Part 2: The Race to the Bottom

Part 2:  THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM

By James Norwood Pratt

World War II changed the worldwide tea trade in every respect. In the West, traditions over 300 years in the making were ruined and never revived. In the new beginning was the teabag—ubiquitously accepted throughout postwar America and Great Britain in the name of “modern convenience.” It rather quickly became difficult to find tea that was not packaged in teabags anywhere outside the tea-producing countries.

Here and there a few elderly and aristocratic firms continued to cater to the carriage trade in American cities—Mark T. Wendell in Boston, Simpson & Vail in New York, John Wagner & Sons in Philadelphia, Freed Teller Freed in San Francisco—but very few tea businesses of any other kind survived. Tea was mass-merchandized as a supermarket loss leader, an anonymous brown beverage confusingly called “black tea.”  Teabags became almost identical in content and “convenience” as brands like Tetley, Lipton, Red Rose and White Rose lost whatever differences may have once existed between them. Consumers simply shopped for the cheapest teabag—and the race to the bottom began.

Tea packers learned to economize on quality by substituting mechanically harvested and manufactured teas from new tea lands, notably Kenya and Argentina. As long as the tea was strong and dark, flavor mattered only slightly more than leaf appearance, which mattered not at all since the powder-like leaf was concealed inside its shroud. Teas such as poets once praised—Hyson, congou, bohea / And a few lesser divinities–altogether disappeared from the market. Tea had been drained of all romance.

This situation, which had prevailed since the 1940s, persisted in 1980, when I undertook my first tea book. I found the tea trade was not just sleepy–it was comatose, except for a very few exceptional individuals.

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