Part 8: Branching Streams

Part 8:  BRANCHING STREAMS

Tazo, Adagio, Rishi, MEM, Honest Tea, World Tea Expo

By James Norwood Pratt

As the cult of tea gathered steam, the market for tea continued to grow in all directions. Like the Second Coming, “the Starbucks of Tea” had been predicted for years by 1999, when Starbucks made its tea move and acquired Tazo and the creative energy of Tazo founder Steve Smith. As its tea buyer, Steve Smith had brought such success and distinction to Stash that the “hippie” company was bought by the Japanese tea behemoth Yamamoto-yama in 1993. A year later he launched Tazo and then sold his new baby when it was barely five years old, suddenly making Starbucks a major player in the US tea business—or so it seemed. In actual fact, his impact on Starbucks proved slight—corporate politics is unkind to passions, for tea or anything else—and they gained only a profitable brand and the matcha latte. The new direction in US tea sales came not from Starbucks but Adagio, started the same year Tazo was acquired. Michael Cramer, fresh from the Peace Corps, was asked by his Russian Jewish mother if he thought she could make a living in a tea business. After investigation Michael could foresee not just a livelihood but a potential for wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, in Dr. Johnson’s words. He persuaded his brother Ilya to leave Goldman Sachs and add his computer mastery to Michael’s growing tea expertise; together they have made Adagio the leading tea retailer on the web, a huge and growing market to which they supply first-rate and affordable teas and wares of every description. Adagio, which now has brick-and-mortar outlets also, is not only a monument to their vision and intelligence; In many ways Michael and Ilya represent the wave of new tea lovers turned tea entrepreneurs who have created America’s Tea Renaissance, people crazy about tea but not too crazy to make it a profitable business. Second to none of these is Caroline Cahan, who has made A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, NC, the nation’s leading tea retail store, with honorable mentions to TeaLuxe of Harvard Square and Winnie Yu’s Teance in Berkeley.

Importer/explorer Joshua Kaiser has made his firm Rishi a major source of fine quality loose leaf teas, like the herbals from Mark Mooradian’s MEM Tea Imports or the RTD’s from Seth Goldman’s Honest Tea. These examples must be multiplied many-fold to account for the proliferation of tea enterprises that have sprung up around the country. San Francisco now has three Samovar Tea Lounges and Los Angeles four Chado’s. America’s new tea lovers and their businesses were numerous enough by 2003 to support the first World Tea Expo (then called Take Me2Tea). Everything old was new again as the once-tired US tea trade descended on Las Vegas to party with visiting parties from around the world eager to get in on our action. Its infancy and childhood past, our Tea Renaissance had arrived at adolescence and has continued to mature with each annual World Tea Expo.

For some years now America’s Tea Renaissance has been driving changes in the world-wide trade. Tea is increasingly used in alcoholic drinks—not to mention cosmetics, cooking and sundry soaps and potions. Paper sacks have replaced wooden chests for transport, bio-degradable pyramid teabags have become commonplace, and US supermarket blends and food service tea equipment have been considerably up-graded. We have led the way in making organic tea a major growth category and even taken up foreign fads like Bubble Tea and matcha drinks of all sorts. Our appetite for green and white tea has induced otherwise sensible estate managers in Darjeeling, Sri Lanka and elsewhere to create new tea types like green Darjeeling and silver and golden Ceylons, sometimes with stunning success. Our new tea lovers have even conveyed some of our enthusiasm to Britain, where tea consumption was stagnating, and even to France and India.

In the US our tribe has increased to the point that perhaps 100 million Americans make tea a routine part of daily life and spend about ten billion a year on it. We now approach a tipping point. Economically speaking, few prospects for small business in the US are brighter than our future tea trade—and maybe big business too. In 2012 the Teavana company with well over 300 outlets was acquired by Starbucks for over half a billion dollars.  Culturally, our new breed of tea lover represents not simply a new market but a major cultural shift. The US is on its way to becoming a tea consuming nation, just as we have, within living memory, become a wine consuming nation—something we were not before. Today good wine at fair prices is available pretty much everywhere and is a part of daily life for millions. A society that can pronounce “cabernet sauvignon” can learn to say “da hong pao.”

Historically, tea always enters a society almost imperceptibly at first but by the slow and irresistible efforts of its devotees and its own obvious virtues, it eventually triumphs at last as each one teaches another how to enjoy it—-tea is a face-to-face transmission, as the Buddhists would say, and this is part of its power. It proves hard to resist and impossible to dislodge because tea is not simply enjoyed for itself; it is a form of energy and a key to love and laughter with friends, to the enjoyment of food, beauty and humor and art and music. Its rewards are far beyond its cost.

—end

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