Why you should care

Because America may be about to see its first billion dollar tea company.

With America’s first act of defiance against British rule symbolized in 1773 by throwing crates of tea into the Boston Harbor, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans had made up their minds on the matter of tea versus coffee. But a growing number of Americans are reclaiming their Old World heritage by turning to the leafy beverage for a tasty alternative to their coffee addiction.

There is no doubt that coffee remains the hot drink of choice amongst most Americans, with coffee manufacturers netting an impressive $9.6 billion in wholesale revenue last year, 10 times the tea industry’s haul. The U.S., ranked just 69th in the world in per capita consumption, still has a lot of tea to drink to catch up to the world’s leaders: The average American drinks her way through 12 ounces of tea per year, well short, for example, of the 242 ounces consumed per capita in Britain.

Retail sales of tea in U.S. cafés, shops and grocery stores reached $15.7 billion, up nearly 32 percent from 2007.

Still, U.S. beverage analyst Jennifer Zegler believes that “the rise in tea’s popularity in the U.S. has opened the market for manufacturers,” with the “potential to elevate tea to the level of other premium beverages, such as coffee.”

Color rendering with ship on right with protestors pouring tea from the ship.

Artist’s rendering of the Boston Tea Party. In actuality, the event occurred at night and with a minimum of fuss, despite artistic renderings to the contrary.

Source Getty

And if you read the tea leaves, the balance is indeed slowly shifting, and America is increasing its intake of the world’s most consumed beverage. Retail sales of tea in U.S. cafés, shops and grocery stores reached $15.7 billion, up nearly 32 percent from 2007, with the market expected to expand upwards of $18 billion in the next two years. The health benefits of tea drinking, especially the unfermented green variety, have been well documented: tea drinking is associated with calorie burning, immunity boosting and cancer fighting properties.

No one is saying that the days of coffee domination are numbered, but a growing dissatisfaction with the homogeneous blend of hot water and milk is causing ripples.

These ripples may yet be a long way from forming waves, but they are enough to make the corporate chiefs take notice.

In 1997, 26 years after Starbucks first opened its doors, a husband and wife team made the bold decision to open a café to rival the chain. Teavana, originally based in Atlanta, was a “part tea bar, part tea emporium” designed to offer customers an alternative to the coffee giants. The success of the brand was such that last December Teavana was bought for $620 million by, you guessed it, Starbucks.

Teavana’s planned growth from 300 stores to over 1,000 in the next two years may leave many tea drinkers wondering where they can further their newfound love of tea away from the clawing paws of the corporate vacuum. In a true cycle of fate, many of America’s new tea drinkers are turning back to the Old World they so symbolically rejected all those years ago. However, it is not Britain but that oldest of allies, the French, who are providing the answer.

In a true cycle of fate, many of America’s new tea drinkers are turning back to the Old World they symbolically rejected all those years ago.

France has long had a history of fine tea, with several boutiques leading the way when it comes to specialist blends. Fortunately for those who are not quite ready to stump up the money for a flight to Paris, the Internet is ready and waiting to transport you there — and more importantly to ship your purchases back to the States.

One option is Mariage Frères, which for 130 years imported tea wholesale into France before transforming itself into a retailer, setting up teahouses within central Paris with the same ethos of providing superior quality tea to their clientele. Mariage Frères has yet to cross the Atlantic, but a purchase from their online store is sure to distinguish you as a true aficionado of tea, with Marco Polo’s Chinese and Tibetan leaves offering a creamy undertone to the fruity black flavors.

While Mariage Frères may remain true to the traditions of its birth, another Parisian boutique is leaping into the 21st century, producing unique, vibrant blends. Founded by a Russian expat in 1867, Kusmi Tea has already crossed the Atlantic, with two stores open in New York. Kusmi’s great appeal is its modern take on old traditions, and while the 2013 “BB Detox” may not sound appealing, its green tea and grapefruit combination has become a firm favorite amongst Kusmi devotees.

So while many coffee drinkers would need to have that last cup pried from their cold, dead fingers, the new trend in tea drinking offers a tasty (and tasteful) alternative for those willing to experiment with their drinking habits. The growing number of immigrants to the U.S. from Asia — a continent in which tea is not only a drink but a way of life — should also continue to bolster the leafy beverage’s popularity.

And so, in the true spirit of American revolution, tea is once again at the fore. This time, however, it is not the waters of Boston Harbor but the revolutionaries themselves who are enjoying the infusion.

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