By James Norwood Pratt
America’s Tea Renaissance is now into its third decade, having increased its total market value more than 10-fold during this time. In the recent “Year of the Plague Rat,” tea has confronted monumental problems and overcome them. China, in effect, shut down its spring tea harvest – the best and biggest of the year. And, as the sheer and utter obtuseness on the part of all parties continues, Darjeeling continues to cede its historic niche to Nepali tea, while India’s share of the world tea market has also shrunk. COVID-19 caused delays in every port, notably Singapore, and it doubled delivery times to the United States, where slower U.S. Customs have greatly added to delays in the supply chain. Food service has almost disappeared, which has impacted many tea businesses, and tea rooms are decimated nationwide.
To survive, our tea industry is learning to adapt and evolve. Somehow business revenues continue to recover, and our tea community is seething with energy underground. Experienced entrepreneurs are itching to build tea rooms back better. Tea companies and consumers have learned to use the Internet and e-commerce in a more sophisticated way, and they have begun to benefit from virtual reality.
Babette Donaldson and Nicole Burris, both veteran organizers of major tea festivals for consumers, curated a virtual International Tea Festival, which was a resounding success, in addition to the industry-focused World Tea Virtual Summit that took place in October 2020. Our forthcoming Global Tea Initiative Colloquium promises further success in January. WYES-TV, New Orleans’ Public Broadcasting station and the country’s leading producer of food-related TV programs, made a virtual tea party its major fund-raising event of the year. Our other community gatherings – like Seattle’s Northwest Tea Festival under matriarch Julee Rosanoff – are sure to rise again. Indeed, our beloved tea community is far from dead or even dormant.
Looking Ahead: a Bright Future
The North American tea community can face the New Year unafraid, despite the protracted dislocations sure to come. Tea is “recession-proof,” as claims Mike Spillane, president of the venerable The G.S. Haly Company and veteran of multiple recessions. Demand only grows as people in isolation drink more tea than usual since the pandemic began; after all, no pleasure is simpler, no luxury more affordable than tea.
Collapse of the foodservice tea market has shifted attention away from commodity tea, but importers have adapted. Brendan Shah was proud to say International Tea Importers (ITI) has not needed to lay off any employees, and the G.S. Haly Company has had to increase warehouse space. These are wise investments in a bright future towards which specialty tea is leading the way as online sales boom.
Ned Heagerty steered Silk Road Teas that direction a decade ago. He and Catherine were shipping almost a thousand orders every day since Thanksgiving. Harney & Sons Fine Teas saw 14 of their essential workers quarantined exactly at the height of demand. The entire Harney clan had to put in long hours to process their thousands of orders. Elmwood Inn Fine Teas required founders Bruce and Shelley Richardson to return to work also. And they sold out this year’s entire production of the Great Mississippi Tea Company.
The uncertain future of tea revolves around the certainty of climate change. It affects everything from the flavor of Chinese classics to the turmoil wrenching India to the collapse of Kenya and growth of Congo plantations. Yet, the age-old evolution of tea continues, and so does the worldwide thirst for tea. Tea drinking is simply humanity’s favorite habit and our ancient tea trade is sure to thrive.
The year 2020 saw the global tea community taking hits, but it certainly rolled with the punches and emerged undaunted. Moving forward, the business of tea proves not to be invulnerable, but remains invincible in the end.
James Norwood Pratt – “Norwood” – has served the cause of tea around the world for more than 40 years. Since the first edition of his classic Tea Lover’s Treasury appeared in 1982, he has been a presence on the international tea scene, becoming Honorary Director of America’s first traditional Chinese tea house, International Juror of India’s first-ever tea competition, “Best Tea Educator” four successive years, and a John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award recipient at the 2015 World Tea Conference + Expo. He is the author of James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary, the worldwide tea trade’s seminal reference work, and is America’s acknowledged “Tea Sage.” Pratt is quite possibly the world’s most widely read authority on tea and tea lore, thanks to books translated into multiple languages and numerous columns, articles and print and TV interviews in United States and overseas media. His Tea Dictionary was named Best New Publication by the World Tea Conference + Expo in 2010, and he’s appeared in several films and theatrical productions. He lives with his wife Valerie Turner Pratt in San Francisco, Calif. Visit JamesNorwoodPratt.com.