How much do you know the history of tea festivals in the U.S?

In this video, James Norwood Pratt and Babette Donaldson share memories of how the tradition began. This video was recorded for the International Virtual Tea Festival in 2020 during the Covid global pandemic.  A transcript of the conversation is included below. 

Babette:   Hello Norwood, it’s good to see you, my friend.

Norwood:   Babette, it’s wonderful to be together at another tea festival. Even as unusual as this one may be. And, as you well know, they’re all different from one another.

B:  They’re all incredibly different. And I think when we started talking about this tea festival, there, there was a sense of urgency, and especially because that conversation happened, as all of them this year, were being canceled.

N:  That’s right. 

B:  And everyone was struggling. It wasn’t just canceling an event, it was disrupting something that had become very important to all of us.

 N:  To our community as a whole. That’s right. I think of our tea festivals in the United States, as an important chapter in our story as America is becoming a tea-consuming society. Something that we were not before. When you think about it, we were never before a wine-consuming society. And yet, in my lifetime, America has become the world’s foremost wine-consuming society.

B:  Well, you contributed to that with your book, Wine Bibber’s Bible.

 N:  Yeah, I’m a leading consumer and I did my best to spread the word. And the background in wine was the perfect preparation for my life in tea. Both are agricultural products that can become works of art, depending on God, man, and the earth. But even if they’re not works of art, as long as they go down in the right way, they’re very welcome to have. And the United States is now becoming a tea-consuming society. And part of that process has been the spread of our tea festival. There were things leading up to it. 

The first actual gathering of people that I was part of was in 1992, in John Harneys living room in Connecticut. He had just launched Harney & Sons tea a few years before, and he wanted some publicity for tea. So he tried to assemble some journalists. He managed to, and there were three key people besides himself. Yeah. And Michael and Paul Harney, the sons of Harney and Sons. Besides the Harneys we were there to teach the journalist what they needed to know about this magical beverage. Tea. 

 And we were Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Kentucky. Norwood Pratt of San Francisco with no affiliation, and Jane Pettigrew, who had to be invited from London as our only other authority that you could scare up in the entire USA. Well, there couldn’t have been we couldn’t have fitted more than the 20 of us in the Harney living room where the event was held. That was 1992. And lo and behold, within 12 years, we had our first tea festival in Boulder, Colorado. 

B:  That was organized by Sara and Lenny Martinelli, right?

N:  Yes, they’re the proprietors of Dushanbe Tea House. And the tea house was a gift from Kazakhstan, I believe. Or is it Uzbekistan? It’s wherever Duschambe is in Central Asia. 

B:  That’s something for our viewers to look up. If they go to the Dushanbe Tea House website, the whole story is there.

 N:  And a wonderful story it is. And this was a prototype tea festival. It was very local. But we were invited, we Californians, and other people too. And after a while, the idea got around and we began having an urge to get together with other tea lovers in this country. 

We had a number of tea dinners that were magnificent banquets sponsored by a tea company, in the city where it was held. The Harneys gave them at the heart at festivals, well. Tea Summits, John called them. And then the idea is spread. Mark Meridian of Mem Teas staged a magnificent event in Cambridge, Mass. It inspired Doug Livingston and Julie Rosenoff of Perennial Tea Room in Seattle to say, “…we can have a tea banquet in Seattle.” And they had two, And it was the end of the second. I was invited to both, fortunately. 

And after the second one, I was still in town. And Doug and Julie assembled the tea lovers of the Seattle community, the people who had tea businesses of some kind for us to get together for lunch, and talk about the next step. And I said, we ought to have a tea festival. And it just came out spontaneously. And everybody at the table spontaneously said, hey, you’re right. And I soon got out of town. Scott free. They were left to organize the first tea festival, that Seattle held. It must have been 2008. 

B:  Yes. I think so.

N:  And there were only about a dozen vendors there. One of them was Choice Tea. And there were a couple of the tea houses around there like Julie and Doug’s own Perennial Tea Room. And they tried to get your head Tazo involved. Starbucks coffee had just acquired Tazo with promises of promoting tea. Which, of course, they were unwilling to do, it turned out. 

But even though there were only a dozen vendors, and even though there were only about 800 visitors, participant people who came to this small event in Seattle, Doug and Julie managed to recruit a band of loyal volunteers who vowed to do it again. And those of us from out of town swore that we would return and help if they could get it off the ground. 

And boy, did they. The Seattle Northwest Tea Festival continued for 13 years, this past (2019) would have been the 14th year. And it became the prototype for the tea festivals in the United States.

B:  Julie and Doug have been mentors to all of us who organize tea events. Even like this virtual tea festival. But I remember that we had a meeting of tea businesses right after that first Seattle Tea Festival? You came back and you were so excited. You said there’s nothing else we could do for education and to support tea businesses. That would be any more important to do than tea festivals. And you encouraged us. I remember that we met at The Crown and Crumpet Tea Room in San Francisco that night. I remember that you were so excited. You inspired all of us.

N:  Oh, I’m so glad and it works didn’t it look. You can now go from one tea festival to another, the length of the West Coast. Vancouver, Canada British Columbia, from time to time, has a tea festival. And another tea festival sometimes happened in Victoria, British Columbia. But Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle has been steady from the first.

 B:  You know, one of the things that’s remarkable to me about Seattle is that there’s a line out the door. On the first day, (of the weekend) there’s always a big line out the door and around the block. These are loyal tea lovers who come back every year. And they’ve come to know each other. They plan to come an hour or so before the doors open just so they can spend time together. And they like to be the first ones in the door, rushing to the tasting tables and seeing vendors who have become freinds.

N:  I’m looking at how these things have grown. At the first festival in Seattle, there were fewer, there were around 800 people who attended. And there were fewer than a dozen vendors. At the last one, we had over 3500 people participate. And over 60 vendors. 

 And everywhere you have announced the tea festival, we will discover what an enormous number of tea lovers there are in the community. We are a hidden minority, and we are now popping our heads up so that we can be counted.

B:  Well, we have so much fun together.

N:  I mean, that’s the attraction, isn’t it?

B:  And you know, each one of the festivals, because so after, after Seattle, there was Los Angeles and Devin Shah, I think inspired by encouraged by you, and inspired by what he saw in Seattle, he decided to create a tea festival in L. A. And I was at that one and help helped him with a few more.

N:  Your presence snd support has been critical, I daresay to the success of most of these ventures, right down the line from the Devin Shah Tea Festival in Los Angeles to the San Francisco, sponsored by Imperial Tea Court, which you organized for two years running with Roy Fong. Then it spread and we had a tea festival in Houston, TX. We had another in Kansas City, KS. And we even had one in Austin, TX. 

Babette:  The start for Kansas City and very close to one in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Tea Festival. We also have a thriving festival in Portland, Oregon. And last year was the first festival in Chicago.

N:  We’ve never been to the one in Pennsylvania, Valerie and I, but I think it’s a little smaller than our west coast things. But I’m sure there are a lot of tea lovers in Pennsylvania and neighboring states just waiting for the next one.

B:  You know, they have a very loyal following. The organizers are part of the Midwest Tea Association. And they support the different tea businesses in that part of the country. But they’ve got a really strong following, like Seattle, for the event. The same people come year after year, and everybody brings somebody new.

N:  Right. “Each one, teach one” is how tea has spread. Not just in the United States, but around the world. This is how tea spread across China. You know, just starting around the year 200 to 400 when the Buddhists began spreading the Buddha Dharma around China. They were tea drinkers. And I don’t know if people came back to listen to Dharma talks as much as came back to listen to have some of that Buddhist tea? And of course, we’ve all learned from China ever since.

B:  Right, right. Well, one of the things about this virtual tea festival that I think I feel so strongly about is that looking back on what has gotten us to this place. With the COVID now, we can’t gather in large groups. We talk about how things change. And at this point of change, it seemed imperative for me that to get reached out to you to document this history of the tea festivals and to put out in a discussion what it means to us to have created this and to keep it going? Well, you use the word lineage. And I love it when you talk about the lineage of tea people. 

 N:  Yes, we do, we stand on the shoulders of giants. And we are, we’re continuing the work, you know, less than I, but I have been involved a bit longer. Yeah, I’ve been in service of tea for over 40 years now, around the world, actually. But in this country where my benighted fellow Americans, a lot of them had never tasted tea, I had my work cut out for me. And now we’re beginning to see the results of all of the enthusiasm that you and I have shared with everybody who would listen to us.

B:  You know, we had a phrase when I was starting in specialty tea, that “it’s not your grandmother’s cup of tea anymore”. And I think you as much as anybody, we’re able to say, no, it’s this is not the teabag put into the tepid water. We have something more here. That there is a much more creative experience. And you can spend your life learning more and experiencing more.

N:  Look at you and me. I mean, I hope we’re good for more than a bad example. Because we are students of tea who have learned that we’ll never know it all. And, the beautiful thing that I now believe, or and let me conclude with this, I now see the worldwide community, which connects farmers in the fields, who is the importers and exporters and the and the merchants. And finally, the people like you and me, who are tea enthusiasts, and, and consumers and encouragers of others to follow our example. 

 Well, this is a community where we all work together, we try to do as much good for one another as we can, I believe it is the prototype for what Dr. Martin Luther King called the beloved community. It is a connection that’s across not just state lines, it’s across national lines, it’s across lines of languages and religion and everything else, or tea is the communion of the worldwide tea community. And it is a community and we have this communion in common. Americans are getting it to now. 

B:  We’re getting there. When I look at where are we going to go from here and when I look at how many people that are on this virtual tea festival, program, none of whom are physically local. I look at all the people who are registered. We have people from many other countries too. So this pandemic forced us to take some new big leaps that we had been nervous about doing before with our festivals. 

And I’m going to be interested in seeing where we go from here. And what I’m curious about now that you’ve told the story of these tea banquets, you’ve let the cat out of the bag. I’m ready. I’m ready for some people to start, perhaps, going back to our beginning and start having some more tea banquets to start creating smaller events where we can be together again.

N:  It’s a great thing to do if you can find a restauranteur brave enough. Every course is cooked with tea. And with every course, you have a tea that is specially chosen to go with that food. And also a wine that is specially chosen for each course. And you know, you will notice at a tea banquet like that, that people get so fond of the tea. They when they leave, there’s wine left in the wine glass, but the tea is all gone.

B:  I can imagine that, you know, if we can’t gather in big groups, we’re back to where we could gather in small groups like that. Something like that could be in our more immediate future.

 N:  And that takes us back to our beginning, I’m sure when it was small groups of people who, who first exchanged the love of tea, here’s how you, here’s how you treat it, how you get the most out of it, and what and here’s what pleasure it gives to all those you can assemble around you.

B:  Well, I have to say that one of the biggest challenges we had when deciding to do this event, or to two huge challenges. One was we knew that we could not create that experience of tasting in person where one person prepares a cup of tea for another person. And we so what we’ve done here is we’ve created tea tasting classes, where the TEAS were sent out ahead of time. And on zoom, all of the different participants can follow the same instructions and share the tea with their presenter and all the other people that are in their class. So we’re trying out this new-fangled idea. But the second challenge was, how do you get James Norwood Pratt to be part of a virtual tea festival? So we’ve done it.

 N:  Thank you very kindly for the invitation. You know, I wouldn’t miss it. You know, I wish you will. May our tribe increase?

 B:  May our tribe increase and hold the fort there in San Francisco for us.

 N:  Thank you. Babette. Good work.

 B:  Thank you, Norwood. I hope to see you in person very soon.

 N:  May it be so.