Traipse down any Main Street in America, and you’ll likely find a decent cup of coffee prepared by someone knowledgeable about roasts, water temperature and milk-to-foam ratios.
Walk into your local grocery store, and you can choose among Fair Trade Certified, single-origin beans from Ethiopia, Costa Rica or Peru. Now in its third or fourth wave, depending on whom you ask, craft coffee culture is everywhere.
Whither craft tea? While many Americans do indeed brew and drink tea, it has yet to experience a 21st century “craft” revolution, the kind that launches national chains and inspires financial analysts to rant about millennials’ spending habits.
Why have many Americans enthusiastically shifted from instant coffee crystals to artisan pour-overs yet settle for mass market tea bags with flavors seemingly inspired by Yankee Candles? The answers have more to do with America’s historical legacy and cultural prejudices than taste or convenience.
“Since the formation of this country, there hasn’t been a strong culture of drinking tea,” says Smita Satiani, cofounder of Alaya Tea. While colonists may have brought their love of tea from England, that shifted with the Townshend Acts and the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Tired of being taxed by the crown, many gave up tea in favor of coffee.
In 1774, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, of an encounter with an innkeeper in Falmouth, Massachusetts:
“ ‘Madam’ said I to Mrs. Huston, ‘is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?’ ‘No sir,’ said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but I’le make you Coffee.’ Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.” [sic]
In other words, Adams’ landlady found it easier to give up tea than pay tax to the British monarchy. Her patriotism, and apparent ability to make a decent cup of coffee, inspired Adams to kick his tea habit.
Jesse Jacobs, founder of San Francisco’s Samovar Tea, offers another explanation for coffee’s supremacy in America.
“Coffee is much more addictive,” he says. “People simply can’t function without coffee, but few people say they can’t function without tea.”
A cup of even the strongest tea harbors less than half the caffeine found in a cup of coffee. If you’re a savvy businessperson, says Jacobs, why wouldn’t you push a product that is inherently addictive?
Meanwhile, modern Americans are increasingly tea-curious. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., a trade group, 87% of millennials claim that they drink tea. But there remains a lack of understanding about what exactly constitutes tea.
Black tea taken with milk was a staple for Satiani, who grew up in an Indian household in California. But as she began to hatch a plan for her retail tea business, she found that many fellow Americans’ knowledge of tea began and ended with Lipton tea bags, or chai and matcha lattes.
For the category to grow, Americans will have to be educated about the differences between white and green tea, and even harvest periods, like first flush and second flush—much like Starbucks and other coffee shops had to teach consumers about cappuccinos, roasts and origins.
Then there’s the image problem. Nine-dollar lattes and butter-maca-collagen mix-ins have done little to shake the perception of coffee as humble, approachable and patriotic. Tea, on the other hand, is often viewed as stuffy, foreign or pretentious.
“There’s an impression that it’s not convenient, quick and sociable, like coffee is,” says Satiani.
Before craft tea can compete with craft coffee, the notion that every cup of tea must be prepared in a sacred tea ceremony by a linen-clad former model or savored in quiet contemplation needs to be quashed.
To some Americans, tea inspires notions of posh Brits who nibble on crustless sandwiches or Japanese monks chasing enlightenment. But of course, it’s also gulped down by English builders and harried Japanese salarymen, just as coffee is consumed by billionaires and long-haul truck drivers.
Despite these barriers, Jacobs has bet big on tea in America. In 2002, he launched the first Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco’s Mission District. He now oversees three locations as well as a thriving wholesale business.
While Jacobs says that 80% of his wholesale orders come from coffee shops, Samovar also sells directly to customers worldwide. Many were converted to artisan tea at a Samovar location.
“We see a lot of tourists who come in and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never had tea like this before,’ and then they go back to Ohio and order every month,” says Jacobs.
The wellness movement also bodes well for craft tea.
“We’re seeing that there’s a great interest in cutting down on caffeine,” says Satiani, who points to a similar rise in non-alcoholic beverage options. “The feedback we’ve had from our customers is that they love their one cup of coffee in the morning, but the rest of the day they’re shifting to tea.”
Another demographic that could be primed to make that shift is wine drinkers. Tea, particularly black tea, is high in tannins. Fans of the astringent qualities often found in a Malbec or Nebbiolo could find themselves won over by similar sensations in tea.
Wine drinkers may also better understand the importance of terroir and low-impact agricultural practices. Alaya Tea sources its leaves from farms that are certified organic, biodynamic or regenerative. It makes a point to list the geographic region where each tea variety was harvested.
“We’ve found that many people are unaware of where the tea they are drinking actually comes from,” says Satiani. “We’re focused on educating our customers on the deep history and geography of tea-growing places like Assam or Darjeeling, a district whose unique terroir produces the Champagne of teas.”
Short of a punitive coffee tax, it’s hard to imagine coffee being dethroned as America’s hot beverage of choice. But more and more health-conscious consumers seem interested to wean their dependence on coffee.
And the sooner, as John Adams said, the better.