Another Good Year

By Diana Rosen

The year 2002 was another year of phenomenal growth for the tea industry and an exciting one for consumers. The reason? Increased attention to quality, variety, and the finalization of U.S.-approved criteria for organic produce, including tea.

White tea, made from the delicate downy leaf buds, has become the "new" true tea delight. You can now find several choices available at most tea shops, sometimes with the scent of peach or other fruits added, and it has shaken its mantle of "old people's tea" to the hot drink for the totally cool.

Tea's natural calming and healing properties are increasingly being adopted by beauty and personal hygiene companies. You can now find white, green or black teas in products from body lotions to face moisturizers, and from products for the bath and those for the baby.

Still, tea's greatest popularity is as a beverage, with some fun twists. Bubble tea has literally exploded in popularity. It's not just found in Japanese sweet shops or restaurants, but in Asian-style places of all types, and many generic tea sources. This "tea beverage" has something for everyone: a choice of black, oolong or green tea; sweetness, fruity flavors, and, of course, the "bubble" which is a ball of tapioca that makes this drink more like a pudding in a cup.

Flavors of teas continue to boggle in their choices. Chocolate and vanilla make teas elegant for after meal beverages; everything from pineapple to kiwi and exotic examples from Hawaii, Asia and Africa are terrific hot or iced, and the standbys of bergamot, cherry, lemon, and passionfruit are crossing over from black teas to greens as greens continue to increase in popularity for its heralded health benefits.

The Japanese continue to be innovative in freeze-drying green teas in ways that make it easy to use in the office or while traveling. Just open up the little packet, pour in the powdered green tea into a cup, add hot water, and voila! Fine green tea in an "instant.

As for those health benefits, it appears that all tea is healthful for its antioxidants, those attributes about tea that fight cancer and a whole myriad of illnesses by eating away at the bad guys in our blood, not unlike "Pac-man" ate away the bad icons in a video game. The claims for improved health by tea champions include lowering blood pressure, easing colds and flu and tackling the debilitation of asthma. There may indeed be some truth in all of this, but the most important reason to drink tea is that it tastes great, makes one feel both relaxed and alert, and you can choose from tons of accoutrements to make tea drinking a total sensual experience.

Among the accoutrements on the market these days that have gained popularity recently are the centuries old Taiwan gung fu sets, now available at quite reasonable prices for the tiny pots and their thimble cups. And, the Chinese guywans, the covered bowls so perfect for oolongs or for serving small quantities of greens, are now offered in both Chinatown shops and mainstream houseware departments in traditional blue and white or terra cotta plus a whole slew of whimsical, elegant, and "home décor" sensitive colors. This is part of an enduring multi-year trend of incorporating touches of Asian influences in tabletop accessories, with particular emphasis on unusually shaped plates, and the Korean and Japanese traditions of using celadon green or black as colors for exquisite tea bowls. The venerable blue and white, however, remains the most popular.

The market now sports at least a half dozen truly easy-to-use, easy-to-clean teapots for single cups or more that make it not only neater to make tea, but nearly foolproof. Electric tea kettles continue to improve, and last, but not least, good quality spring waters are available for very low cost everywhere.

For both health and taste reasons, organic teas are among the very best. For centuries, of course, China has and remains basically a country that grows its teas organically. The reason is hardly idealistic, but rather because the farmers there operate small tea farms, cannot afford pesticides, and it's rarely cost effective. For the larger tea producing farms, there are still few that employ pesticides but, sadly, that number is growing. It is the hope of those who fervently champion organic farming that they can influence China that quantity is no substitute for the quality of teas grown organically and naturally. Ceylon has long been a good source for many organically grown teas, and a growing number of sources in India have successfully grown teas without pesticides, especially when the farmers now realize the long-term effects to workers and their families.

Look for these ratings on your next purchase of organic teas: the top rating s Certified 100% organic; certified organic with lower figures, from 75 to 95% or the rather ambiguous "made with organic ingredients."

If you feel strongly that the food and beverages you use should be healthful to you, support this trend. Also, be aware that certification is a costly process and, as a result, some brands will label themselves organic although they are not certified by a qualifying agency. The top one in this country is QAI, Quality Assurance International. The Fair Trade Act designation on many labels indicates that the farmers manage the workers in ways that are fair and equitable.

Finally, enjoying a great cup of tea at restaurants other than tearooms, is increasingly possible. Several years ago, a tea sommelier was the hottest news around, now it's still news but increasingly fine hotels and restaurants are recognizing that paying attention to quality and service is as important for tea as it is in wine. Everyone from techno rocker Moby to savvy Japanese investors are getting into the act. Moby opened a sleek brightly colored veggie café with ninety choices of high-quality teas, and Kai is the essence of minimalist Japanese design that features superb hot teas and its signature Ito En bottled Japanese teas. Both these places, in Manhattan, signal a welcome trend where stylish, modern décor is matched by superb menus and outstanding teas.

Ito En bottled teas are part of a welcome departure from the overly sweetened, processed powdered instant teas and overly brewed bottled teas of just a few years ago. Now, the consumer has more than twenty choices of both imported and domestic brands that marry both the convenience of bottled teas-on-the-go with high-quality true tea taste. Even your correspondent, a diehard anti-bottled, anti ice tea person has come 'round to enjoy them!

Much of this change in eateries serving better quality tea is due to better and more quality tea being imported, clever marketing, and more access for education and products to more customers through the use of dedicated tea web sites online. However, you the consumer are to be congratulated for helping to make this change a part of the new world of tea. By insisting that the quality of tea you drink should be equal to or better than the quality of the food served, you have helped the industry make restaurateurs and chefs aware that fine tea is an important ingredient to a successful menu. Thank you!