For decades, tea has been the stale, boring step-child of coffee.  Coffee was rich, fresh, dark, aromatic, locally roasted, artisanal, and brimming with cultural cache.  Tea was old, crotchety, and British – or maybe niche Asian.  Regardless, it was almost always stale and static.

Don’t believe me?  In 1990, most Americans were drinking Folgers®, Maxwell House® or even Sanka® on the coffee side, and Lipton® on the tea side.  There were roughly 1,500 coffee shops (according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America) and an unknown number of tea shops because no one cared enough to count.  By 2004, there were well over 20,000 coffee shops across the country and many households now had expensive coffee grinders and brewers and were buying higher-quality whole beans instead of the coffee-in-a-can that they grew up on.  Tea was still stuck in the dark ages with less than one-tenth the number of shops in the U.S. and a product that hadn’t changed much in decades.  Tea was an also-ran at trade shows, in industry magazines, on grocery store shelves, and in the hearts and minds of the U.S. consumer.  My how far we’ve come in the last few years!

According to industry reports from Mintel, the number of tea shops in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last four years from approximately 1,900 in 2004 to more than 4,000 by the end of 2008.  The first tea-only trade show, Take Me 2 Tea, was launched in 2003 and hosted 65 companies and 1,200 attendees.   This year, in spite of a dramatic recession, the updated version of this show, the World Tea Expo, was named one of the 50 fastest growing shows in the U.S. and boasted 230 exhibitors from 39 countries and more than 5,000 attendees.  Earlier this week, the World Tea Expo folks announced a partnership with the Natural Products Expo and will be holding a “World Tea East” in Boston in September.

This pairing portends a rather significant shift in tea’s position in the U.S. marketplace.  Over the last few years, tea has stepped out of coffee’s shadow and into its own.  Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world (after water) and is the most popular “health food” on the planet.  As Americans have gained access to tea, and discovered the richness offered by tea, the market has grown from roughly $1 billion in 1990 to a projected $10 billion+ in 2010 (according to the Sage Group).  Specialty Tea – the premium side of the market – has been growing by about 20% a year.  Tea may still be small compared to coffee in the U.S., but it has definitely picked up the mantel of the hot new belle of the ball.

We still have a long way to go in introducing our product to the average American, but I’m proud to be part of such a vibrant, interesting industry and look forward to what the next few years bring.