Tea Party

Americans are discovering revolutionary ways to enjoy tea in their drinks, dishes and snacks.

March 28, 2001|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Americans have always been ambivalent about tea. Colonists angered by British taxes dumped 342 chests of it into Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773, - and tea has gotten mixed reviews in this country ever since, trailing coffee and colas in popularity.

But that may be about to change. Not only are Americans drinking more of it in chais, lattes and other exotic drinks, tea also has become a hot new seasoning in preparing dishes from meats to mousse.

"Over the last 10 years, tea has been coming into its own in this country," said Joseph Simrany, president of the National Tea Council, a New York-based trade group that tracks tea sales and trends. "It's always been treated as a poor second cousin to coffee. Really, in the world, tea is the most-consumed beverage outside of water. We're just catching up to everybody else."

Tea maven Diana Rosen, a San Francisco writer who last year co-authored a cookbook "Cooking With Tea," concurs.

"It is absolutely becoming a cutting-edge ingredient," she says. "The wonderful thing about tea is, it adds flavor and it seems to enhance the flavor of the other herbs and seasonings. It's a wonderful thing to play against in a dish."

American consumption of tea in beverage form has doubled in a decade, Simrany says - a popularity reflected in wholesale dollar values. Ten years ago, wholesale tea sales were just under $2 billion; today they're almost $5 billion. On the retail side, tea has become a star player in coffee shops, and has begun to get its own show, too: Hundreds of "tea salons" are springing up across the country.

One reason for tea's newfound popularity may be medical evidence suggesting that it increases antioxidants, which lower the risks of cancer and other diseases. Green tea in particular has become a popular choice because of perceived health benefits; nationally, sales of it have skyrocketed from $3 million three years ago to about $100 million last year, according to National Tea Council figures.

There is plenty of room for tea to grow as a beverage choice, however: The average American drinks about 7 gallons of tea a year, compared to 61 gallons of soft drinks, Simrany said. That annual tea consumption translates into less than a half cup a day per person - far behind that of world leader Ireland, where the average person drinks nearly four cups per day.

Moreover, nearly all - 85 percent - of the tea that Americans drink is iced tea, an American peculiarity.

"That doesn't happen anywhere else," Simrany says.

The fastest-growing segment of the tea market, says Simrany, is what are called specialty teas, a somewhat elastic term that includes exotic and estate varieties.

"It's teas that are likely to be single-origin, coming from a specific region of a specific country as opposed to a blended tea that you buy in the supermarket," Simrany says. Examples would include Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Uva and Dimbula, all grown in either India or Sri Lanka (still Ceylon in tea talk).

Simrany and Rosen say tea seems to be following the same track coffee did a decade ago with a focus on specialty items and trendy outlets. "Specialty coffee has gone a long way to opening consumers' minds to other alternatives," Simrany said.

Tea also shows signs of developing in the American consciousness the way another beverage has over the last two decades: wine. Specialty teas are being sold as "estate grown" in a marketing pattern much like wines, said Simrany and Rosen.

"The moves that the wine industry has made over the years from basic jug wines to estate wines; the evolution of specialty teas toward estates - they talk about specifically where it was grown," Simrany said. "Consumers are willing to pay more for the privilege of drinking a tea from a certain region - in some cases, drinking tea or wine from a particular estate. It is happening."

Rosen sees crossover coming between wine enthusiasts and tea lovers. "This is somebody who has the vocabulary of wine-tasting and the willingness and understanding that tea, year to year and season to season, will be different, just like wine," she said. "That audience is the one for specialty teas, or high-end teas."

Americans are drinking their specialty teas in a staggering variety of forms and flavors, most of them borrowed and adapted from other, older cultures. Chai, the tea that has swept coffee bars, grocery stores and restaurants in the last couple of years, has been consumed for centuries in India.

"It's an ancient Indian recipe that's been modernized for the American palate. It's less like tea than it is like coffee; it serves as a bridge between coffee and tea," Simrany said.

Chai will probably have to share the billing soon with another sweetened tea beverage that has become popular on the West Coast and is beginning to show up in the East. It's called bubble tea or pearl tea, and it comes from Taiwan.

This sweet beverage is consumed hot or cold and served with chewy tapioca balls in the bottom of the cup.

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