Tstix technology takes on the teabag empire

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

A new infusion technique that allows one product to do the job of
both teabag and teaspoon has grabbed interest from major companies
and is looking to usurp the teabag's stranglehold on the hot
beverage market.

A crazy, outlandish idea from across the sea; that's what the British thought of teabags when they first arrived from the US around 60 years ago. Now, almost one hundred years since the first teabag was born, a combination of Australian innovation and German technical ability has spawned a product that claims to bring tea-drinking into the 21st​ Century. The product, named Tstix and made from a mix of aluminium and plastic, looks like a slightly larger version of the long, thin sugar sachets increasingly handed out at cafes. But its crucial selling point is thousands of tiny micro-perforated holes that form neat, symmetrical patterns up three quarters of the product's length. These holes allow the ground tea inside the Tstix to infuse into a cup of hot water as the consumer stirs the sachet round, as if it was also a teaspoon. And it is the technique for making these holes that has now been patented in several countries, including the UK. "10 years ago this technology did not exist, so it was not possible to do this​," said Thomas Schwarze, who owns German firm Schwarze-Automation, the company which makes the holes. He told BeverageDaily.com that his machines were significantly cheaper than those used to make teabags, which may be attractive to a food and drink industry currently under heavy margin pressure. For a teabag-making equipment costing €1m, equivalent Tstix equipment would cost around €200,000, he said. A 30-lane Tstix machine, the maximum, can produce 1,200 of the products per minute. Overall costs for making Tstix are thought to be roughly similar to teabags, however. Both Schwarze and Tstix inventor Geoff Stuart said the added advantage was the product's ability to better meet consumer demand for convenience. Major tea and coffee companies had shown a lot of interest in the product, they claimed. And, they already have big packaging firms, Alcan and Amcor, on board. The idea is to allow beverage companies to place their own branding on the Tstix packaging. But do Stuart and Schwarze really think Tstix can take market share off the almighty teabag? "We think that teabags will be with us for some time as there is a 50-year plus history of use, but once people use a Tstix they will possibly never go back,"​ Stuart told BeverageDaily.com, from his base in Australia. "While people use teabags, they don't necessarily like them. They are messy, sometimes split, stain and discolour after use. They also put people off tea - because coffee looks so much more sophisticated." ​ With Tstix, said Stuart, drinkers merely stir the sachet round the cup until their tea is the strength they want it, then throw the packaging away. Stuart, who has worked on packaging design an marketing for some of the world's largest food companies, including Kraft Foods and PepsiCo, said he got the idea for Tstix by pulling apart a teabag and rolling up the contents like a cigarette. Both he and Scwarze believe the invention may appeal to young people, who may see tea-drinking and teabags as rather old-fashioned. A degree of soul-searching has hit the UK tea sector in recent years amid consumers' growing affection for coffee. The 'Starbucks effect' recently saw coffee sales overtake standard tea for the first time. One sticking point, however, was a question mark over the environmental credentials of Tstix. Green packaging has emerged as a buzz word over the last couple of years as consumers have increasingly showed concern about sustainable production and their 'carbon footprints'. The use of aluminium and plastic to make Tstix, plus the clear plastic bag used to house five products at a time, may not sit easily with attempts to reduce excess packaging.

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