Why do tea bags come in twos?

Tea bags1Detailed explanation for this now received from a Director of Yorkshire Tea. See the comments below and my continuing questioning.

Over recent weeks and months many a weighty topic has been considered on this blog. Empty homes, unscrupulous private landlords, our precious public libraries and the weak-kneed ‘austerity’ politicians of Westminster have all come under my unflinching, sceptical and occasionally amused gaze. So today I thought I’d deal with another issue that’s been bothering me for some time. Yes, why do tea bags come in twos?

I raised this question via email with a few friends last night, and caused a fair amount of both comment and abuse. So naturally it seemed wise to give the question a wider airing on here.

First, the statistical evidence. Now I’m well aware that not ALL tea bags come in twos. But let’s just wander out to the kitchen here and see what tea bags are currently living there.

Stepping forward proudly and claiming to be from Yorkshire.

A perforated pair of tea bags.
A perforated pair of tea bags.

And actually a blend of Assam, Kenyan and Rwandan tea leaves.

A breakfast selection?

Two together.
Two together.

Rich and malty for later in the day?

Yet again.
Yet again.

Not even a ‘proper’ tea in many eyes?

Still comes in twos though.
Still comes in twos though.

So there’s your proof. But why do they come in twos?

Is it because that’s how many tea bags you’d put in the average pot? Certainly when I made Sarah here the pot of tea featured at the top of this post I did indeed put two bags in. It was breakfast time and she likes two or three cups sometimes. But the tea she’s just brought in for me now to fuel this important discourse has come in a mug containing one bag. The way it does most of the day.

So why do nearly all of the tea bags in our house come in perforated pairs? I don’t know. But since I’m sat at a computer I’ve put this question to the world wide internet.

  • Yorkshire Tea says it’s ‘so they don’t fall over’ and gives some explanation about their manufacture that I don’t understand and couldn’t care less about. (See below for a fuller explanation.)
  • Yahoo Answers basically agrees with this, though also gives other answers about ‘easier packaging’ (again about the manufacturer’s convenience, not our’s). Plus one bizarre suggestion that ‘all tea bags are married.’

Seeking wiser advice I turned, naturally, to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, where I found this wise explanation for the existence of the tea bag:

“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 tea pots can be kept clean more easily.”

At least these early ones came individually.

All very logical but why do they come in twos? Reading on I’m regaled with the history of tea bags. Delighting to see we British were slow on their uptake:

“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!).

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.”

But an explanation about why they come in twos? Silence reigns.

So Yorkshire Tea’s ‘convenience of the manufacturer’ explanation is as close as we get to an answer then? Seems so, and if that’s really the reason tea bags come in twos then I’m left feeling angry rather than frustrated at the numbers of them I’ve accidentally ripped open over the years. All because the manufacturers are leaving us, the purchasers to finish off the production process for them and tear the pairs in two? It’s not good enough.

So, continuing with the statistical evidence from our kitchen I find some tea bags that don’t, in fact, come in twos.

Tea Pigs?
Tea Pigs?

These things don’t even call themselves tea bags. Opting instead for the downright poncy ‘tea temples’.

These are 'tetrahedral' in shape and come in a silk bag.
These are ‘tetrahedral’ in shape and come in a silk bag.

And yes, reader, I admit, I bought the things – in a fit of curiosity.

Last night on email I was informed by someone who’d done some work for PG Tips, that they too share this shape.

“I think you will find that the largest selling tea brand in Britain is PG Tips, made with a molins machine similar to those used to make cigarettes. It produces individual tetrahedral shaped bags, often mistakenly called pyramid bags. Approximately 23% of the UK tea bag market and works out at about 1.4 pence per cup.
Goes in dry, comes out wet and can give enormous pleasure to two people if used correctly.”

So that’s us both informed and told!

But do we have to drink tea from bags at all? Let’s go back to the kitchen.

To find some 'real' tea.
To find some ‘real’ tea. ‘Select Sri Lankan single estate’ if you don’t mind.

Sarah maintains it ‘tastes better’ and bought herself that attractive tea strainer to go with it. But has it replaced the regular, every day use of tea bags? No, because we don’t like emptying the pot into the compost every day.

Though we do have an alternative device, that’s also not much used.

An infuser.
An infuser.

Yes, sort of a tea bag that you fill up yourself. Funny how it hasn’t come riveted to another infuser. I thought most tea bags came in twos?

A caddymatic.
A caddymatic.

Another ‘real tea’ device, mentioned by Cathy in the comments below is this Caddymatic. Something that would reliably deposit tea where you didn’t want it to.

“It always emitted a sly extra spoonful all over the cabinet as soon as you turned away, causing much blaspheming.”

Anyway, time to put the kettle on again. However it’s packaged us English seem to rely on enormous amounts of tea don’t we?taketeaandseeOK? Tea break over. Next time we’ll be back to politics, philosophy and all that important walking around stuff!

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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  1. I love the esoteric question here. Like you, I have torn countless tea bags, with the resulting blaspheming and mess.

    I think it must make packaging easier, two conjoined bags will stay neatly stacked, where a single never would.

    The concept of the tea bag used to make my old Dad go up to 98. He used to mutter darkly about them being filled with nothing but “sweepings” from the tea factory floor and they were never found in our house. We had to make the tea from “proper tea”, dispensed into the pot from one of those wall mounted tea dispensers, which always emitted a sly extra spoonful all over the cabinet as soon as you turned away, causing much blaspheming.

    Rain, hail, or snow, we had to open the back door and dash to the compost heap with the used leaves. Your blog today brought back happy memories of making tea the old way, but I only ever buy the bags now!

    1. ‘Esoteric?’ he spluttered. It might not be life and death but I think your old Dad was probably right. Funny how Britain’s stock in the world has plummeted since the arrival of the tea bags in the 1950s? No wonder we were reluctant about them!

  2. Through a mutual contact (Thank you Maff Potts) I’ve now received this detailed answer to the question from Mary Godfrey, Director of Change and Performance at Bettys and Taylors Group, which includes Yorkshire Tea.

    “As I’m sure Ronnie will know, tea bags as we know them were invented by a New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan. Originally made of fine gauze, then paper, they came as ‘singles’ with a string and tag attached for easy removal from the teapot. During the 1950’s, they became popular in the UK because they removed the messy task of dealing with loose tea leaves, but people preferred more bags in the pot and a longer infusion time, so eventually the string and tag was no longer needed for a good cup of strong everyday tea, and the plain square bag became the norm.

    The reason they are made in pairs is due to the method of making square bags. The clever machines that do this run at very high speeds, making 2,200 bags a minute. A roll of paper forms the bottom layer, the correct dose of tea (3.125g per bag precisely) is delivered in two little piles onto this layer, then a second roll of paper is laid on top and the seal (called the crimp) around the edges of the bags is formed by a heated metal plate which at the same time creates a perforation between the pair of bags. This pair is lowered, while the next pair is filled above it, then lowered, and so on until there is a pile of 20 pairs which are then lowered into the tea bag box on a moving belt below. Another pile of 20 pairs joins the first a few seconds later, and the filled box moves along to where the lid is closed and the whole box is sealed. So you end up with a box of 80 tea bags, the standard format that we are all familiar with in the UK.

    Here’s the thing. If the pair of tea bags was separated before packing instead of perforated, the pile of 20 bags would topple over. It’s being in a pair that makes them stable, – during packing, when the boxes are being transported to the supermarkets, and when travelling home in shopping bags.

    Other companies make different shaped bags in singles (pyramid, round) but after lots of testing and tasting we still think our traditional square bag makes the best proper brew. We know that many customers (myself included) use two bags in a pot of tea, so actually it’s quite convenient to have them in pairs.

    So that’s my explanation which I hope Ronnie finds illuminating.

    Best wishes

    1. Thank you Mary, and Maff for contacting you. From your clear explanation I now get the reason why the tea bags come in twos.

      However, I feel a need for further innovation here, which as Director of Change you could perhaps instigate? You see it’s all very well for us to have stable tea bags being transported round and brought home in our shopping bags. But as you can see from my post and then Cathy’s comment, it often goes wrong when we open the box. Many of us keep our teas in caddies and tins and therefore separate the bags as we move them from your box. And whilst we can usually manage to separate an individual pair without tearing either of the bags, we don’t have the patience to do this for the whole box, so rip them apart in multiples. At which point the tea starts spilling onto the kitchen floor. Not often, but as you’ll see in Cathy’s comment, often enough to lead to ‘profanity!’

      So could there be some way of separating the bags at source and transporting them in an alternative but still stable way? You’d have at least two grateful tea drinkers in Liverpool if your team could come up with that.

      Thanks for getting in touch,

      1. Ah, if only we could solve that conundrum. I hate to think of all that precious tea going to waste.

    1. Many do Liam. However mutual tea industry expert friend Matt White now, as he says, ‘adds further hot water to the pot’ with this link to a row between Tetley’s and their round tea bags and PG Tips’ tetrahedrals.

      Tea? Who’d have thought it would be this controversial?

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