Man Up, Drink Tea

"To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea." Henry David Thoreau "Old maids sweeten their tea with scandal." Josh Billings

As if America didn't give it a hard enough time; a culture already skeptical of tea sees the idea unceremoniously bashed from every direction: philosophers, television stars, coffee drinkers, political parties invoking its name, even our own history. America has not historically been a nation of tea drinkers, it's well known.

While that reality is beginning to change, it may be years before we overcome our craving for instant gratification, drinking for the desired effect (caffeine, relaxation, buzz, sleep, digestion, cancer preventative) rather than the experience of drinking something for the sake of drinking it.

But there is one part of America's reluctance to tea that cannot be stood for: the "feminization" of tea. Not only is it a sexist attitude, portraying femininity as weak, frail, delicate, flowery, even gossipy, but it's one that breeds an unnecessary stigma of the drink based upon its supposed character.

Is it not strange that coffee and wine have been unconditionally embraced by the American public while tea flounders in stereotypes? James Norwood Pratt said in a recent interview, "There's no cowboy in California who couldn't ask for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and not only knows what he wants, but know how to pronounce it. So why is it impossible that his grandson might be able to ask for Ti Kuan Yin or a Da Hong Pao?"

My manager at our store on State Street asked me recently, "Who do you think our average customer is?" The answer wasn't immediately obvious. While I'd like to say he or she is a twenty to thirty-something wanting to know more about the drink, the truth is closer to a forty to fifty-something year old woman, generally a tourist, sometimes with children.

Often, a man will come in with his family and stand in the front of the store until his wife and children have finished shopping. Upon being approached, he'll say something like, "I'm just here with them" or "Coffee person" and return to his phone, whiling away the time.

We have a number of analogous teas that we recommend to coffee drinkers (Mocha Nut Maté, Honeybush Hazelnut) but generally, our suggestions fall on deaf ears. Then Adagio came up with UMPH: a series of teas involving the most machismo of ingredients: smoky lapsang, earthy pu erh and woodsy honeybush, and a ginseng based green tea—targeted at this skeptic.

First off, coffee and tea need not be mutually exclusive. Next, if you're that blindly set in your conviction that you'll never like something because you haven't let yourself try it, please pick up a copy of the excellent Green Eggs and Ham. Finally, and most importantly, this mentality is entirely ignorant of tea's history.

While it's true that women are traditionally tea pickers in India and China and that in Japan women were once exclusively trained in the art of tea ceremony, a majority of the leaf's innovators have been—for better or worse—men, from the legendary Shen Nong down: Lu Yu, Eisai, Sen No Rikyu, Robert Fortune, James Taylor, Thomas Lipton, Thomas Sullivan, Richard Blechynden; fiction is filled with them too: Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Dent, Jean Luc Picard (it's true that here, Jane Austen has done men no certain favors).

Among my circle of tea friends in Chicago, by far the nerdiest—the people who eat, breathe, sleep and then dream about tea—almost all of them are men. One is a mixologist at The Violet Hour; another a tea blogger, writing a book on the subject; there are tea entrepreneurs, cafe owners, cooks and folks in entirely unrelated fields, simply passionate about their hobby; men unabashed by their tea romances.

Take Britain, for instance; in the British Isles, tea is universal. That is to say, it is not gendered. When I was in Manchester recently I visited a contemporary tea room that had been opened by Mr. Scruff, an area DJ and electronic producer. Inside were teas themed on occasions: camping at festivals, hangover recovery, cold busting. To the British, tea is neither manly nor womanly—it's simply British.

I don't want to say that men should be more important in the tea world. If anything, it is, like most, an unfairly male-centric field. I say this only to say that tea should be free of associations, impervious to sex. Everyone should be open to trying, or at least not dismissing, the brewed leaf. For Americans, it's a first step—but an important one.