The evolution of the tea strainer

Tea is a beverage with ancient roots, allegedly consumed in China since 2700 BC. AD, according to British. However, it seems that for much of its long history tea was not enjoyed for pleasure, and it was not even made in the same way as it is today. Until the 3rd century CE, tea was reserved for medicinal purposes and it was made from fresh leaves. These were derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis (teas made from other herbs are technically called “herbal teasBy AD 350, however, written records began detailing the cultivation and processing of tea, and it became a daily drink for many.

If you’re consuming something for strictly medicinal purposes, the pleasure probably isn’t the first thing you think of, but once people started drinking tea daily, you can’t help but wonder how much small loose tea leaves were being gobbled up and stuck between people’s teeth. Interestingly, this may not have been a problem in ancient China, because TheMuse reveals that the tea leaves harvested there were larger than you’re likely familiar with, and grew so well in hot water that they wouldn’t slip out of the teapot into individual cups. But when the British started producing tea on plantations in India, they found smaller and more fragile leaves, which necessitated some type of filtering device.

Tea strainers were popularized in Victorian England

There is evidence of tea strainers dating back to ancient China, with the earliest designs probably made from bamboo. However, TheMuse cites Tang dynasty literature describing such strainers and mentioning that their primary purpose was to keep insects out of drinking water. It was UK consumer demand that really brought tea strainers into the fold. The Victorian era saw the start of filter baskets that you could place over your cup while filling it from a teapot, a method still widely used today. Another early solution to the problem was the mote spoon, a slotted spoon for fishing loose tea leaves with a long handle used to unclog the spouts of teapots.

The 1800s brought tea strainers made from more luxurious materials and aimed at the upper classes. AC Silver notes that companies such as Gorham Manufacturing and even Tiffany & Co. have started making sterling silver tea strainers. Only the wealthy could afford such tools, so other manufacturers started making stainless steel colanders to meet the demand of other budget slicers. But the next century would bring a revolutionary invention so influential that it relegated tea strainers to novelty status.

The tea bag changed everything

Tea strainers fell into disuse when the world discovered the tea bag. According Time magazine, the conventional history of the tea bag says that in 1908, an American importer named Thomas Sullivan shipped samples of his tea in silk bags, and his customers didn’t realize they were supposed to remove the tea leaves from the bags before boiling them. In the end, steeping the tea in the bag worked well and Sullivan got an accidental hit on his hands. However, Time points out that seven years before Sullivan’s mistake, two Milwaukee women, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren, had filed a patent for a tea bag they called the “tea wallet.”

Tea strainers can’t compete with the convenience of tea bags, so they’ve become much less common over the last century. However, TheMuse note that the typical flat tea bags we use can squeeze the leaves too tightly and not allow enough room for them to expand and maintain water circulation during the brewing process. Pyramid shaped tea bags provide extra space for the leaves and water to mix, providing a good solution to the problem, but for high quality loose leaf teas you still want a good strainer handy. Of course, it doesn’t have to be sterling silver, but if that’s your flex… well, you do.