By Enyeribe Ejiogu
In Nigeria’s colonial era and the period after Independence, for most lovers of tea in the country, their favourite beverage was supplied as loose tea, which was deep chocolate brown and oozed a fantastic aroma that stirred the senses, just from inhaling it. You can then imagine how satisfying the liquid brewed from it caressed the tongue and the palate at it slid down the gullet, to make an exciting splash in the stomach.
Back then the most popular brand of loose tea, which is essentially dried and chopped whole leaf tea, was Lipton tea packaged in a yellow-painted square tin can with a round lid.
The empty Lipton tea can was treasured by the less privileged women, who used it to preserve the few jewelry they had, which they wrapped with cotton cloth and stuffed into the can. Some children used the empty can as their piggy bank for saving coins they got as gifts.
Tea cans remained available until 1982, when the Shehu Shagari administration pushed the then National Assembly to enact the Economic Stabilisation Act 1982, which imposed austerity measures as foreign reserve nosedived in the face of fallen crude oil sales.
From then on, loose tea in tin can vanished from the major markets as foreign exchange was no longer easy to source under the strict import licence regime introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria. About this time too, packaging of tea in a specially designed single paper fibre bag was gaining ground in the major tea processing and exporting countries.
With the new opportunity created in the Nigerian market because of foreign exchange scarcity and the much higher price of tea in tins, packets of teabags made entry into the Nigerian market. And became established!
Why is loose tea better than tea bags?
For connoisseurs, tea is not tea if it is not in loose form – that is “naked” chopped tea leaf. The reason is that the leaves used in most teabags are actually the “dust and fannings” from broken tea leaves. This is a huge compromise in quality from full leaf tea. Finely broken tea leaves have lost most of their essential oils and aroma. When steeped, they release more tannins than whole leaf tea, resulting in bitter astringent brews.
Though price depends on the brand, boxed tea is also typically cheaper than loose leaf and is easily acquired; most grocery stores carry dozens of varieties. However, there is a tradeoff: a cup of tea made from a bag versus a loose leaf blend will not have nearly the same flavour factor.
That is the primary reason tea connoisseurs maintain that tea bag is “fake” tea while loose tea is the real McCoy. Until he died in 2012, Obilobi Felix Ejiogu, who retired from the Federal Civil service in 1986, always relived the days when loose tea was only available in the iconic yellow Lipton tins.
To make tea with loose tea, spoon the tea leaves into a pot, pour in hot water, and let it draw, that is allow the hot water to extract the tea ‘goodness’ from the leaves. When the tea is ready, pour it into your tea cup through a mesh kitchen strainer or slotted spoon to keep tea leaves out. This method also works if you don’t have a teapot; just use two mugs instead.
How do you make tea with tea bags?
Very simple: Pour water into an electric kettle of electric jug. Bring the water to a roiling boil. Put a tea bag in your favourite mug and immediately pour the boiling water over the tea bag. After a short while, remove the bag, relax and enjoy the brew. But if you are like this writer, you leave the tea bag in the cup as you gradually sip the brew to the last drop, Then with a spoon squeeze out the very last drop
History of tea bags
Tea bag was an accidental American invention, credited to Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant who in 1908 started sending samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags. Some assumed that these were supposed to be used in the same way as the metal infusers, by putting the entire bag into the pot, rather than emptying out the contents. It was thus by accident that the tea bag was born!
Responding to the comments from his customers that the mesh on the silk was too fine, Sullivan developed sachets made of gauze – the first purpose-made tea bags. During the 1920s these were developed for commercial production, and the bags grew in popularity in the United States. Made first of all from gauze and later from paper, they came in two sizes, a larger bag for the pot, a smaller one for the cup. The features that we still recognise today were already in place – a string that hung over the side so the bag could be removed easily, with a decorated tag on the end.
The purpose of the tea bag is rooted in the belief that for tea to taste its best, the leaves ought to removed from the hot water at the end of a specific brewing period. Then there is the added benefit of convenience – a removable device means that tea can be made as easily in a mug as in a pot, without the need for a tea strainer, and that teapots can be kept clean more easily. But the earliest examples of removable infusing devices for holding tea were not bags. Popular infusers included tea eggs and tea balls – perforated metal containers, which were filled with loose leaves and immersed in boiling water, and then removed using an attached chain.
While the American population took to tea bags with enthusiasm, the British were naturally wary of such a radical change in their tea-making methods. This was not helped by horror stories told by Britons who had visited the USA, who reported being served cups of tepid water with a tea bag on the side waiting to be dunked into it (an experience which is still not as uncommon in the USA as it should be!).
Teabag and loose leaf tea
The material shortages of World War Two also stalled the mass adoption of tea bags in Britain, and it was not until the 1950s that they really took off.
The 1950s were a time when all manner of household gadgets were being promoted as eliminating tedious household chores, and in keeping with this tea bags gained popularity on the grounds that they removed the need to empty out the used tea leaves from the tea pot.
The convenience factor was more important to the British tea-drinker than the desire to control the length of infusion time, hence the appearance of tea bags that did not have strings attached.
It was Tetley in 1953 that drove the introduction of tea bags in Britain, but other companies soon caught up. In the early 1960s, tea bags made up less than 3 per cent of the British market, but this has been growing steadily ever since. By 2007 tea bags made up a phenomenal 96 per cent of the British market, and there can hardly be a home or workplace in Britain that does not have a stash of the humble, but vital, tea bag.