The U.S. Tea Renaissance and How It Happened

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World War II changed the worldwide tea trade in every respect. In the West, traditions over 300 years in the making were ruined and never revived, but rather replaced by new beginnings. And in the beginning was the bag—ubiquitously accepted throughout postwar America in the name of "modern convenience." In Great Britain, the bag met resistance at first. But by 1970 it had won 12 percent of the market, and from then on it was a walkover. It rather quickly became difficult to find tea that was not packaged in teabags anywhere outside the tea-producing countries.

Here and there a few elderly and aristocratic firms continued to cater to the carriage trade in American cities—Mark T. Wendell in Boston, Simpson & Vail and Gertrude Ford in New York, John Wagner & Sons in Philadelphia, Freed Teller Freed in San Francisco—but very few tea businesses of any other kind survived. Tea was marketed as simply an anonymous brown beverage, always confusingly called "black tea," and generally mass-merchandized as a supermarket loss leader. Alike in content and "convenience," brands like Tetley and Lipton or Red Rose and White Rose lost whatever differences may have once existed between them.

The consumer was taught to shop for the cheapest teabag—and the race to the bottom began.

The consumer was taught to shop for the cheapest teabag—and the race to the bottom began. Tea packers learned to economize on quality by substituting mechanically harvested and manufactured teas from new tea lands, notably (but not only) Kenya and Argentina. As long as the tea was strong and dark, flavor mattered little more than leaf appearance—which mattered not at all once the leaf was chopped and concealed inside its shroud. Teas such as poets once praised—Hyson, congou, bohea / And a few lesser divinities—altogether disappeared from the market. Tea had been drained of all romance.

This situation, which had prevailed since the 1940s, persisted largely unchanged in 1980, when I undertook my first tea investigations. I found the tea trade was not just sleepy—it was comatose, except for a very few exceptional individuals.

The first of these I met was the leading U.S. importer of fine teas, Michael Spillane of the San Francisco Bay Area's venerable G.S. Haly Company. From age seven, Mike had learned tasting at his mother's knee after Marie Spillane was widowed and left a tea-importing business to run. Her late husband's colleagues in the trade made sure the business did not fail while she learned—and she learned fast and taught Mike, too. After college, he went into the business full-time and inherited not contacts but relationships around the world with firms and families that had been dealing with G.S. Haly Co. for many years. Michael's business-cum-teaching career was well underway when I showed up and became one of the hundreds to whom he taught the rudiments of tasting and the language of the trade—for instance, that Formosa oolong exhibits "no peaks, no bites." One did not say "Taiwan" in those days, and Japan sencha was called "spiderleg." G.S.Haly's profits came mostly, however, from the new flavored teas Mike was importing from Germany.

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James Norwood Pratt's Tea Dictionary was named the Best New Publication of 2010 at the World Tea Expo. He has served as honorary director of Imperial Tea Court and as international juror of India's first-ever tea competition.

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