Steamy or iced, chai or green, bottled or not: Tea is hot, and getting hotter. Tea drinkers can be as passionate and picky about their drink of choice as the most snobby oenophile is about her wine. There are more and more choices. And annual tea sales in the United States have jumped from nearly $2 billion in 1990 to $5.5 billion last year, says Joseph Simrany, president of Tea Association of the USA Inc.
What you’ll see in restaurants
Chefs across the country are weaving tea into signature dishes and specialty drinks. Munch on tea-smoked chicken at New York Citys Yumcha (“drink tea” in Cantonese), or sip green-tea martinis infused with pear at Jack Falstaff in San Francisco. And the first green-tea liqueur—Zen—hit the U.S. market this summer and is being served up in hot spots like New Yorks Sushi Samba.
Even rock stars are getting in on it
After electronic-music king Moby opened his own New York teahouse, Teany, he decided to get even more creative. “He was a mad professor behind the counter,” says partner Kelly Tisdale, experimenting with different flavors and launching the Teany line of chilled bottled teas, like the new white tea with pomegranate, carried in New York and the U.K.
Tea as wine
At the chic tea boutique Le Palais des Thes in Beverly Hills, sections of the store are devoted to teas from different regions, similar to the way most wine shops are organized. Increasing numbers of tea snobs are seeking out teas sourced from a single place, like Darjeeling Puttabong, the first tea estate in the Himalaya and the mother of the Darjeeling tea industry.
The coffee comparison
While many people still want their Starbucks coffee fix, a growing crowd is looking for a leafier sip. “The difference between people who drink coffee and those who drink tea is similar to the difference between beer and wine drinkers,” says Le Palais des Thes David Barenholtz. Tea drinkers are looking for a relaxing experience, while coffee drinkers tend to slug coffee for a jolt of energy.
Beyond its pure enjoyment, tea is packed with health perks. The heart-health and cancer-preventive benefits of black and green teas are well-publicized. And more research is under way; some studies suggest tea may also increase bone-mineral density, boost immunity, fight cavities, combat diabetes, and reduce body fat. What makes it so healthy? Scientists point to a group of natural antioxidants called catechins present in all teas, but not in coffee. Certain antioxidants can protect against exposure to ultraviolet light and its consequences, such as sun damage and skin cancer. And while coffees caffeine is known to sharpen concentration, tea has caffeine too, sometimes as much as or more than coffee.