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.