Friday, June 24, 2011

Brief History of the Tea Infuser

Did the tea infuser go extinct? Why, yes it did actually, for a while at least. Or perhaps it just lost a lot of popularity with the advent of the teabag.

A tea infuser is a small, usually ball shaped or oblong-cylinder container or spoon that is used for brewing a cup or a pot of tea, sometimes referred to as a tea ball strainer. Tea balls have been known to differ by the way they are constructed and how they are lowered into and pulled out from the hot water. Some are made from mesh; others are all metal with small perforations. Tea is placed inside the container of the infuser and then lowered in a cup or pot of near-boiling or boiling water (depending on the type of tea you are making. You can see a post here about how some teas are brewed).

The purpose of the tea infuser is to brew a cup or pot of tea without having loose tea leaves floating in the tea and without having to run the brewed tea through a strainer. Either a chain or a rod is attached to the sphere so it can easily be taken out of the cup or teapot once the tea is properly brewed. If there is a rod, the infuser is often called an infuser spoon and if there is a chain, that usually refers to an infuser ball.

History of the Tea Infuser
The Chinese have been brewing tea for centuries. They simply place the loose leaves into a clay pot and pour boiling water on it. Naturally the leaves swell and often fill up a good part of the small, squat pots. The Chinese developed certain tea accessories that still today make it very easy to take out the wet leaves and dispose of them.

The Brits, however, decided on a different method. They invented silver tea infusers, which became very popular towards the latter part of the 19th century into the early 20th century. Some were made large enough to prepare a pot of tea, others were small one-cup infusers, deliberately designed to fit nicely into a standard sized teacup. With the advent of the industrial revolution, mass production became fairly easy. It was around this era that the silver teapot was mass produced till most households boasted of having a silver tea set. Tea infusers were also mass produced till they also became a very common household item.

By 1910 the teabag was invented, accidentally at first. A tea merchant by the name of Thomas Sullivan shipped tea in small silk muslin bags. The tea was supposed to be removed from the bags, but customers soon found that it was much simpler to dunk the teabag into boiling water. The result was a no-mess, no-tea leaves beverage which was the beginning of the decline of the tea infuser. Teabags use fannings, not whole tea leaves but rather what is left over after processing the tea. While you can buy some teabags that have whole leaf tea inside, the majority of teabags today are still packed with fannings.

With the popularity of Oriental teas and their introduction into Western markets, people are once again turning to the infuser. Chinese teas are usually sold as loose, whole leaf teas. The leaves are dried and compressed, but when placed in water they expand rapidly and unfurl as the tea is being brewed. It is much simpler to place the tea leaves in a tea infuser and brew tea that way than to place the tea leaves into a teapot of boiling water, especially if you do not have the necessary tea accessories to extract the wet leaves from a teapot, or to unclog a teapot spout.

Styles of Tea Infusers
Tea Balls
: As the name suggests, the tea ball infuser is a small ball or spherical shaped object, usually with a chain attached so that it can be easily retrieved from the cup once the tea is brewed. There are different styles of the tea infuser ball. The Mesh Tea Ball is a small container covered with mesh. This opens up in the middle, when one half slides open. The Metal Tea Ball, or Tea Egg is a stainless steel tea ball with small holes around it.

Pyramid Tea Infusers: These are pyramid in shape, and are made from mesh. The principle for brewing tea is the same as with the tea balls. These generally open on the bottom of the pyramid.

Snap Tea Infuser, or Tea Tongs: These are attached to long handles that, when squeezed together open the infuser on the end. The infuser part is usually made from mesh. You simply open up the infuser and tap the handle against the side of a trash can. The tea will naturally fall out.

Spoon Infuser: As the name implies, the tea infuser spoon looks like a little covered spoon. This is usually made from metal with small holes. These are often quite a bit smaller than the egg or tea ball infuser and do not always brew a very strong cup of tea.

Nylon Tea Infuser: This does not sit down inside the cup, but rather settles neatly on top of the cup. Water is poured into the top section where the tea leaves are and then gradually drips down into the cup.

Teastick or Teatube Infuser: This is a long pen shaped metal object, with holes perforating the metal. Tea is placed inside the stick and the entire object is submerged into the cup of hot water.

Novelty Infusers: Let’s not forget to mention novelty infusers. These are designed in many different shapes and sizes, usually made from stainless steel. You can find the heart shaped tea infuser, teddy bear infusers, dinosaur infusers, you get the point.

Whirl-Ease Infuser: The newest invention is tea, lightly sweetened with cane sugar, and a little tapioca juice, on the end of a stick. You swirl the stick into hot water and in moments, you have a perfect cup of tea. Whirl-ease tea stick infusers are available at Fancy That's Tea Boutique.

How To Brew A Pot Of Tea With A Tea Infuser
It all depends on the type of tea you are brewing. Regular black teas should be infused for at least three minutes, but no longer than five minutes. Green and Oolong teas are all brewed a little differently depending on the actual tea itself. For a great cup of tea you should carefully follow the directions on the package.

If you are wondering how to use a tea infuser you will be happy to hear that it is very easy to brew tea with a loose leaf tea ball. As a general rule you should only fill an infuser half full with tea leaves as the leaves will swell when they are wet. Whole leaf Chinese teas will need more room than the small leafed black teas, thus you should probably choose a larger size infuser if you are brewing whole leaf oolong or green loose tea. Small leaf teas or teas with broken leaves, such as many black teas, are better brewed in the tea egg as the mesh may allow the tea leaves to escape into the tea, and you will still need to use a tea strainer to get all the leaves out. If you must use a mesh infuser, look for one with a very tiny mesh so the tea leaves cannot get through into the tea.

Fancy That is carrying a tiny mesh ball infuser with two adorable glass “tea leaves” on the end. Perfect for all of the teas we carry at our Tea Boutique. Stop in and take a look! Fridays 11am – 3pm, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5pm. See you soon!

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