sort of an accident. As far back as the 8th century, Chinese tea was preserved by sewing it into small paper satchels to maintain flavor and aroma over time. It would’ve been removed from the bag before drinking. In 1904, a tea merchant in Boston recreated a modern version of this same practice by sewing loose leaf tea into small silk bags to preserve his wares during shipping. As in Tang Dynasty-era China, this Bostonian’s tea was also meant to be removed from the bag and steeped using an infuser, but instead consumers realized that the perfectly-portioned bags themselves made for handy infusers and could be conveniently steeped directly in hot water, leaving behind no leaves or dust. The fad caught on, and 90 years later, in 1994, the Tea Association of the USA reported that 60 percent of American tea was being prepared in bags; only one percent came from loose leaf tea (iced tea—which debuted the same year as the first Western teabags—and instant tea powder account for the remaining percentage points).
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The kicker is that none of this affects flavor—that all still comes down to how the plant is grown and harvested, and the size of the leaves you submerge in water. It’s not about the bag itself, or whatever you choose to do with it once it hits hot water. Over a hundred years into the modern tea bag, and dunking it continues to do nothing other than help you bide your time. It manufactures the illusion that time is moving more quickly and that perhaps your tea is steeping more quickly too, but it’s not.
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Other than the relativity of time, another reason you might think that moving a teabag around swiftly helps speed up the steeping process is really down to how different molecules move. Among the many molecules that make their way out of a teabag and into hot water are pigments, which have a tendency to diffuse into the hot water more evenly and quickly if you swirl or dunk a tea bag. Unfortunately, this is not a visual corollary for the movement of flavor. You can have a weak, dark tea. When it comes to imparting flavor from a teabag, that just takes time, dunk or not.
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