History of the Tea Strainer

Take a stroll through the average beverage aisle in your supermarket, and you might get the impression that tea has always come in small boxes with disposable tea bags. But before those easy to come by boxes, there was the rich and intriguing history of the tea strainer, a beautiful little tool that has helped our ancestors enjoy loose leaf tea for hundreds of years. Enjoying loose-leaf tea, and becoming familiar with this tool, can help spark an appreciation for your tea strainer and infuser collection, or simply inspire you to grow one.

Documentation of tea tools such as the tea strainer appear in ancient history, the earliest models were likely made of bamboo, and later evolved into stainless steel, sterling silver, china, porcelain, silicon, and linen. During the Tang Dynasty in China, a small book called “Classic of Tea” was written describing tea utensils, and they were made to help Buddhist monks keep living things (such as small bugs) out of the drinking water.

However, using a tea tool to keep run away tea leaves out of a cup did not become a cited use of the strainer until the 17th century when Dutch merchants made tea more readily available to those outside of the Chinese dynasty. British royals then increased the popularity of tea as their preferred beverage, and it was not long before a newfound fanaticism for tea in Great Britain spread to the American colonies, as did a growing demand for products that could separate loose tea leaves from liquid with ease and flair.

Why did people use a strainer to separate out tea leaves in Great Britain and not in China? While the method of serving tea from a teapot with the tea loose in the pot was a practice used in both countries, the reason China may not have required a tool to remove leaves from their cup likely had to do with the types of tea leaves they were producing. The British owned tea plantations, in countries such as India, produced finer black tea leaves that did not require as much space to expand inside of a tea pot, where as the leaves prepared on the Chinese plantations would expand far more in the pot, and were therefore less likely to land or be bothersome inside a tea cup.

This common approach to serving tea with smaller tea leaves required a solution to avoid ending up with a cup, and mouth, full of tea leaves. The obvious solution was a strainer basket. In the Victorian era, tea strainer baskets, similar to those still used in tea parlors today, were made to sit on top of the cup to capture the leaves when pouring the tea from a tea pot into the individual cups.

Another solution was a tea-removing device called a mote spoon. Mote spoons act as search and rescue spoons to remove tea leaves from individual teacups. The tea would be brewed loose in the teapot, so any tea that ended up in the cup could be removed with a long handled spoon with holes in the spoon to remove rogue tea leaves and keep the steeped water in the cup. The handle also helped keep the teapot spout free of leaves and could help unclog any leaves trapped when pouring.

Stainless steel tea strainers and tea infusers gained popularity in the late 19th century. Big name tea strainer producers, such as Tiffany and Gorham, could use fine silver to create quality, heavy, and sturdy strainers, for those who could afford it. There were many varieties of strainers at that time, but it was more likely that smaller designers who could not afford to mass-produce these quality strainers out of silver made them into unique shapes to attract consumers with lighter wallets. And borne was the tea strainer we are accustomed to today.

Things took an unexpected turn for the tea strainer in the early 1900s when Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant, shipped out tea samples in small silk bags. Customers did not realize that they were supposed to remove the tea from the bags, and instead boiled the tea, bag and all! The convenience of tossing out the leaves is obvious, and the popularity of tea bags is still seen today.

Most premium bags of tea we are accustomed to today are frequently packaged loose for consumption, and when they are available in bags, the leaves are often crowded and do not have enough space to expand. While pyramid tea bags have become a more recent solution to this problem, due to the additional space at the top of the bag, enjoying a variety of quality tea is easier with a tea strainer in your arsenal. Besides, with the wide variety of strainers for your cup or pot in versatile materials such as mesh, silver, or a novelty silicone cartoon shape, loose tea can still reign supreme.

Tea strainers sometimes do require more cleanup and measuring, but the experience and quality is always worth the effort. Besides, strainers also allow for mixing favorite tea blends together for an extra dose of delicious creativity!


Further Reading:

Janger, Kathie. Just Your Cup of Tea.

Jonson, Dorothea. Tea and Etiquette. Capital Books. Page 70. 2002.

McCabe, Ina Baghdiantz. A History of Global Consumption: 1500 -1800. Routledge. 2014.

Richardson, Lisa Boalt. Modern Tea: A Fresh Look at an Ancient Beverage. Chronicle Books. 2014.

Ukers, William Harrison. All About Tea, Volume 1. Page 49. Tea and coffee trade journal company. 1935.

Samantha Albala is a writer and medical editor by day, and a curious D.I.Y. tea crafter by night. Her years working in bakeries and teahouses gave her the knowledge and freedom to experiment and blend together a large assortment of loose teas and tisanes on a daily basis. She will never pass up a cup of jasmine, silver needle, or vanilla rooibos. Read more at SamanthaAlbala.Contently.com.