But amid this tidal wave of arabica and robusta, a small swell has been building strength, and the average Joe and Jane have shown increasing interest in the other hot drink, tea.
In 2005, United States tea imports totaled $352 million, up 28 percent in just four years, according to International Trade Centre statistics. Coffee continues to be king, with imports totaling $3.1 billion that same year, but tea is definitely a comer and, if growth continues at the same rate, tea imports here will soon reach a billion dollars. Big manufacturers like Tetley and Salada don’t account for all this demand; instead, the tea industry has seen dramatic specialization. In recent years, the market has experienced a striking increase in specialty teas, with many sellers focusing on providing rare breeds and exotic blends.
America is changing from “an espresso society looking for a cup of mud” to a society that can appreciate a cup of white tea, with its “exquisitely delicate flavor,” says Linda Smith. “We are now learning how to taste these teas,” she adds. “Thank God.”
Smith has been selling organic, loose-leaf tea since 1997. She runs her business, Divinitea, out of her home in Schenectady, where she takes premium ingredients from around the globe, blends them together and markets the creations to customers across the country.
The growth of popularity has brought to the market a sometimes confounding array of tea types, from basic black to green, white, oolong, red and a seemingly infinite number of herbal and fruit blends. Here are some basic facts. Black, green, oolong, and white teas are the only true teas, and they all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The differences in appearance, taste, and aroma among them depends on the length of time the leaves are exposed to air before drying. White and green teas, exposed the least, contain the most antioxidants, with oolongs next in the progression. Black teas are fully oxidized. Herbal teas are “teas” with no tea leaves, more properly called infusions or tisane. So-called red tea, also called rooibos, is from a South African shrub and is naturally caffeine-free. Fruit teas are usually a mix of black teas, herbs, and fruits, and are often scented to infuse them with aroma and flavor.
When she began Divinitea, Smith says, loose teas were hard to sell, because people didn’t want to bother measuring and brewing them. But with growing concerns about health and stress, interest in teas of all types continues to grow.
Tea merchant Johnny Francis agrees. “I’ve never actually heard a doctor say you have to give up your tea, but I have heard them say that about coffee,” says the co-owner of Tea Laden, a Delmar, New York store that sells only tea and tea accessories. Last year, Tea Laden sold about of a ton of tea—literally, 2,000 pounds—to Capital Region residents.
Michelle Marks, owner of the Good Leaf Gourmet Tea Company, a tea boutique that opened in At the Warehouse in Albany in June, says the ritual of making a cup of tea removes you from life’s crowded playing field, if only for the few minutes it takes to boil water, measure the tea, and steep the infuser. Tea drinkers are people who savor this small, slow ritual, and then extend it by sipping their beverage. “You could throw down a cup of tea, but it’s almost a waste to do that,” Marks says.
Tea, like coffee, contains caffeine, but it also contains I-theanine, an amino acid known to promote relaxation. As a result, Marks says, drinking tea produces a calm but alert state, “a wonderful condition to be in for today’s world,” she says.
Marks, a psychologist by training, gave up her 15-year-old private practice last year to focus on selling tea full time. As a counselor, she was always working with people who wanted to calm their chaotic lives, but weren’t willing to do the work. “People always said, ‘Oh, yeah, if you could just bottle what you said, I would take it,’ and in a way, I kind of have.”