Has the USA been a tea-drinking country?
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Has the USA been a tea-drinking country?

One of the most famous single events in tea history occurred in the United States: the Boston Tea Party destruction of shiploads of tea from England that launched the American Revolution in 1773. Otherwise, the US has been seen as very much a peripheral player in the innovations and impacts of tea. Tea has always been secondary to coffee and all in all, it’s easy to see the US as just another market for Chinese and Indian teas.

The wider history of tea in the US is very different from this bland picture. First of all, when the British acquired New Amsterdam, the city that became New York, in 1667, they found the colonists already drinking more tea than the whole of England. It had arrived with Dutch traders who were the pacesetters in tea, along with the Portuguese and French; the English were late entrants. Tea was embedded in the colonists’ social life. Paul Revere was noted as a master maker of silver teapots well before he made his famous ride. George Washington had tea for breakfast and supper daily.

The problem that created the Boston Harbor tea dumping was the British government need to raise taxes to pay for the colonists’ share of the seven year war with the French that had left Britain globally triumphant and near-broke. The East India Company, the nation’s giant combination of multinational business and imperial manager, needed to protect its prices and monopoly of the China tea trade. The Americans happily drank their far less expensive tea – almost all of it smuggled through, naturally, the Dutch.

The Tea Party was the confluence of all these and other forces. The now free Americans happily continued drinking tea while politically disdaining it, a little like the token efforts to rename French fries Freedom fries after 9/11. Coffee expanded to take a dominant market position. After the Revolution, the US was free to trade directly with China. Tea was 40% of the total trade in 1820 and 65% in 1860.

342 chests of tea were dumped into the Boston Harbor, by  colonial settlers protesting the Tea Act and the East India Company's monopoly over tea trade in America.

342 chests of tea were dumped into the Boston Harbor, by colonial settlers protesting the Tea Act and the East India Company’s monopoly over tea trade in America.

The nation became a force in the China-Europe tea commerce through speed. Its magnificent tea clippers set new standards in shipping, with intense competition to cut months off the transit time. From the 1840s-60s, the US maritime fleets dominated China trade. That lead disappeared with the emergence of steam, the opening of the Suez Canal and the failure to keep up with the fleet developments of England, France and Spain.

The China supply of tea continued. China would accept only silver and gold for payment with minimal interest in importing foreign, The British “solved” this through flooding China with opium from India, which led to the two Opium Wars that destroyed China’s social and economic system, with the cession of Hong Kong the main result. The US benefited from the opening of commercial relationships, with tea still the key element of trade. By the 1890s, China disappeared from the global tea market as the British built its huge black tea base of Indian and then Sri Lankan plantations.  

The US imports of tea from China plummeted for a major reason that doesn’t at all fit the conventional history: Japan. Until World War II, half of US tea imports came from a country that now exports only a fraction of its often superb teas. When Commander Perry sailed his warships into Yokohama harbor in 1859 and made this cloistered nation an offer it could not refuse, he opened up a massive new flow of trade. The aim had been to support America’s failing whaling industry but the many disused whalers were soon transporting hundreds of thousands of tons of green tea. Chinese workers flowed into Japan to teach the secret methods of tea making. In particular, they created many artificially colored teas, using graphite and Prussian Blue. Pan-fried teas solved the problems of transportation and damp that rotted them on the long trips across the Pacific.

The US had a huge demand for green teas. Each major tea market has evolved its own distinctive preferences: chai in India, milky plus sugar and spice;  cay, the strong drink in a glass of Turkey, the largest per capita tea drinkers in the world; and two-step brewed smoky caravan in Russia. The US was distinctive and unique in its iced tea, which amounts to 80% of today’s sales. Japan’s green teas met the need. Pearl Harbor brought a total halt to Japan imports, just as the Cold War II closed down US-China trade until the 1970s. Even then, regulation blocked many of its products. It is only in the past years that puehrs were made legal; they didn’t meet agricultural and health regulations.

There was little direct sourcing from India, but the market was supplied by the small number of global packagers, most obviously Lipton and Tetley that established a Made in England marketing gloss to teas. Now, half of US tea comes from Argentina, a country with no tradition of tea consumption – the national equivalent is matte. This is tea of poor quality targeted to the iced tea and ready to drink business.

There has never been a tea-growing industry in the US, except for very tiny operations. That was contrary to expectations. A US government commission launched a program to set up gardens in the warm South with all its huge plantations and slave labor. Except for one in South Carolina, they all fizzled. The US Patent Office hired the intrepid Robert Fortune, who had after decades of espionage and smuggling, brought China tea seedlings to India, creating the giant new source of supply from Assam.

He was paid the same fee to bring tea to Washington. Somehow, the personality mix was not smooth and he was fired. A later initiative set up farming in Savannah, Georgia, in 1895. That was it. There is a token operation in SC that is now funded by the Bigelow family. Until just a few years ago, its Colonial Plantation tea was on the shelves of Walmart.

The main problem was climate. Tea thrives on mountains, with wide seasonal variations in heat and rain. The South was warm but not a natural terrain for tea. The limited production could never be cost-efficient, Labor costs were eight times those of China and India.

In the background, though, the commercial side of tea saw several US innovations that spread across the global. Iced tea was one. This had long been a practice in the South but the St. Louis Fair of 1904 saw it take on a product and brand identity. Around the same time, a tea broker in New York made the move that changed the tea world. Many would add “alas” to that. This was the teabag. It was a simple and practical tool developed for him to package and economize on samples to send to prospective customers: light and small silk bags. Customers started brewing the tea in the bag.

The tea bag took off in the US but not in the UK, which resisted it until the late 1940s, as it did the next US development: instant tea. Overall, the historical pattern of tea innovation in the US has been convenience: iced tea, tea bags, and ready to drink teas in cans and bottles. That meant that imports were mainly for ultra-low grade ingredients. This tradition and economic base explains why so much of the growth in demand for green tea for its presumed health benefits has resulted in a plethora of bitter, bland and pretty dreadful teas.

The specialty tea market was just that: odds and ends of local stores, a few gourmet retailers, and little distribution. In the background, though, some really special packagers and blenders emerged to offer a wider, fresher and more varied range of choices. Rishi, Republic of Tea and Harney are instances. The Internet has driven what may be termed the globalization of the US buyer.

Adagio and Upton are instances of online US retailers that have set global standards. Individual tea gardens now sell directly from Asia. The cumbersome auction, broker and global bulk blending mechanisms that have made Dubai the largest tea center in the world (that’s where most of Lipton’s teas are produced) is being complemented and overtaken by new integrators along the supply chain. US tea drinkers now have access to as wide a variety and quality of tea as anywhere in the world. (The best China and Japan teas are still mainly consumed domestically.) Teabox is part of this globalization: Indian from a supply view, US, British and Russian from a buyer perspective.

The US has always been a nation of tea drinkers. It’s largely been not very good tea, constrained by supply. Most observers point to the continued growth of “value-added” premiumization of supply – i.e., decent tea – and interest in tea and see “education” as a key need: letting Americans know about all the choices they now have and bringing together growers, distributors and buyers. What emerges from this brief revisit of the history of tea in the US is that it has always been dynamic and open. The main trends have shown up in supermarkets, in tea bags and iced teas and a general lack of awareness about the wider choices and offers. One of our goals in Still Steeping is to be part of the new globalization of US tea drinking: the dialog integrator.

The featured banner is of a Charleston lady and her afternoon cup of tea, dated 1920s-30s..

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

10 Comments

  1. Christine Bullen says

    Lovely article, Peter, than you! A brief anecdote: We live in New Bern, NC which is also the home to Tryon Palace, an historic mansion, tryonpalace.org

    On a tour we were shown a greenish-brown block about 12″ square with embossed designs on it and asked what we thought it was. No one guessed the true nature of the thing – a compressed block of tea. They went on to explain that only the rich could afford tea as we know it today and that the block was made by sweeping the floor where the tea was packaged, including sawdust and rodent droppings, compressing it and making it available to the masses. Apparently one would chip off a small piece to brew tea. Sounds just delightful, no?

  2. Peter GW Keen
    peter keen says

    His Chris — many thanks for the comment.

    Up till the 1820s, the price of tea was very high and the quality awful. The stuff the Tea Party dumped was two years old “bohea” and “hyson” out of China. It was routine to add sheeps dung and colorings. What your guide amusingly captures is that the broken tea leaf bits and prices were also swept up and compressed — now they are captured in the processing and are the “dust” and “fannings” in tea bags.

    Chinese puehrs are high grade compressed bricks, embossed and formed into frisbee sizes, bricks, mushroom shapes, melons and many others. Compressed, tea continues to mature and there are puehrs still ripening that are over two hundred years old. My guess is that what you saw would have been steamed very lightly and put in a cloth with a weight to press it.

    The great contribution of the British blenders and packagers — most obviously Thomas Lipton, the Twinings and Tetley brothers and a few others was to democratize tea and greatly improve its quality. The adulteration ended and the bricks disappeared — puhers hit the US and European markets only in the 1980s, even though they are the longest-established of all China teas.

    • Andres Vialpando says

      You know a lot about tea. I see you wrote a book GREAT TEAS FOR EVERYDAY PLEASURE … May I ask, what teas do you cover in that book?

      Thanks again for the interesting read,

      Andres

      • Peter GW Keen
        Peter Keen says

        Sorry for the delay in replying, Andres. I cover all teas — I love Japanese, for example. I have a new book coming out in around two months, that’s better focused and more focused on the tea drinker Great Teas was a little too much about tea rather than how to find, buy and explore it.

        • Andres Vialpando says

          Great! I’ll keep an eye out for it! Is it up for pre order on amazon or anything?

  3. Pingback: Who's drinking tea in America?

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