2010: A Year in Tea

By William I. Lengeman III


Adagio Teas' retail store


Harney & Sons' retail store


Tea Guy Speaks


Guayusa herbal tea


Future home for California tea


A bargain at twice the price


We can't believe it ourselves

Is tea finally poised to become the beverage of choice for Americans, a people who have long been enamored with the charms of that other hot drink? Well, hold the phone a minute, let's not get carried away. At least not yet. We can safely say, however, that 2010 was another great year for tea. One could even make the argument that for fans of high-quality loose-leaf tea, the past year was one of the best ever.

The Brick and Mortaring of Good Tea

We aren't seeing tea purveyors on every corner yet, but tea shops and cafés have become increasingly numerous over the past few years. This year, the tea world saw the continuation of a trend that's been ramping up lately: retailers of loose-leaf specialty tea who have already established a presence on the Web and elsewhere have begun to dip their toes into the waters of brick-and-mortar retailing.

Said retailers include Adagio, who rolled out their first two locations in the greater Chicago area in 2010. Chicago is also the home base for Argo Tea, whose chain of tea cafés has expanded to New York and St. Louis. German tea seller TeaGschwendner, which has tea shops on four continents, has begun moving into the US with two Chicago-area stores and others in New York City and Michigan. Atlanta-based Teavana continues to be one of the powerhouses of store-based tea vending, with locations in 34 states and Mexico. Other respected tea merchants who have made the leap to physical locations include Harney & Sons and In Pursuit of Tea.

Matcha

There once was a time when matcha, a powdered Japanese green tea, was known primarily as a component of the Japanese tea ceremony. These days it seems to be making quite a splash, not just as an excellent green tea for drinking, but also as a popular ingredient in various recipes. Fans of this tea can even turn to several retailers (such as Matcha Source, ZenMatcha, DoMatcha) who sell matcha and little else.

Social Networking

Tea freaks continued to band together in 2010. Some of the most notable of the tea world's social networking sites include the aptly named Steepster and Adagio's own TeaChat forum. Review sites such as Teaviews and RateTea.net continued to grow rapidly. Between them, Steepster, Teaviews, and RateTea.net lay claim to hosting a whopping 60,000-plus reviews and tasting notes. As for us tea bloggers, the Tea Blog List maintained at my own site currently numbers more than 300 active blogs, with more popping up all the time.

Almost Teas

It was an interesting year for some beverages that are similar to tea but not derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Take guayusa, for instance. The resemblance to yerba mate--a drink that's wildly popular in South America--may not be intentional, but there is a resemblance nonetheless. In 2010, Stash became the first major US tea merchant to begin selling this cousin to yerba mate.

Some would say that there's no such thing as bad publicity and that seems to be the case for kombucha. The high-profile Whole Foods recall due to concerns of alcohol content in bottled kombucha products has introduced more Americans to what has been a fringe beverage beloved by a small number of zealous adherents. There's no kombucha on the Starbucks menu yet, but who knows what the future holds...

Homegrown

Americans aren't generally known as tea drinkers. We also don't grow tea in any notable quantities and never really have. That sort of thing is primarily the province of China, India, and Africa, who combined, grow most of the world's tea (along with an assortment of other smaller producers).

Tea has been grown on a modest scale in South Carolina for the last several centuries and is currently being produced there at Bigelow Tea's Charleston Tea Plantation. More recently, Hawaii and Washington have begun to turn out small amounts of tea and we may soon see a tea farm get underway in California. In 2010, Roy Fong, owner of San Francisco's Imperial Tea Court, bought a modest plot of land in the Bay Area and announced that he would start a tea garden there.

Tea Party

On December 16, 2010, it will be 237 years since one of the most memorable tea parties of all time. For those of you who weren't paying attention in history class, that's the Boston Tea Party, the one where a bunch of unruly colonists dumped a heap of British tea into the Boston Harbor.

It's a memorable enough moment in American history that it has inspired a rather vocal political movement, one that was particularly active in 2010. This was also a year that saw the release of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, by Benjamin L. Carp. If you're looking for one of the more comprehensive works on the Boston Tea Party, this would be the one.

Oh, Really?

How much would you pay for a bottle of premium green tea? If the answer is not upwards of $2,000, then Masa Super Premium, which was rolled out to presumably eager consumers this year, was not for you. With a limited edition of 36 bottles, this pricey delight was made with Japanese green tea leaves from the Shizuoka region of Japan. Packaging was reminiscent of a fine wine or champagne, and the final price tag was the equivalent of $2,271 US.

If you're in the market for more reasonably priced "Teas for Men," then Manteas.com has got just the thing for you. But then again, jalapeno-, smoky bacon-, or beer-flavored teas might only appeal to the most discerning of connoisseurs.

Speaking of manly things and tea, let's take a moment to note that hockey great Wayne Gretzky signed on in 2010 as the spokesperson for Bigelow Tea. It's true.

And what do you get for the tea lover who has absolutely everything? Amana's got you covered on this one: how about a green tea refrigerator? It doesn't dispense an endless flow of iced green tea (hmmm...note to self...), but is actually a refrigerator decorated with a green tea theme.