Equal Opportunity Beverage

By Wendy Rasmussen

Tea has a colorful history. As we all know it is an ancient beverage, whose healthful benefits have been enjoyed for thousands of years. It's also true that almost every culture has its own tea-based etiquette and methodology for serving. Tea drinking in the United States is just now emerging from its stiff-pinky captivity in "The Doily Ghetto" and playing second-fiddle to coffee.

First of all, if you're going to look at tea in the U.S. you have to admit to being a colony. When it comes to tea we have relied heavily on our mother country, and as much as tea people hate to admit it, the history of their beloved leaf in England is inextricably linked to the coffee bean. The first public sale of tea was in 1657 at Garway's Coffee House in London. Coffee people will be quick to point out that coffee was first on the thriving British beverage scene, but as we all know, tea quickly became the more important and better loved beverage.

I can hear bean-heads scoffing at that statement, but if you'll put aside your lattes for a moment, I'd like to clear up a few things. First of all if you're a woman, then you should know that coffee houses were closed to our gender. All of that important philosophizing and political intrigue took place in shops that had the same policy as my 9-year-old son's tree house. Namely, no girls allowed. That should tip everyone off immediately as to the emotional maturity of coffee drinkers.

It took one ingenious Mr. Thomas Twining to recognize the importance of an inclusive consumer market. He changed the name of his establishment from Tom's Coffee House to The Golden Lyon in 1717, and opened his doors to both men and women. Hooray for equal access! Hooray for tea! The next thing you know women got to vote and own property. My husband may still have his doubts about both those things, but he keeps his opinions to himself and he brews a fine cup of Assam.

What happened after the Golden Lyon was a dolling up of the "cup that cheers." A duchess with a penchant for teeny tiny sandwiches and polite conversation gets a hold of the wonderful beverage and look what happens - a hundred or so years later, in the United States tea was only being served in renovated Victorian houses. Our nation, with its melting pot demographics, could only find tea in what I unkindly termed "The Doily Ghetto."

Then, lo and behold, I discovered in the early 1980s that the beloved leaf could be purchased at some of these up-and-coming coffee houses. Here, although you had to get past the strong aroma of that "other" brew, you could buy traditional origins and blends without lace or a stiff pinky finger. The problem was that they weren't tea houses, but rather coffee houses that sold tea quietly out the back door. To visit one of these bean-based businesses a dozen years ago and order tea, well, you almost felt as if you were buying something much more illicit. You could proudly shout out your order of whole-bean genuine Yemen Mocha Matari, but if you wanted a quarter-pound of First Flush Darjeeling you sidled up to the counter and whispered it out of the side of your mouth. If you were a guy, you probably sent your girlfriend or wife into the store to buy it for you.

Quite frankly, tea has finally emerged as its own beverage - confident in its ability to fill a cup and please consumers without hiding behind its ubiquitous cousin, coffee, and free from the apron strings of Victoriana. Tea houses are still the best place in the world for having an intimate conversation, but secrets are just as likely to be shared over dim sum as over scones and Devonshire cream. The variety of tea houses in today's market is reflective of how broad the consuming market has become for this ancient brew. What does the car commercial say, "it's not your father's Oldsmobile?," well, tea is not your grandmother's beverage. Tea drinkers are young and old, health-conscious or not, looking for something new and exotic, or ancient and healing. So once again, hooray for equal access, hooray for tea!