The U.S. Tea Renaissance and How It Happened



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.

Another early tea friend was Richard Sanders, owner of Grace Rare Tea. Grace, which sold only loose leaf teas and only by the half pound, had been the top-quality U.S. tea brand since its founding in 1954 by Dick's former roommate at Harvard. Like Dick, the company and the teas were unapologetically elegant and old-school. I also met John Harney, the new owner of a minuscule company he re-named Harney & Sons Fine Teas. The U.S. trade was all teabags all the time, and the firms and individuals I've named were condescendingly dismissed by the Tea Association of the U.S. as dealers in "specialty tea." In fact, they constituted almost the whole of the US "specialty tea" business, at most 1 or 2 percent of the total.

John Harney claims that America's Tea Renaissance began for him with the publication of the book I eventually wrote, The Tea Lover's Treasury, and a letter to the editor of the New York Times from Mrs. Elaine Cogan of Portland, Oregon. Mrs. Cogan wrote that she could not get a decent cup of tea anywhere in New York City, because the quality of the tea was so poor and nobody knew how to prepare it properly. In October, 1983, the editor decried this cry for tea along with pretensions to superior coffee from Mrs. Cogan's native Northwest with an editorial entitled "Tea Snobs and Coffee Bigots." [Curator's note: Yes! It ran in 1983, and included these still-too-true sentiments: "Mrs. Cogan is exactly right about the soggy, grim feeling that overcomes a tea drinker when served a cup of hot water and a tea bag. Besides, in restaurants like that, the water is usually lukewarm. The only thing worse is take-out tea, a styrofoam cup containing a stewed tea bag bobbing in warm iodine."] But with Mrs. Cogan's indictment and my book in hand for credibility, John Harney landed the Waldorf-Astoria as his first hotel account and began the climb to the eminence his firm presently occupies.

The media took serious notice of tea starting only in about 1985, with the success story of Snapple. Snapple was the first RTD or "ready-to-drink" tea to catch on nation-wide, but the tea itself was secondary to the story of how profitable the company quickly became. It was soon sold for over a billion dollars, back when that was still an impressive figure. At the time of Snapple's debut the entire US tea market was estimated at half a billion dollars a year. Twenty-five years later, in 2010, that market exceeds eight billion a year and is continuing to grow at annual rate of 20 to 30 percent.

America's tea renaissance is only the recent-most chapter in the storybook romance that is the history of tea itself, an extraordinary and fascinating epic of human consciousness and endeavor. But why, one wonders, does it remain so little known?