America's tea revolution
A nation rediscovers its old drinking habits
With a shop on what seems like every urban corner, Starbucks is such a fixture in American life that you gauge a neighbourhood by how near you are to one of its coffee houses. Yet when it first started operating in 1971 it was known as "Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice". In those very early days, 27 different kinds of loose-leaf teas were scooped from its store at Pike Place Market in Seattle. As it expanded it focused on coffee, retaining only a small offering of tea behind its counters.
Times were tough for tea aficionados parching for their favourite cuppa during the coffee boom, until 1997, when Teavana opened its first premises in Atlanta. It quickly grew, eventually selling a wide range of fine teas and tea paraphernalia in its 300 locations, though it mostly sells loose-leaf tea (you can also get a brew if you are prepared to wait). Then in 2003 Argo Tea was founded in an up-market neighbourhood in Chicago and is to tea what Starbucks is to coffee. Dotted around the country its stores are temples for tea drinkers, even carrying tea-flavoured food.
Tea is the second-most popular beverage in the world, after water. But most Americans still prefer to drink it iced, in many varieties, and have so far taken a different approach to hot tea. Coffee is part of the morning ritual to get going, iced tea is consumed with lunch, and in the evening botanicals and infusions, such as camomile, are drunk. Loose-leaf teas, so familiar in much of the the rest of the world, have not been that popular since 324 tea chests were dumped into Boston harbour in 1773.
But tastes change and interest in drinking hot tea is rising. Last year Starbucks paid $620m for Teavana and together they plan to take on the $90 billion "global hot and iced-tea category". Starbucks is opening its first Teavana-branded tea house that will sell hot tea (but no coffee) on October 24th, in New York’s Upper East Side. Cliff Burrows, the group president of Starbucks, thinks that buying Teavana will help it tap the growing market for drinking tea in many flavours and varieties. One reason for the brewing interest is that the younger generation, the millennials, have travelled to more exotic climes and discovered the world's favourite drink.
Like coffee and chocolate, teas have a rich history and background that the new stores will capitalise on. Mr Burrows was drinking a monkey-picked oolong as we spoke over the phone. (Starbucks has also come up with several other rather whizzy modern interpretations of tea, such as sparkling silver-needle iced tea and sparkling golden monkey.) Argo has done well selling hot tea to drink, but Starbucks is a force to be reckoned with. At the end of the year, when a second Starbucks tea house opens, in Seattle, it will become clearer whether Americans are ready to fall in love with tea again. And to give a (kind of) definitive ruling on the subject, Starbucks’s Mr Burrows thinks those who use milk in their tea should put it in after the tea has been poured into the cup, not before.
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