What America Gets Wrong About Tea

If you consider the average day of a caffeine addict in a coffee culture like America, it might look something like this -- in the morning, a pot of dark brew, drained by family or co-workers; in the afternoon, an espresso drink precisely ordered to-go in a plastic cup, and maybe, if time allows, a sit-down coffee date with a friend.

The coffee’s aroma, flavoring, and preparation give it undeniable gastronomic pleasure, but ultimately, the drink is ritual fuel to get through the day. In America, I consider myself a coffee person, but making a pot of coffee is mostly a lonely, solitary affair. Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee, as the saying goes. (In fact, in 2016, Americans drank more coffee than tea, soda, and juice combined.)

Compare this to a tea culture, like Pakistan, where I spent Christmas holiday. For three leisure-filled weeks, my friendship with coffee was ended and black tea became my best friend. Caffeine consumption was a languorous, communal affair, an indispensable partner to conversation and light snacks. In Urdu and Punjabi, all forms of tea are called chai or cha, and there are two popular preparations for black tea -- the colonial British-stye (dum chai) steeped in a pot and then poured individually into tea cups and the subcontinental-style (mixed chai), cooked on a stovetop with milk, loose leaves, and perhaps a pod of cardamom and then ladled into taller cups. Importantly, tea is always a social event -- I found myself using it to extend the conversation after every meal. In fact, there is no bad time for the tea in Pakistan. I drank it before going to sleep every night and still drifted off peacefully, something I rarely do when I drink coffee. 

I love coffee, but as a teetotaler back in New York and Michigan, I found myself missing those daily, social tea breaks. Ordering tea instead of coffee at a cafe doesn’t scratch the same itch. So why doesn’t America, the home of many Tea Parties, drink tea like the rest of the world?

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Erika Rappaport, UCSB professor and author of A Thirst For Empire: How Tea Shaped The Modern World, told me you have to go back to the British empire’s ascent as the primary tea distributor in the world to understand how tea failed to become mass-culture in America. Prior to the East India Company, tea drinkers were more likely to drink Chinese-imports; in the 19th and 20th century, the British used colonized India as a base to successfully establish competitive tea agriculture and bring their tea culture globally.

The story of how it spread from there is where some of America’s conflicted relationship with tea becomes clear. “Until about the 1850s, America drank roughly the same amount of coffee and tea per head,” Dr Rappaport told me. “And then coffee really takes off. [Americans] don’t really decline the amount of tea they drink. The amount of coffee just skyrockets.” In India and in other regions where tea took hold, advertisers targeted factory owners to sell tea to the workers on their break from harvesting cotton or jute. In fact, the tea industry at the time spent nearly exactly the same amount of money advertising the product to both India and the US, but in the 1930s, after several decades of British tea production, some regions in India were drinking 4.3 pounds of tea per capita per annum, while Americans were still under one pound. 

Perhaps because of British association, in the early 20th century, tea in America had a reputation of being a “mollycoddled” drink, meaning queer or effeminate. If tea succeeded in America over the last 100 years, it is as a subculture. Rappaport described it as the drink of Southern anglophile women, and of minority communities like the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish immigrants. She suggested that this "association with disparaged immigrant communities," might have inhibited tea drinking. There is evidence, too, of Native Americans brewing caffeinated drinks with leaves for thousands of years on the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, there are many traditions of tea drinking in America. The South, as always, has something to say. Nichole Perkins, writer and co-host of the Thirst Aid Kit podcast, told me that making and drinking tea was a constant facet of her Nashville childhood. Importantly, the variety most often drunk in her home (and in most American households, accounting for 75-80% of all tea consumed) is iced tea. Her brother is the tea maker, brewing it in the sun-tea tradition of mixing tea and water and leaving the combination to steep in the rays of light for a day before being put in the fridge to cool. 

She also echoed Dr. Rappaport’s sentiment about tea’s gendered connotations by discussing the prominence of fancy tea parties, intended to teach a young girl how to host and socialize. But importantly, a tea party is exclusionary, not like the tea breaks of taxi drivers or factory workers. “Buying the proper tea set can be expensive and it’s not something most working class black people would put a lot of value in,” Perkins told me. If hot tea was drank in her household, it was mostly to cure an ailment.

sage tea
Feyyaz Alacam/Shutterstock

In the '60s and '70s, as orientalized and commercialized forms of Eastern practices like yoga and meditation became popular amongst white Americans, tea’s healing properties became a popular way for marketers to package the drink as an alternative to coffee. This has some precedent in tea cultures. Chinese tea importers in the 16th century also often played up the drink’s healing properties.  

But in China, according to Tim Hsu, founder of the Mandarin’s Tea Room in Manhattan, “tea” only refers to drinks brewed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, which is more commonly known as the tea plant, are useful for its diuretic and meditative properties. In Chinese languages, drinks made from Chrysanthemum or rooibos or other non-Camellia-based products are considered herbal or tonics. And while tea does have that important healing aspect, the social aspect is key. Hsu told me, in Cantonese culture, where the Dim Sum tradition originates, you often greet people with “Oh Yum Cha,” meaning, “Let’s go drink tea.” So while tea has healing dimensions to it, there are also many cultural connotations that tea is used for social reasons. “Tea involves a lot of etiquette, a lot of tradition, a lot of peacefulness in a sense.” Hsu said. “Because everything can be solved drinking tea and eating stuff.” 

In America, the mix of herbal and Camellia sinensis-based products are merged into a category called “tea” and have associations with healing and energy, but lack that feeling of socializing. In marketplaces, your favorite tea brand likely carries several varieties with a reference to an Asian spiritual tradition or healing practice. Take a look at the some of the names of the varieties from America’s most consumed tea companies: Davidson's Ayruvedic Infusions, Yogi Tea’s Egyptian Licorice, Tazo’s Zen, and many more. Even today, Celestial Seasoning’s tea advertises how tea can bring balance to your day: “From relaxing herbal teas to energizing chai and matcha lattes and everything in between… [Celestial Seasonings teas] are an invitation to bring the perfect balance to your day.” 

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The irony, of course, is that most tea in America does not come from Asia. As Dr. Rappaport told me, most imported tea bags today come from Africa, but you’ll rarely see references to Africa in marketing, beyond perhaps in Rooibos, which is native to South Africa. As with most global products, there is rarely a connection between the history, culture, and peoples involved in the making of tea and those purchasing it. 

Today, most coffee shops in America offer tea, with a few Starbucks-style chai-tea latte pre-mixed options and dozens of mass-market tea bags that a barista hands to you in a plastic cup full of hot water. Much rarer is the tea-house, a place primarily dedicated to the drinking and preparation of the drink. Starbucks made an attempt in this realm, acquiring Teavana in 2012 only to shutter all 379 of their Teavana retail locations in 2018. 

That is not to say that tea is not succeeding in America -- imports appear to grow year-on-year in America and consumers between 18 and 29 are evenly split on coffee and tea as their preferred drink. Still, tea will always struggle to become mass culture. Because tea takes time and tea takes people.

Like speciality coffee, speciality tea is also an emerging market. But with that comes a whole set of preconceptions about how tea should be consumed. Stefen Ramirez, the founder and tea specialist at Tea Dealers, explained that when customers come into his store in New York, they often come asking for a ritualized tea ceremony, for enlightenment, for meditation in a cup, or for weight loss and cancer relief. “Of course, it’s fucking healthy,” he told me. “Tea people, we know (that).” The “tea ceremony” consumers imagine is not some exotic ritual with a slab of ornate china and earthenware and fancy tools — for Ramirez, the real ceremony of tea is brewing and sharing it every day. 

For the American consumer, tea has a more specialized purpose. “When it comes to coffee, people tend to go (to cafes) and sit by themselves. If you notice, people are sitting with a laptop or a book.” Ramirez said. “With teahouses, it’s a social place. People will naturally start communicating and talking with each other about their experiences.” The mass market consumer buys their tea like their coffee in a cup to go. Otherwise, they brew it themselves at home like coffee, in a giant mug for one, curled up on a couch with a blanket and a good book. 

Plenty of businesses — often run by chefs of immigrant backgrounds — find innovative ways to center tea as a daily ritual, as social glue. Nom Wah, possibly New York’s oldest Chinese restaurants, collaborated with Hsu to develop a tasting menu that pairs tea with their food in a traditional Cantonese Dim Sum style,adapted to Nom Wah’s Americanized dishes. 

The Chai Spot features two locations in Sedona, Arizona and New York City where guests are invited to sit on giant takht pillows and drink Pakistani-style doodh patti cardamom tea or butter tea with friends, evoking that social environment I found in Pakistan. The founders, a married couple named Khalida Brohi and David Barron, told me that their concept came to fruition after tea was used to break down the barriers between their family. And Yunha Moh of Brooklyn’s Tamra Teahouse talked to me about serving drinks that cater to their local customer base and to their Asian and African food inspirations — Korean barley teas, Sorrel teas, and lemon ginger teas for healing. And of course, frugal buffet-style restaurants like Haandi in Manhattan and Kabab King in Queens serve as pit-stops for desi taxi drivers to grab a quick $1 cup with colleagues to refuel throughout the day.

In the end, intergenerational homes are the most consistent place to feel that magnetic, conversational pull that tea cultures provide. In my teens, long before I started drinking caffeine myself, we welcomed guests with tea the same way we were welcomed in Pakistan. Our parents entertained and gave salaams while my sisters and I would prepare a pot with loose leaf Earl Gray and cardamom, which we’d serve on a tray with biscuits and samosas. We would ask each guest how they’d take their tea, if we didn’t already know from years of visits. And when the first pot was inevitably drained, we’d make another and the whole process would start again. During Ramadan, an uncle with henna in his hair would throw tea leaves in a tin pot with milk and sugar during tarawih prayers. He’d strain it into individual cups and serve it with desserts to the exhausted believers after a long day of fasting. 

Nowadays, I take my friends out to grab cheap chai at my favorite Pakistani restaurants and sometimes, we make a facsimile of uncle-chai on our stove top when friends visit. I imagine for other children of immigrants like me, a similar story plays out. For me, tea drinking is, by its nature, social. There is no tea without other people. 

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Ahmed Ali Akbar is a writer and host of the See Something Say Something podcast series. Previously, he was a Staff Writer for BuzzFeed and a Detroit public school teacher. He acted as a correspondent to Netflix’s "Follow This," Pushkin’s Solvable, and other shows. Find him on Twitter @radbrowndads