February 2001 Issue
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The Future of Tea

by Wendy Rasmussen


Tea is an incredibly ancient beverage. For thousands of years leaves have fallen into the cups of great rulers, philosophers and spiritual leaders. Man has learned the way of the leaf. We have made this revered beverage a central part of almost every world culture. Can there be anything new to add? It's a question I ponder every year. And, at the beginning of every year here I sit at the computer like a cartoon figure with an angel on one shoulder and a tiny devil on the other, a victim of my own conflicting opinions.

The white-robed shoulder inhabitant says of course not, when we begin to stray from the traditional water, leaves, vessel formula things just get all mucked up. What can you expect from a Puritan? "Beware," that tinny little voice says from its soap box, "beware the spicy-cheese-flavored nachoccino. Do not follow the footsteps of coffee." It is a compelling, albeit rather strident argument. But, when you have taken a sip of properly prepared "Golden Harvest" or "Rolling Clouds" it is easy to say that perfection cannot be improved and ignore all the wild things that are happening to tea in the U.S. market.

But, then there is that "other" side which whispers snide remarks about U.S. tea consumption and makes reference to corn syrup and ice cubes, blue-haired ladies and sodden pieces of filter paper languishing on saucers. From the devil's advocate standpoint, and rightly so, tea needs to get more exciting and gain a wider audience. Thank goodness the tea industry is full of daring and creative minds. Tea people who are willing to venture off the straight and narrow full-leaf, Chatsford pot, boiling water, five minute path.

The best thing about the coming year is that I think both sides will be happy with developments in the industry. So, what do you have to look forward to in 2001 lover of tea? The best news is that tea is finally beginning to have retail shape in the U.S. I think the days of "Joe's Coffee, and oh yeah, we also have Tea Shoppe" are gone. Our beloved beverage won't be languishing on the back shelves of coffee and gourmet shops, red-headed step-child of the store. It will be an important and visible product, at least in the smart stores. I have seen dozens of independent retailers make giant strides in their tea program simply by devoting a small space unequivocally to tea. Retailers have also found that unlike those other beverage drinkers, tea drinkers want to buy hardware, so the variety and availability of steeping accessories and accouterment keeps growing. Our brewing technology may be consistent with Luddite philosophy, but we have a lot of fun with our teapots and we insist on owning a bunch of them even if they are only for decoration.

Most important of all for those of us who have begun to pine for "a place of our own" there will be more tea houses, places whose sole intention is to sell a fine cuppa. My office phone rings every day with a consumer looking to buy tea but unable to find it. I don't even sell tea and yet my consulting business is one of only four names under tea in the yellow pages. Smart entrepreneurial types are figuring this out too and so I think that the brick and mortar world will begin to see real progress in tea.

What else is out there? Lots of tea. Tea in every possible permutation that nature thought of, and quite a few it didn't. Mainstream America is discovering a world of flavored teas beyond our tried and true orange peel and cinnamon favorite. But, best of all it is also discovering the far subtler and incredibly rewarding world of green and oolong teas. Spurred on by the seemingly endless praise that is being heaped on it by the medical and scientific communities, green tea sales will continue to grow in the upcoming year. The trick is to teach American consumers how to properly prepare it. Okay people, stick with me here. For green tea let's keep our cool and make it quick. Let the water come off of a boil and start with a steeping time of only two minutes. You can always increase it if you find the brew lacking. Armed with only these two tips and an open mind you'll be amazed at how much anyone can enjoy green tea.

Now, how about a flavored green tea, with a dash of some milk product, a few chewy tapioca balls cooked and soaked in a sweetening agent, placed in a martini shaker and then vigorously shaken? Sound yummy? Believe it or not it really can be. This drink, often served in pilsner style beer glasses and sporting a head that any tap-poured Guiness would be proud of, is making headway in America. Called "bubble tea" it is bringing the individualized service we so loved about espresso beverages, and the creamy sweet tastes we Americans love so much, to the world of tea. Bubble tea originated amongst the youth of Taiwan and I wouldn't be surprised to see Europe and Asia continuing to influence the drinks of our industry. Look at what Chai has become, a million dollar industry of its own.

Drinks like these may strike terror, or at least cause nausea, amongst those tea drinkers who shudder at even the traditional milk and sugar additives, but they are accomplishing something of major importance. They are bringing vitality to our demographic. That's right, tea isn't your grandma's beverage anymore. Where is tea really taking off? Wherever there's a nearby university, that's where. Young people aren't getting stupider like they used to; they're getting smarter. They want healthier choices. They think in global terms when it comes to music and clothes and yes, food and drink. They like tea.

So, what's the future of tea hold? What's coming up for us in the year ahead? The answer is like a zen master's brain teaser. What is old but new, what's consumed by suburban mini-van driving mamas like me as well as by blue-haired, pierced teens like my oldest kid. When asked if there's anything new about tea, you can sum it up with one word... everything.