Part 5: The Pace Quickens

Part 5: THE PACE QUICKENS

Republic of Tea, Oregon Chai, Chez Panisse, Tea Magazine, Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, T Salon, Dushanbe, Teacup, Chado, Ching-Ching Cha, Teaism

By James Norwood Pratt

And in 1992 the Republic of Tea was brought into being by young Zentrepreneur Will Rosenzweig, with coaching and investment from his fellow tea lover Mel Ziegler of Banana Republic clothiers. Their story came out as a book, The Republic of Tea: The Story of the Creation of a Business, as Told Through the Personal Letters of Its Founders, published at the same time their line of teas first appeared. It’s a story that speaks to the true reasons for tea’s popularity and appeal—that it is an agricultural product which can become a work of art. Rosenzweig and Ziegler realized tea is not a commodity like oatmeal or salt but an artisan product like wine and should be valued and sold accordingly, with the romance of tea as the sizzle. They proceeded to disregard all price ceilings and charge what their teas were worth. The Republic of Tea proved an overnight success.

Oregon Chai was another innovation which found a ready market. Returning to Portland from an extended stay in India, Heather MacMillan brought home an unappeasable craving for India’s national drink, then unheard of in the US. She gave birth to Oregon Chai in her mother’s kitchen and quickly won a local following. Her chai got its authentic taste from the Nilgiri tea Devan Shah supplied and she got her first national exposure exhibiting in his booth at a New York Fancy Food Show, where she was spotted by Newsweek. Heather’s example inspired chai makers in Colorado and eventually across the country: Another milepost.

Tea commerce and tea culture are inseparable twins and as the specialty tea business grew in the US so did the cult of tea. It was aided, in some measure at least, by The Tea Lover’s Treasury, the first “serious” investigation of tea since Ukers. Despite an introduction by M.F.K.Fisher, the book was a commercial disappointment, grudgingly kept in print and selling barely over 20,000 copies in its first decade. My readers proved influential out of all proportion to their numbers, however, and made their presence felt within the broader “foodie” trend of the times. Helen Gustafson of Chez Panisse became a beacon in our embryonic cult of tea as it gradually became conscious of itself. Pearl Dexter launched Tea: A Magazine and newsletters by Diana Rosen in California and Linda Ashley Leamer in Minnesota appeared.

We were soon nodes in a sort of underground tea network and were besieged with requests for information or introductions. Another milepost was the first “Harney Tea Summit,” held in 1994 in an effort to educate the press about the joys and varieties of tea, though none of them cared anything about tea until a year or two later when the health benefits of tea drinking became a running story. Millions of Americans who had never given tea a thought were suddenly giving it a try and the “specialty tea” business began to boom. Harney Tea Summits in subsequent years focused on teaching attendees how to enter the trade.

Because Americans are simply giddy over good health, it took a parade of scientific proofs that tea is good for the human body to make sales soar. This factor, which is almost entirely to the credit of the Tea Association of the USA. cannot be over-estimated but it was not the only factor. Aging Baby Boomers began discovering that coffee is no friend of over-50’s the way tea can be. Even while Starbucks’ growth still seemed inexorable, a Coffee Recovery Movement of sorts was also growing. But successful trends need to be fun and for this tea had to escape what I secretly thought of as “the Doily Ghetto,” a cultural artifact inherited from other times and places, chiefly British, and beloved by generations of grandmothers who believed in a proper way of doing things, tea most of all. Their image of a tea room was decidedly feminine, with more attention to hats and linens than to the tea itself: picture The Importance of Being Ernest. Tea was only an after-thought at haute-Doily Ghetto temples like the Palm Court at the Plaza in New York, where poor preparation guaranteed terrible tea even after John Harney created their signature Palm Court blend.

Nobody in the Doily Ghetto really cared about the tea, in contrast to pioneer entrepreneurs like Bruce and Shelley Richardson of Elmwood Inn in Perryville, Kentucky, Miriam Novalle at Manhattan’s T Salon at the SoHo Guggenheim, and others at Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder, Teacup in Seattle, Lisa’s Tea Treasures in Northern Calfornia, Chado in Los Angeles, or Ching-Ching Cha and Teaism in Washington, DC. These early establishments were responsible for beaucoup buzz in the press and a serious raising of tea consciousness in- and outside our small but growing cult of tea.

Look for Part 6 coming October 15th.

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