tea qualityAmerican tea drinkers remain a bit of a mystery, or at least a fertile topic for ongoing debate.  Who are they, what do they want, and what are they willing to pay for their tea?  Are they driven by taste, lifestyle, health benefits, or caffeine?  Would they know a good cup of tea from a bad one?  Are they a consumer market that only lives for tea in a bottle or do they also appreciate a freshly brewed cup?

For more adventurous tea drinkers and purveyors of specialty teas, the tea life often feels like that television commercial in which a small truck is towing a jumbo jet down a runway.  The most passionate tea drinkers are in the truck, everyone else is in that jumbo jet.  Broad brush tea market data isn’t overly encouraging.  Approximately 85% of the 65 billion servings of tea consumed in the United States in 2010 were iced tea.*  That presumably leaves less than 10 billion servings of hot tea for 313 million people in the United States, roughly 32 cups of tea per year for every man, woman, and child in the country – a little more than one cup a week.  Within the larger gross number, 52 billion (80%)* of those servings were black tea.

If one has faith in those numbers, then tea in America for tea merchants is all about getting their brand in a bottle as quickly as possible.  Unpack the shipping container full of black tea fannings and get the sugar ready – let’s go!  One trip to the refrigerated bottled drink aisle at the grocery store might be all it takes to convince you that it’s true – overly sweetened tea in a bottle is all most tea drinkers in America really want.  And yet, if you go over to the coffee and tea aisle, the selection of teas has grown exponentially as well, albeit almost all in tea bags.

Can a wider appreciation of better-quality teas progress any faster than what seems like a glacial pace?  Does the largest segment of the tea business really have anything vested in raising tea drinker appreciation for quality?  If not, then the smaller segment of the tea industry – the specialty tea companies – might be on their own to figure out how and when to move American tea consumers forward to a wider range of tea options, often at a higher level of quality than what they are currently drinking.  Education, tea sampling, tasting events, and creative marketing programs that make it easy for customers to enjoy teas outside of their current comfort zones help raise the bar for customer expectations across all of their tea-drinking experiences.  In the end, 10 billion servings is not enough to work with.  The specialty tea industry not only needs to recalibrate customer taste buds, but also expand its market segment.  Get better, get bigger, or get out of the way. 

* Tea Association of the U.S.A.