Steeped in Tea

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.

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.’

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.’

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.