Continued from The Good News – Part 1

Tea is quiet and our thirst for tea is never far from our craving for beauty. As never before, the beauty of the leaf of Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica is available for tea lovers to discover today in literally thousands of forms and varieties. We tea drinkers of the First World have at last been freed from the monopoly of the tea bag, more restrictive even than those of old John Company or China, Inc. Though increasingly numerous, we still represent a cult of sorts rather than a mass market, but our sleepy old tea trade is waking up and slowly teaching the populace at large to think of tea in the plural. In 1980 fewer than twenty firms purveying fine teas existed in the United States; two decades later there are well over 120, leaving out of account the renaissance of retailers and tearooms, now numbered in the hundreds also.

Entrepreneurs like John Harney of Harney & Sons Fine Teas – an excellent example – have created brands and enterprises with annual sales of hundreds of millions, admittedly less than the value of Germany’s market for fine teas – several billion U.S. dollars per annum – but climbing. For better or worse, the U.S. has yet to produce a Starbucks of Tea – it’s too individualistic to lend itself to mass marketing anyway – but as a business, tea has emerged from the phase dominated by major marketers with nothing but an inexpensive beverage to sell. (The sad fact remains that fully one-third – about thirty thousand tons – of all U.S. tea imports consists of manifestly inferior machine-harvested tea from Argentina, than which there is no worse tea. It is grown solely for U.S. mass market tea bags and instant tea mixes.)

When London’s first tea shop was opened by Thomas Twining in 1715, he offered no fewer than eighteen distinctive teas at prices ranging over U.S.$100 per pound. As this phenomenon reappears in the world’s great cities, we have completed a cycle and returned to the threshold of another golden age of tea, but this time one that girdles the globe. No longer bound by any tea monopoly, we are also finally free to explore beyond our own received tea traditions. The Japanese department store Takashimaya is Manhattan’s leading tea retailer; the Parisian firms Mariage Frères and Le Palais des Thés have branches in Tokyo; Germany’s Teeladen chain boasts some two thousand outlets nationwide. Growers and manufacturers in Darjeeling, Assam, Taiwan, China and even Vietnam experiment with ever more prestigious products – India, for instance, is beginning to produce green, white and oolong teas for the first time since the early days of the Assam Company. China’s superlative Pu’Er, green and oolong teas are again available and health concerns are leading millions of Americans and others to discover them. The appreciation of fine teas appears to be escalating everywhere, in short, including our own U.S.A. Since most of the tea the world produces is strictly ordinaire, however, fine teas may only be understood in this larger context.

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