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The popularity of tea continues to climb 

The Bridgewater Commons Mall in central New Jersey buzzes with shoppers. Some take a break by ducking into Starbucks. Others, many drawn by the free samples by the entrance, cross the threshold of a store called Teavana, passing sales displays of teapots and tea cups, before arriving at the ordering counter. There's no menu board or chalkboard listing beverage options. Rather, customers face a working display of colorful, round tea canisters the size of hatboxes offering a dizzying array of choices: green, black, oolong, herbal, even white teas.

There are many ways to chart to the recent, explosive growth in tea consumption in America. Walk the supermarket aisles: In most stores, the tea offerings stretch much longer than those for coffee; and that's not counting the increasingly popular, ready-to-drink bottled teas, nowadays possibly organic and infused with exotic fruits. Count the cups: According to the Tea Association of the USA, 2007 marked the 16th consecutive year that consumer purchases of tea increased. From 1990 to 2007, wholesale tea sales increased from $1.84 billion to $6.85 billion. Consider the nationwide proliferation of tea parlors: from a couple hundred in the 1990s to today's state-by-state listing of some 1,800 tearooms at the online TeaMap feature at Adagio Teas (www.teamap.com).

But arguably the most compelling proof is the very existence of this Teavana retail shop in a high rent, high traffic mall location. It's one of more than seven dozen Teavana stores that have popped up across the country in recent years (here in Charlotte, there's a Teavana store at SouthPark Mall). In other words, a quarter century after Starbucks started cloning coffee stores, tea, too, has become chain store worthy. It's truly a player. Those reading the industry tea leaves commonly cite four reasons.

"The most important reason," says Joseph Simrany, president of The Tea Association of the USA, "is the growing association with a great many health benefits, the most exciting ones being disease states like cardio vascular and certain forms of cancer." Indeed, a recent Google search using the words Tea and Health produced 4,160,000 hits, more than for Carrots and Health (3,910,000) and Spinach and Health (3,720,000).

A second big reason for the continued rise in tea consumption is its increasing availability and convenience. The growing popularity of bottled teas, now a staple in vending machines and by the case in warehouse stores, has driven down the age of tea drinkers and pushed up iced tea consumption to 85 percent of the national intake.

Also driving sales, especially in current economic hard times, is a third attribute of tea. When brewed at home, it's a bargain. "A pound of loose tea will brew 200 cups, at about 10 cents per cup," says John Harney, founder of the John Harney & Sons tea company, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. "You'll get 50 cups from a pound of good coffee," he continues, pegging the cost per cup at 20 cents for a $10 a pound coffee. "Though quality tea is often twice as expensive per pound as coffee, because you use less, quality tea is cheaper than quality coffee."

And to continue the tea versus coffee smackdown, tea offers a much broader universe of choices. "When I first started selling teas in the early 1980s, we offered Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Chamomile ... a total of 12 varieties," says Harney. "Now we must have 300 varieties, including Dragon Pearl Jasmine." Another tea seller, Adagio Tea co-founder Michael Cramer, adds that tea offers a world of discovery. "Long viewed as a loss-leader commodity," he says, "tea, similar to wine, cheese, and coffee before it, has morphed into an aspirational, information-rich product."

And so it is. At the Teavana counter, when asked for "your best cup of tea," my server recommends Golden Monkey, which sells for $18.50 for two ounces in bulk. She praises its cocoa undertones. And when I nod yes, she scoops two teaspoons into the store's patented, clear plastic brewing container and adds three ice cubes before the boiling water, explaining that loose black tea should brew just short of boiling. She sets a timer for three minutes and charges me $4.99 for my 16-ounce beverage. A less expensive tea, like Gunpowder green tea or an Egyptian Chamomile, would have cost $2.99. While my tea brews, my eye is drawn to a description of Monkey Picked Oolong: "Its legendary name refers to Buddhist monks who trained monkeys to harvest the youngest leaves from the top of the wild tea trees. Presently, the term 'Monkey Picked' refers to the highest quality of Oolong available."

My first sip from my tall takeout cup offers an exotic, soothing alternative to my usual, afternoon cappuccino pick-me-up and reminds me of the oft quoted words of James Norwood Pratt, the author of New Tea Lover's Treasury: "No pleasure is simpler, no luxury cheaper, no conscious-altering substance more benign."

John Grossmann, who has written for such publications as Audubon, Gourmet, The New York Times Magazine, and Sports Illustrated, is co-author of One Square Inch of Silence. This story previously appeared on Featurewell.com and Toyota Connections.

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