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How Tea Became Hip

How did tea become hip? Hold on a minute. Things have improved in recent years or perhaps even decades, but one could still argue that tea is suffering from an image problem. You know the one – staid tea rooms frequented by ladies of a certain age, neatly trimmed crustless sandwiches, and so on. Not to mention that for many people tea still conjures up visions of black dust crammed into ultra-cheap tea bags, resulting in a beverage that leaves much to be desired.

Afternoon Tea Gift Basket - totally hip!
Afternoon Tea Gift Basket – totally hip!

This model of tea culture, such as it was, is gradually dwindling, to be replaced by one that could reasonably be called hip. But how did it all come to pass? For starters, it’s worth noting the efforts of latter day tea pioneers like James Norwood Pratt and David Lee Hoffman, who began fighting the good fight for “good” tea long before tea hit it big.

I would also make the cautious argument that tea rode in on the same horse that brought us an increased interest in food culture in general, that ongoing trend that gave us such dubious terms as “foodie.” Hardcore food people might cringe at the notion, but the rise of cable TV and specifically the Food Network, which got underway in 1993 and which now reaches nearly 100 million households, certainly can’t have hurt.

Tea was apparently already hip by this time, if we’re to believe a 1994 New York Times article bearing the unambiguous headline Evolution Of Tea: Now It’s Hip. Written by regular contributor Florence Fabricant, it kicks off with the slightly cringeworthy (maybe it’s just me) statement that “Tea is becoming the coffee of the 90’s.”

Fabricant noted that tea is popular all over the country, even in Seattle, that bastion of coffee culture. She also noted that sales have increased nearly eight percent in the previous year and cited figures that specialty tea sales will jump from $415 million in 1993 to $531 million, in 1997. Though the article noted that much of the tea consumption in the U.S. is of ready-to-drink iced tea, much of it was nonetheless devoted to talking with tea merchants who were part of the rush toward selling higher quality mostly loose leaf teas.

As with so many general interest articles about tea, there’s a brief Tea 101 and a requisite section on how to make a good cup of tea. Which is all well and good, but one small demerit is in order for perpetuating the popular myth that tea can be leached of most of its caffeine by giving the leaves a 30 second rinse.

Demerits or no, it’s an interesting look at American tea culture from nearly two decades ago and you can read it here.

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6 responses to “How Tea Became Hip”

  1. […] How Tea Became Hip, By William I. Lengeman, III […]

  2. […] ever got to wondering how all this came to be, I offered up a few thoughts earlier this year in an article called How Tea Became […]

  3. That NY Times article is indeed quite. old. I do think that the common knowledge about tea has advanced quite a bit since then, so I wouldn’t fault NY Times, or the author, Florence Fabricant, for repeating that myth–it was only a few years ago that “reputable” sources like the USDA website had blatant false information on them about the caffeine content of various teas, probably based on well-intentioned mis-reading of oversimpilified studies with a limited sampling of teas.

    I try very hard to keep my blog’s informational articles up-to-date but I’m constantly catching errors in my information and making corrections, both on my own and as others catch them. That said, maybe if several of us contact NY Times about this point, they’d correct the article. It may be old, but it’s out there on the web and I think it would be beneficial both for NY Times and for readers of that article to have that point corrected.

    All that said, back to the main topic of this article…being “hip”; that first sentence does also make me cringe a little bit too. I’ve never been a fan of the whole concept of things being “hip” or “in”, and I’d prefer not to think of tea like this. “Hip” fashions and trends come and go, and I’ve gravitated to tea as something that I see as more timeless. I’d rather see people get excited about it because they discover it on their own, organically, and like the experience of brewing and drinking it, rather than see people discover it because it is the “latest cool thing”. I’d rather our society discard the idea of chasing the latest “hip” things altogether!

    1. Just goes to show – you gotta know where your info is coming from! Stay “hip,” Alex! Just kidding, and thanks for reading.

  4. So glad that I’m part of the ‘in’ crowd!

  5. Great article, out with the old and in with the new!

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