Steeped in Tea

The social significance of one hot drink

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

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.

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