Earthy teacup invites you to sip and take your time.
Tea didn’t get off to the greatest start in America, thanks to the Boston Tea Party. Labeled as old-fashioned, it was thrown overboard (literally) and coffee became king. But these days, thanks to some great PR about its health benefits and a few cutting-edge teahouses, tea is making quite a stir again.
From Victorian tearooms to trendy tea bars, to more traditional Asian teahouses, there is no shortage of ways to enjoy tea in style. In fact, there are approximately 2,400 tea establishments across the country, according to the Tea Association of the United States. And that number doesn’t include coffeehouses like Starbucks that are also experimenting with tea drinks. Tall Iced Tazo Green Tea Latte, anyone?
Why tea? Bruce Richardson, author of "The Great Tearooms of America" and a leading tea expert, has been involved in tea’s American renaissance for over 20 years. Up until 2003, he attributed this resurgence to the fact that "people are looking for something that slows them down — it’s the antithesis to our fast-paced society."
But now Richardson thinks tea owes its success to the scientific studies heralding its health benefits. "You can’t pick up a magazine without reading about tea and health," he said. There’s even an International Scientific Symposium of Tea and Human Health (try saying that ten times fast).
Joe Simrany, President of the Tea Association of the U.S., has seen the industry grow tremendously since the early ’90s. He adds that tea has managed to shake its old-fashioned, even boring image and emerge as a drink for connoisseurs of all ages. "The specialty tea industry is very similar to the wine industry, except in one aspect — the cost. The finest tea in the world is still affordable to most tea consumers." What makes a fine tea? Well, "it’s a very personal thing," he said.
Here’s a quick tea 101. All tea comes from a single type of plant. The different varieties — black, green, white and oolong — result from the processing and fermentation. From there, you can experiment with endless blends and flavorings (herbal blends aren’t tea, per se, because they come from different plants). If you’ve got the time, loose leaf teas bring out stronger flavors – but you can get a decent brew from a bag.
With so many options and purists out there, tea can seem a little intimidating. So here are some tips to help you find a great teahouse, and the perfect cup of tea, in a city near you.
Teas for every taste.
The call of the crumpet
When most people think of teatime, they picture ladies in hats, porcelain cups and floral patterns punctuated by doilies, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The British Victorian-style teahouse and the tradition of afternoon tea — complete with scones, crumpets, tea sandwiches and petit-fours — are alive and well in America. But you don’t need to don a bow-tie or tiara to enjoy one of these festive locales — unless you want to, of course.
Step into The Tea Room in Savannah, Ga. or the QueenMary Tea Room in Seattle, and you would expect Earl Grey himself to walk in. For $20-30, you can enjoy a lavish prix fixe afternoon tea, or you can be a bit more frugal and order a la carte. But keep in mind there’s more to these menus than traditional British teas, including a number of African, Asian and even South American blends.
"The great thing about the American tearoom is that you’re not pigeonholed," said Richardson. "You have certain expectations from a British tearoom, but here, we can take the best foods from around the world, pair them with the best teas from around the world, and make a unique American experience."
Also, many inns and hotels around the country like the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago and the Inn at Irving Plaza in New York City offer high-end teas open to the public. Prices range from $16 to $40, depending on the kind of tea service you order. For example, the Grand America in Salt Lake City has two tea menus you can choose from — the Grand Traditions Tea for $30 or the Afternoon Tea for $16.
Not your grandmother’s tea party
If the Victorian-style atmosphere isn’t exactly your cup of tea, there is no shortage of sleek, contemporary teahouses that bring some edginess to the tradition of tea. If you’re looking to experiment with tea and the many ways in which it can be flavored, blended and infused, these modern teahouses are right up your alley.
Teany, opened by Kelly Tisdale and DJ/artist Moby in New York City in 2002, is one of the standouts in the trendy teahouse craze. Located in an impossibly hip neighborhood, the café remains unpretentious with its white and metallic color scheme, its 98 teas from around world and the largely vegan menu (you’ll swear the strawberry shortcake is made with real cream). New York is also home to Arium, a high-end stop for a spot of tea, with a with a gallery and performance space for live jazz.
The Teany teahouse in New York City.
But New York doesn’t have a monopoly on innovative teahouses. Remedy Tea Bar opened its doors in Philadelphia in 2005, started by two sisters who wanted to create a "hip, modern-day" space for tea. Its eclectic menu includes tisanes (fruit blends) and healthful drinks infused with tea. Keeping with the trend, Seattle also has a Remedy Teas (no relation) which takes style cues from the city’s famous coffee scene, but sets itself apart with organic teas, artisan blends and tea cocktails.
The few cutting-edge teahouses that broke from the pack to make tea "cool" have revolutionized the industry in this country, according to Richardson. "Tea was traditionally an older set, but now we have a completely different demographic. You see a lot of 20- and 30-year-olds really enjoying tea," he said.
A green revolution
Nowadays, green tea is hailed as a miracle elixir, fighting against cancer, arthritis and cardiovascular disease, among other things. This has driven the growing popularity of Asian-inspired teahouses, known for their vast and unusual selections of teas rich in anti-oxidants. This stylistic shift is fitting, says Simrany, considering the largest producer of teas are China, India and Sri Lanka. If you’re looking for a relatively no-frills, tea-centric experience, these teahouses should fit the bill.
It’s also fitting that the health-conscious state of California is home to one of the most tea-friendly cities. "San Francisco is to tea what Seattle is to coffee," said Richardson. "If you look at how many American tea companies started in the Bay Area, you’d think there’s something in the water … It’s very open to multi-cultural influences, especially from Asia."
San Francisco is home to a bustling Chinatown, where you’ll find the Imperial Tea Room — the country’s first Chinese tearoom. Visitors can sample the dim sum, participate in a tea ceremony and sip a variety of teas, including Imperial Grade leaves that can cost over $100 for a quarter-pound. Another treasure worth exploring is the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, with a serene teahouse set in the context America’s oldest traditional Japanese garden (opened in 1893).
The Imperial Teahouse in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
But Asian teahouses aren’t all about tradition. There’s a new breed that’s aiming to surprise and educate. The most prominent is Teavana, established in Atlanta in 1997, a hip and holistic chain that presents itself as an Asian-inspired tea bar and emporium.
Cha-An, a Japanese teahouse in New York City, also surprises and educates its customers with a contemporary Japanese tea menu and a beautiful space dedicated to teaching and performing the ancient Japanese tea ceremony.
Tea for all time?
Whatever your cup of tea, both Simrany and Richardson agree that even if some of the fervor for tea fades, it now plays a major role in the caffeination of our nation. But beyond that, as Richardson notes, "Tea is the communal cup of the world. No matter where you go, it’s what people drink as they get together" — and America has finally joined the ranks. Now that’s what I call staying power.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering cultural trends and community issues. She is also the Seattle Newcomer blogger for the Examiner.