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.