Tea in American Culture: Then & Now
Perhaps “American heritage” isn’t the first thing you think of when tea comes up. After all, tea (specifically from the camellia sinensis plant) is an ancient beverage dating back thousands of years to the glory days of the Silk Road. But to the surprise of many, the U.S. today actually holds strong as the second-largest importer of tea in the world after Pakistan, even ahead of the U.K.!
According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., about 84% of tea consumed in this country today is black tea (popular worldwide, too), while green tea holds the second place spot with 15% of consumption. The rest of tea drinkers’ preferences are mainly oolong, white, and “dark” tea, also known as pu’erh. But the how is just as interesting as the what in this story, since 80% of tea consumed in America is consumed in iced form–which means the summer months are especially attractive for tea drinkers in the States. Perhaps this signals a desire for a certain refreshing quality that iced tea provides. While the old, stale idea is that tea is for when you’re feeling sick or down, the modern interpretation is quite different: It’s a beverage that can be refreshing, invigorating, healing, or relaxing, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
But tea wasn’t always as varied or exciting stateside. Going back centuries, the major tea event of note in American history is the Boston Tea Party; although this spectacle was really about taxation from the motherland, and eventually, independence, tea was front and center as a major commodity that we were importing at the time (and continue to today). More notably, the tea dumped into the Boston Harbor on that day was mostly an orange-flavored black tea (a precursor to earl grey, perhaps), and by some accounts, green tea.
Fast forward to the digital age. A lot has changed, but our penchant for tea has not (although the way we drink it has). We all know Americans love convenience, and tea is moving more and more toward that designation in our minds. Tea has left its ritualistic days and is now considered easy to consume whether you’re home or out, and it’s also simple to transport, given the bevy of tea-straining and brewing bottles on the market today. Take a hot tea on your road trip to Vermont or an iced tea when trekking through the Utah desert. Perhaps having it on the go is part of what keeps America devoted to tea.
Specialty tea brands, like Heavenly Tea Leaves, are accelerating in popularity nationwide, likely thanks to a growing emphasis on health and wellness (and as we all know, tea is an integral part of a health-focused, holistic lifestyle). Often evolving past low-quality tea bags, Americans are discovering the magic of loose-leaf teas and even matcha - the coveted Japanese health elixir.
Today, even the best tea is considered an affordable luxury, maxing out at about ten cents a serving at home, versus a dollar or more for other caffeinated or comparable beverages. Location makes a difference in tea habits, too. Most tea drinkers are located in the Northeast (coastal vibes, of course) and the South (sweet tea, anyone?). Further, about half–yep, half–of the American population drinks tea on a daily basis. And when lacking sweeteners or additives, it’s certainly a healthy food, boasting baked-in antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and more.
So this Memorial Day Weekend, when you’re whipping up a nice, cool pitcher of lemon iced tea to go along with your barbecue, you can remind your friends and family that tea is just about as American as it gets.
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