Steeped in Tea / by Andy Isaacson

Illustrations by Greg Hart

Illustrations by Greg Hart


ON A SUNNY APRIL MORNING in 1990, Mel Ziegler took a plane ride that changed his life. Ziegler, who founded and had recently sold Banana Republic, was flying back to San Francisco after attending a conference on values-driven business in Boston. Before its present incarnation as a 'casual luxury' clothing brand, Banana Republic marketed safari wear. Its retail stores were awash in ersatz Serengeti imagery-Jeeps, foliage, and fog-that used 'fantasy to lighten up the customers' idea of reality,' Ziegler would later write. Consumers indulged the story, and Banana Republic profited. On that April morning, Ziegler met a fellow passenger and young entrepreneur, Bill Rosenzweig. As they soared over the country, the men discovered their shared aspirations: personal transformation and capital gains. Tea, the two surmised, would be their salvation.

In the early 1990s, the domestic tea market was emerging from decades of mediocrity. A smattering of specialty tea companies-including Celestial Seasonings, Stash, Good Earth, Yogi, and Traditional Medicinals-had repositioned tea as a healthful and natural alternative to coffee and the lower-grade tea-leaf dust found in mass market bags of Red Rose and Lipton. Largely missing from the existing marketing, Ziegler believed, was the culture and experience of drinking tea. 'I am mad about tea,' he remarked at the time, and 'I can't think of a commodity more inappropriately marketed in the United States.'

The wine and coffee industries had recently proven that Americans with a gourmet palate would pay more for higher-quality beverages that came with a cultured air and complex aromatics. So with missionary zeal-and sensing an opportunity-Ziegler and Rosenzweig created a line of exotic blends (like Mango Ceylon), added whimsical taglines ('Metabolic Frolic Tea'), and packaged them in distinctive cylindrical tins loaded with a tantalizing aura of legend and mystery. Ziegler was appointed the Minister of Leaves; CEO Rosenzweig, the Minister of Progress. Life in the Republic of Tea, the name they gave their company, would be experienced 'sip by sip, rather than gulp by gulp.'

Today, the United States is looking more like the fanciful republic Ziegler imagined. Rooibos, chai, and yerba mate are joining kalamata olives, Sumatran coffee, and pinot noir in the mainstream American vernacular, as tea in its myriad manifestations becomes the ultimate healthy and modern beverage for millions, and a new American tea culture evolves at the speed that once characterized the country's romance with gourmet coffee.

Entrepreneurs are clamoring to capitalize on the tea renaissance. The number of tea shops has sprouted from some 200 nationwide a decade ago to more than 2,000. Taken together, annual sales of black, green, and now red and white tea have skyrocketed from $1.84 billion in 1990 to more than $6 billion in 2005 and are forecasted to reach $10 billion by 2010. Dozens of nascent companies jostle for a niche in the market's fastest-growing segment, specialty teas. Even skin creams and vitamin supplements containing EGCG, the lead antioxidant found in green tea, line supermarket aisles. And researchers, finding the mass media a conduit for their steady stream of findings on tea's health benefits, are confirming folk beliefs dating to the legendary moment when errant leaves of a nearby Camellia sinensis bush colored Chinese emperor Shen Nung's pot of boiling water in 2737 B.C. and the world's most consumed drink, after water, was accidentally discovered.

Tea may have been inappropriately marketed a decade ago, but today no other commodity is better poised to capitalize on a convergence of societal trends. In one marketing narrative, tea is touted as a multifaceted health aid and as a salve for those who wish to rebalance a life accustomed to speed. In another, it is pitched as worldly, gourmet, and, when it is organic and fair trade, even virtuous. In one moment tea acts as a social lubricant, and in the next it occupies the center of personal ritual. Taken collectively, these approaches reveal-as much as they deliberately and shrewdly exploit-the contemporary American social moment.


Americans may still be gulping life rather than sipping it, but more are opting for the latter. The legions of 'downshifters'-those who value time over money-'are growing, and mainstreaming,' says Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College and author of The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (Basic, 1998). When Schor first polled in 1995, 20 percent of Americans said they had made voluntary lifestyle changes, such as reducing the number of working hours and jobs, that resulted in their earning less money. In 2004, 48 percent said they had. Why? To reduce stress, most responded, as well as to have a 'more balanced life,' more meaningful or satisfying work, and a 'less materialistic lifestyle.'

'At various times throughout history,' boxes of Tazo tea read, 'Tazo has surfaced among the more advanced cultures of the day as a solution to the angst of daily life.' While Tazo marketing makes liberal use of historical license, more Americans are indeed opting out of the dominant consumer culture-the frenzied pace of life and associated angst, and inordinate concern for standard status symbols. The sociologist Paul Ray calls these people 'cultural creatives.' You might have seen them shopping at Whole Foods (rejecting the dominant consumer culture isn't tantamount to rejecting consumerism) or walking out of a yoga studio. Cultural creatives care about ecological sustainability, social justice, and self-actualization. They represent a countercultural movement that was born in the social upheaval of the 1960s and gathered a new generation of voices in the antiglobalization demonstrations of the 1990s.

If, over the course of our social history, coffee became bound up in the dominant American values of speed and productivity, then tea is now embraced as the opposing fuel, even as part of a lifestyle. 'For Americans,' argues historian James Norwood Pratt, author of The New Tea Lover's Treasury (PTA, 1999), 'tea represents a coffee recovery movement.'

On a December night in 1773, a group of Bostonians disguised as Mohawk Indians raided cargo ships docked in Boston Harbor and hurled chests of tea overboard. The Boston Tea Party marked an abrupt rejection of a beverage so integral to colonial life that John Adams, stopping at a tavern en route to sign the Declaration of Independence, asked whether it was 'lawful for a weary traveler to refresh himself with a dish of tea, provided is has been honestly smuggled and has paid no duty.' The landlord's daughter replied: 'No sir! We have renounced tea under this roof. But, if you desire it, I will make you some coffee.'

Thus the nation was born with a patriotic taste for tea's more caffeinated cousin. All across the young republic, coffeehouses opened as depots for political and philosophical discussion, becoming instrumental in the development of America's java-fueled urban work ethic. Nevertheless, tea remained entrenched in the national psyche. Some of the first American millionaires, T.H. Perkins, Stephen Gerard, and John Jacob Astor, all made fortunes trading tea with China, as clipper ships and railroads in the 1850s carried fresh tea to the New World and sold it through retailers like the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P)-the nation's first supermarket chain. At the peak of consumption, in 1897, Americans each drank 1.56 pounds of it annually. (They now drink about half a pound each.)

Two innovations in the early 1900s revolutionized how Americans consume tea. Scrambling to attract attention in the summer heat at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, exhibitors of Indian black tea poured hot brewed tea into glasses jammed with ice. The crowds came, popularizing a refreshing new beverage-iced tea-that Southerners already considered a major food group and that now accounts for around 80 percent of the way Americans drink tea. Four years later, New York tea importer Thomas Sullivan hand-sewed silk pouches to package samples of tea leaves for his customers. Enamored with the convenience of the bags, customers demanded that their product be delivered in them, too, and Sullivan replaced the silk with more economical gauze to create tea bags. Petroleum-based nylon mesh eventually became the standard, which some specialty companies are now flouting in favor of biodegradable material.

Up until World War II, Americans cherished green, oolong, and black teas. Home deliverers like the Jewel Tea Company routed tea across rural America. But Japan's invasion of China in 1937 abruptly cut off the country's lifeline to East Asian tea gardens and shifted American consumption almost exclusively to Indian black tea. (It would be 1978 before China reentered the U.S. market, and only recently have Americans appreciated green tea again.) Meanwhile, the Korean War forced producers to look to new, more stable sources of tea; Argentina emerged as one of the top suppliers to the United States. (The idyllic Argentine pampas grasslands will never find their way onto a box of specialty tea, however; most of the low-quality leaves grown there are still used for iced tea or for multiple-source, mass market black tea blends.) At three dollars for 100 bags, tea became a supermarket 'loss leader'-a product sold below cost. For consumers, it lost luster.

A 1983 New York Times editorial, 'Tea Snobs and Coffee Bigots,' summed up the degraded perception-and popular associations-of tea at the time. Responding to a letter from a Portland woman who complained about 'New York's lack of civility concerning the serving of tea,' the editors opined that 'Coffee Bigots . . . think it is somehow un-American or unmanly or troublemaking to drink tea-and scorn those who do as Tea Snobs. This bigotry, fortunately, seems to be diminishing as more and more drinkers of decaffeinated coffee also speak up for their special taste.'

A popular countermovement to caffeine had been brewing for over a decade in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where a young man named Mo Siegel was picking wild herbs near his home in Boulder, Colorado. Amid a growing wave of natural foods introduced in the 1970s, Siegel wanted to offer Americans a healthy beverage as an alternative to the wan coffee brews favored by his parents' generation and the handful of specialty black teas-mostly Lipton, Twinings, and Bigelow's Constant Comment-then on supermarket shelves. Siegel faced stiff resistance peddling his novel herbal tea blends, which he called Celestial Seasonings. The buyer for a major supermarket chain-Siegel declines to say which one-once threw a box of Red Zinger against a wall and kicked him out of his office. Lipton's head tea taster at the time belittled herbal teas as 'weeds by the swamp.' (Lipton is now one of the world's largest producers of herbal teas.)

Printed with colorful pictures and New Age quotations, Celestial Seasonings boxes eventually found their way into millions of households and reintroduced Americans to the personal and social ritual of drinking tea. Blends like Egyptian Chamomile also helped reclaim tea's exotic character, imagery that goes a long way in the marketing of specialty tea today. Roastaroma offered a crossover for curious coffee lovers, and others like Sleepytime established tea as a beverage with an occasion-and also a function-for drinking at different times of the day.

Mo Siegel, founder of Celestial Seasonings, gathers herbs in Boulder, Colo. in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Celestial Seasonings.

Mo Siegel, founder of Celestial Seasonings, gathers herbs in Boulder, Colo. in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Celestial Seasonings.

Celestial Seasonings helped pave the way for the tsunami of ready-to-drink teas that swept into the market next. In 1987 Snapple introduced bottled iced tea with an 'all natural' tagline on labels that, ironically, depicted the Boston Tea Party. Now accounting for one-third of domestic tea sales, and composing the single largest segment of tea, ready-to-drink teas sate Americans' desire for health, convenience, and speed of delivery. Many of us do want refreshing and calm, but we still want it on the go. While most teas on the market are still brewed with low-grade tea leaves, today's fertile crop of specialty tea brands and dedicated tea shops introducing higher-grade loose leaf blends are raising the standard once set by the lowly mass market tea bag.

The events of that December evening in Boston may have initially served as a symbolic rejection of British influence and authority, but they ultimately allowed American society to write its own circuitous social history with tea-to eventually reclaim a foreign drink with a foreign set of cultural practices as its own. Sipping a cup of tea today provokes a mix of imagery, some of it still an antiquated and imagined notion of imperial England or China, but much of it an amorphous global fusion endemic to nowhere in particular. We drink herbal teas even when we're not sick. We make lattes out of green tea. We have taken the symbols of traditional tea cultures-chai on the streets of Delhi, oolong tea in a Beijing teahouse, afternoon tea service in London, chats around the samovar in St. Petersburg-and, through a process resembling the construction of an ethnic food court in a shopping mall, put them under one proverbial roof.


To the would-be traveler lugging a shopping basket, a supermarket shelf of tea today is as bewildering (and enticing) as the pages of an adventure travel company catalog. Navigating all the worldly choices, one might arrive at a box of Numi Tea's Rainforest Green, depicting a lush cascade that invites an armchair excursion into an Australian rainforest. Down the aisle, Republic of Tea's tin of rooibos evokes the arid South African bush. Nearby, Stash Tea's Exotica blends beckon 'adventurous sippers' to explore 'the essence of distant places . . . tropical hillsides . . . monsoon-swept plains . . . the foothills of the Himalayas.'

Starbucks seduced coffee drinkers by 'romancing the bean' and creating a lexicon of foreign words that heightened customers' sense of sophistication and transported them to an imagined continental culture. Bottled water gets by on the tap water fear factor and a certain trendy appeal, but also on consumers' attraction to distant mountain springs so pure that they couldn't possibly be chlorinated.

Going further, specialty tea companies market wanderlust, packaging a tantalizing and educational blend of exotic locales and rich cultural traditions. Just as Sri Lankans might drink Coca-Cola and eat McDonald's to taste modernity, Americans sip Ceylon tea to taste the exotic. And specialty tea companies invent blends that deliberately evoke an unlikely-and inauthentic-melding of geographies and cultures to meet consumers' desire to be transported. For example, Mighty Leaf Tea's trademark blend, Green Tea Tropical, includes 'notes that conjure up a sense of escape to a tropical island,' says Mighty Leaf's founder and CEO, Gary Shinner. One small but successful company, Zhena's Gypsy Tea, bases its marketing on the founder's Ukrainian heritage-a heritage that is not known for its tea but that contains just the right dose of exoticism. 'Specialty tea is being driven by consumers' desire to learn more of the world,' says Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA.

If a Sumatran latte no longer evokes the mystique it once did before Starbucks saturated the American landscape, the display of Tazo tea-which the company purchased in 1999-featured on the chain's counters might serve to reclaim that aura. Tazo is one of the fastest-growing brands of specialty tea in North America. Its original marketing at Starbucks used images of Sikhs, Chinese, and Britons blissfully sipping cups of Tazo. Indeed, the Tazo brand was conceived as a 'combination of cultures drawn together,' explains Steve Smith, Tazo's founder and vice president of tea. 'Our goal was to have the brand look like it was from there and then, not here and now,' using ambiguous symbology 'to appeal to people who are into discovery.' Never mind the reality of these exotic destinations-you're more likely to sip chai in India on the sidewalk of a filthy street than in monsoon-swept serenity-but marketing isn't about reality, of course, just as an adventure travel catalog listing for 'Seven Days on the Silk Road' says nothing about poverty or, for that matter, diarrhea.

The wave of specialty tea companies founded in the early 1990s coincided with a rising tide of Americans traveling to the mystical realms found on their packages. Countries such as Bhutan opened their doors and Americans set out to explore new frontiers rather than just imagine them. An 'adventure travel' industry expanded to satisfy Americans'-especially baby boomers'-'hunger for authentic experiences . . . to leave the clinical corporate environment and touch something real,' says Kevin Callaghan, CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek, a pioneer in the industry. Over time, more tourist infrastructure and services have made farther reaches of the world more accessible and attractive. In 2005 a record number of U.S. travelers ventured abroad. No longer, tour operators say, do these American travelers want to simply get to a destination, they want an experience-and in recent years travel companies have scrambled to meet that wish for more in-depth activities. Today's vacationer wants authenticity, healthy activity, and meaningful engagement. To this increasingly mainstream American consumer, and the three-quarters of Americans who don't have passports, Steve Smith would like to offer a pot of tea.


The administrative capital of the Republic of Tea occupies the ground floor of a standard-issue suburban office park building outside Novato, California, north of San Francisco. Inside, soft yellow walls color a few rooms of cubicles arranged by a feng shui master. An enormous display case near the front door is stocked with the company's dizzying array of tea-related products, which include Stir Fry Tea Oil, Jerry Garcia Artisan Tea, and rooibos-based blends like Get a Grip Herb Tea for PMS/Menopause No. 4. (Where is this all headed?)

One morning last August, various 'ministers' holding metal spoons congregated in the office kitchen around two small bowls of tea. The company had decided it needed a 'relaxing tea,' and these tasters were evaluating candidates for a reformulated version of an existing brand, Zen Dream Tea. Each bowl contained lemon balm, lavender, chamomile, and valerian, in different concentrations. The ministers dipped their spoons, sniffing and slurping the tea, commenting on taste and calming profiles.

Mel Ziegler sold Republic of Tea less than two years after he founded it, but his self-reflective book chronicling those years, Republic of Tea: Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur (Doubleday, 1992), commands near-biblical reverence at the company and is required reading for new employees. 'It carries the spirit of why we exist-the philosophy behind who we are,' says Minister of Commerce (national sales and education) Barbara Graves, adding, 'but we're really not a cult!'

For millennia, tea has been bound up in ritual, often occupying the center of ceremonial practices. And ritual is the essence of religion, defined as a set of practices that divide the world between the sacred and the profane (or everyday), in the process creating a community or social experience. Tea companies strongly market the ritual consumption of tea-'take the tea transformation,' Numi tells consumers. They provide instructions on how to prepare it, and when to drink it. 'They're talking about creating a type of sacred space,' notes Brown University professor of religion Mark Cladis. 'The ordinary or everyday is that hectic, fast-paced way we live our lives. Tea upsets this routine, introducing the sacred moments where we can be mindful of who and where we are, where schedules have disappeared momentarily.'

In 1994 Steve Smith introduced Tazo tea in Portland, hailing the company as 'The Reincarnation of Tea.' Inspired by brass rubbings on churches, Smith incorporated cryptic symbology in the Tazo logo. He describes the alchemical process of creating blends such as Om and Zen, initiated by unconsciously scribbling formulas down on a yellow pad, as less mad scientist than 'channeling the tea shaman.' Smith packaged the teas in text-heavy boxes loaded with jibberish and obscure signatures and equations-'our version of the Rosetta stone,' he says. The intention may have been whimsical, but Smith admits an alternate purpose in Tazo's manufactured mysticism. 'Life is about the detail,' he explains. 'You miss the detail, and where are you? We try to drop in little bits and pieces that will pay back when you dig into it and make you think. In this day and age, you find your spirituality where you can.'

Credit: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons

But most Americans are not finding their spirituality in a cup of tea, of course-for many, it's just a tasty beverage and a way, they hope, to live longer. However, with gimmicky, pop-spiritual marketing, Smith and his peers in the industry are attempting to attract a population that is searching. The fabric of American communities and families has frayed in recent decades, some sociologists argue, and recent studies identify a population that is ever more socially isolated. Where Americans once found purpose in community, their appetite for meaning is being played out in a search for unorganized spirituality or the rediscovery of religion in many forms, including evangelicalism. Even society's rediscovery of tea has taken on a 'born again' character, exhibited foremost in the fervor of the founders of this generation of specialty tea companies, many of whom arrived at tea later in life and now extol it as a life-transforming force. If, for most Americans, tea doesn't provide meaning and order, then at the very least, a soothing, healthful beverage 'is very comfortable at a time when the world is increasingly uncomfortable, unpredictable, and dangerous,' says sociologist Juliet Schor. 'Tea feels safe.'

All the whimsy and marketing mystique that companies craft into specialty tea brands boils down to a matter of consumer taste. (After all, they're selling a beverage.) To appeal to Americans' insatiable thirst for new varieties, and to satisfy palates unaccustomed to tea's subtle flavor nuances-which could otherwise seem plain or, if the tea is improperly brewed, bitter-specialty tea companies load on the flavor (increasingly using natural ingredients as opposed to the sprays and oils mass market brands employ). Flavored teas aren't an exclusively American twist. Jasmine and Earl Grey blends have long been favored around the world. But we prefer much sweeter and stronger flavors, notes Wei Huang, the Chinese American owner of Arogya, a tea shop in Westport, Connecticut. 'Americans put soy sauce on plain white rice and use sugar to sweeten green tea-you wouldn't see this in China,' she says. Companies usually add these flavors to inferior leaves. However, across the board, remarks tea expert Norwood Pratt, today's specialty brands 'are now providing 'premium' tea in contrast to the 'ordinary' tea bag quality.'


Tea and coffee have long represented a great yin-and-yang duality. In The World of Caffeine (Routledge, 2001), authors Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer lay out these opposing aspects: Coffee is male; tea is female. Coffee is boisterous, hardheaded, and down-to-earth; tea is decorous, nurturing, and elevated. While coffee is associated with work and passion, tea reflects spirituality and contemplation.

In light of coffee's historic associations, it comes as no surprise that it became the symbol for the defiant American revolutionaries. More than two centuries later, a kinder, gentler revolutionary spirit continues, playing out-naturally, as goes America-in the marketplace. 'An impetus for me in designing Numi's packaging was to infuse the most mundane activity, walking through a grocery store, with the sublime and rich in self-reflection,' says Numi Tea co-founder Reem Rahim. 'What other way to subversively create a revolution-in this sense, a spiritual revolution-than through art and tea? I believe that tea, and art, are part of a feminine energy that is starting to permeate through our shift in consciousness.'

Rahim's desire to redirect society sounds markedly similar to another cultural creative's mission for his own company. 'Our secret and subversive agenda,' Mel Ziegler wrote about founding the Republic of Tea, 'was to bring Americans to an awareness of 'tea mind,' in which we would all come to appreciate the perfection, the harmony, the natural serenity, and the true aesthetic in every moment and in every natural thing.'

But as Schor, Ray, and others point out, American society is evolving to that place anyway, becoming a little more yin, a little less yang; a little more feminine, a little less masculine; a little slower, a little less fast. The course tea has taken in this country-rejected one brisk evening in Boston, regarded as 'unmanly' and 'un-American,' and now embraced, at least in part, as a backlash to the dominant social paradigm dating from that historic event-may reflect a young society maturing. 'Perhaps the exercise in moving from Banana Republic to the Republic of Tea,' Mel Ziegler pondered, 'is all only a projection of my own slow process of growing up.'