Until 1368, China tea, in the form of compressed cakes and bricks, was easy to store and transport. The solid slabs neither disintegrated nor lost their flavor. However, the change during the Ming Dynasty to loose leaf tea created new problems of storage and transportation. The leaves were carried in bamboo baskets (which cannot have protected the fine flavor), sealed in earthenware jars (which were extremely heavy), or in lacquered chests. As trade with Europe and America developed in the early seventeenth century, jars and baskets were no longer practical and were replaced by ordinary wooden chests. Common varieties of tea were packed into bamboo crates lined with wax paper, rice paper, bamboo paper, or mulberry paper: Finer quality teas were packed into decorated lacquer chests and the general rule was the finer the tea, the smaller the chest.
When Britain started producing tea in Assam, chests were manufactured in Rangoon from special kits that included planks cut to the requisite length, lead sheets to form a lining, and sheets of silver foil to cover the tea. To help settle the tea and therefore pack it more tightly, the chests were nocked on a split bamboo cane or pressed down with the feet. These primitive methods were later replaced by machinery that vibrated the chests in order to shake the tea down. The lead lining was later thought to contaminate the tea and was replaced with aluminum foil.
Tea chests are used less and less today, but are still essential for the transportation of expensive, larger leaf teas that would easily break up in the paper sacks that have replaced the chests. The sacks are made from layers of tough paper with a layer of aluminum foil as the innermost ply, protecting the tea from odors and moisture. Empty sacks are delivered to tea estates around the world and, once filled, are loaded on to pallets and containerized ready for shipping. Paper sacks have made the transportation of teas easier, lighter, and more efficient, but also, importantly, they are helping ecologically by reducing the need for timber and because the used sacks are recyclable.
Until the 1820s, once the tea had reached the European retailer, it was sold loose, and customers could buy as much or as Little as they wanted in a screw of paper Merchants sold “straights,” or blended tea to clients’ requirements. In 1826, the first prepackaged tea was introduced by John Horniman in an effort to encourage customers to buy tea by name – his name—rather than whatever tea the retailer had in stock. His idea did not catch on until the 1880s, when companies took to marketing their teas in this way and became involved in elaborate advertizing campaigns that offered all sorts of extra gifts–from free pianos to widow’s pensions–with purchases of tea.
Today, prepacked teas are available in a wide variety of cardboard packages, (some designed to replace the caddy on the kitchen shelf), decorative tins, and wooden boxes. Some companies are also vacuum-packing their tea in the country of origin in order to further reduce the risk of pollution and deterioration.