The American Tea Revolution


By Tom Havran

What Americans have done with tea as a beverage is revolutionary — quite possibly as revolutionary as the actions of the Sons of Liberty on the night of December 16, 1773, when they dumped 342 chests of English tea into the Boston harbor to protest the British tax on tea.

In those days, the only proper way to drink tea was the British way, which is still very much adhered to in Britain today:
1. A kettle of water is brought to a rolling boil.
2. Some of the boiling water is swirled around in the teapot to warm it and then poured out.
3. Loose leaf black tea is added to the warm teapot, which is then filled with hot water. The tea steeps for up to 5 minutes.
4. The tea is poured into a cup with milk, and perhaps sugar, and is drunk.
5. The most common time to serve tea is 4:00 PM.

The only questioned aspect of this protocol was, and still is, whether to put the milk in the cup before or after the tea.

America vs. England/Coffee vs. Teateacup
In the days before the American Revolution, tea was a wildly popular beverage in the American Colonies, enjoyed by all classes of people in all types of formal and informal settings. However, the revolutionaries were willing to give up their beloved tea rather than pay the tax imposed on it to the crown without representation. That’s how the American Revolution had its defining moment — and the revolution of how Americans drink tea got its jump start as well.

In the post Boston Tea Party days, drinking tea substitutes became a popular way for Colonists to express their revolutionary spirit for Independence from England. Coffee soon became the most favored tea substitute in America and that’s still the case 241 years later, with more Americans drinking coffee than tea. (The Specialty Coffee Association of America estimated the retail value of the U.S. coffee market at $30-32 billion dollars for 2012, compared with the Tea Association of the U. S. A. estimate of retail supermarket sales of tea at around $2.25 billion that year.)

The Tea Bag
The revolutionary spirit of Americans seems to embrace convenience and immediacy, along with a disdain for anything potentially fussy, such as the fancy teapot, tea cozy and hand-painted porcelain cup and saucer that are necessary for proper British tea service. We like our tea fast, neat and easy, and the most significant development in that regard has been the development of the paper tea bag. Bagged tea was an inadvertent invention by New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1908. He had been sending samples of his tea to buyers in little silk bags, and his customers started to plunk them directly into cups of hot water rather than messing with a teapot and strainer. Sullivan saw the potential, and the paper tea bag was born. To this day, the most popular way to brew tea in America is one bag and one cup at a time.

Iced Tea
Unlike the moderate, maritime climate in the British Isles, it gets hot in America in the summertime. As early as the late 1700s, recipes for sweet iced tea punches and cocktails can be found in historical cookbooks, especially in South Carolina and Virginia. These references are rare, partly due to the fact that only a very small, wealthy population could afford to import and store ice from the North before the invention of refrigeration. The watershed moment for iced tea is widely considered to have occurred at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, where English tea merchant Richard Blechynden couldn’t give away free samples of his hot tea in the sweltering summer heat. He scored some ice from an ice vendor, iced his tea samples, and the fair goers went crazy for the stuff. The popularity of iced tea has been growing in America ever since, especially during the warm summer months. According to the Tea Association of the U. S. A., 85% of the tea consumed in America is iced.

Instant Tea
Eventually the quest for American convenience dispensed with the tea leaves altogether and brought us the development of instant tea, a powder that can be dissolved in hot or cold water. The first commercial version was introduced by Nestle in the 1930’s, but more versions appeared post WW II. The Tea Association of the U. S. A. states that instant tea accounts for less than 10% of the tea consumed in America and that number is declining.

Even though tea captures a minority of the beverage interests of Americans, we’ve revolutionized the way tea is consumed.

How do you take your tea?

Tom-HavranAbout the author: Tom is communicator of natural living for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brands. In other words, he’s a very imaginative copywriter. A local boy, raised on a farm just down the road from the company’s headquarters in Norway, Tom enjoys drawing, plant hoarding, cooking and living the simple life in the beautiful state of Iowa.

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