As tea becomes more popular throughout the nation, local industry professionals are seeing an increase in tea drinkers seeking a relaxing experience, more varieties, and healthier beverage options.
As legend has it, the first pot of tea was brewed accidentally nearly 5,000 years ago by Chinese Emperor Shennong when some leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant accidentally blew into his pot of boiling water.
Apparently it was a happy accident, for today tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. Even in the United States, where you're more likely to find a coffeehouse on the corner than a tea shop, more than half of the nation's population drinks tea on any given day. And that number has been on the rise in recent years, leading to increasing demand for innovation and variety in tea offerings.
Curious about how these trends are affecting area businesses that cater to tea drinkers, I asked three local tea industry professionals for insight.
The Tea Experience
Amy Myers, owner of Dollies Tea Room in Clear Spring, says she's noticed a significant increase in visitors who come to her shop for tea time with friends and family since she opened in 2011. "They come for the experience," she says. "People just want to spend time together, and with all of our technology today—cellphones and texting and all that—having tea is an excuse to sit and talk and have a good time in a relaxing atmosphere."
Tea is becoming more popular among younger generations in particular. In fact, according to the Tea Association, 87 percent of millennials drink tea. Indeed, Amy says she's hosted more teens and children in the tea room in recent years. "A lot of them come with their parents or grandparents," she says. "And they like the experience because they can put on boas, gloves, and jewelry, and they can dress up. They seem to enjoy that."
Green Tea, Oolong, Pu'erh, and More
Millennials, more so than older generations, are driving the demand for more varieties of tea, according to the Tea Association. And while 85 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is iced, hot tea consumption has been increasing in the last five years, as have sales of ready-to-drink teas available in bottles.
"If you look at the tea aisle at the supermarket, it's predominantly tea bags, but there's a much larger variety now," says Judy Larkin, co-owner of The Larkin Tea Co. based in Martinsburg, West Virginia. "You see green teas, decaf, herbals, and things like that."
Judy and her husband and co-owner, Bill Larkin, together sell loose teas imported from all over the world through their website, at local retailers like The Fine Arts Company, and at trade shows and home and garden events. Most of their teas are specialty varieties you'll never find in any supermarket. "I have a really good tea called Ruby Black, a Nepalese-style pu'erh, that's very popular," Judy says. "And we're also selling a lot of oolong."
The couple also makes a few of their own unique tea blends. Their latest creation is called Smokey Grey. It combines the flavor of classic Earl Grey with the smokiness of lapsang souchong and gunpowder, a Chinese green tea. "People seem to be getting interested in things with smoky flavors," Judy says.
'A little more natural and healthy'
Sarah Langford, sales manager for Doc's Tea, a family-run operation based in Inwood, West Virginia, says bottled tea drinkers are moving away from traditional black tea and gravitating toward other varieties like red tea, commonly known as rooibos, a naturally caffeine-free tea the company uses to microbrew its ready-to-drink teas. "They're wanting something a little bit different," Sarah says. "And they want something with an added benefit—something a little more natural and healthy—so they're staying away from white processed sugars."
Doc's Tea products, which are available at select Whole Foods stores and local convenience stores in flavors like pomegranate acai, coconut, lemongrass, apple cinnamon, and orange ginger, are sweetened with monk fruit, a fruit known for its low-calorie sweetness. "We also use real ingredients in our teas," Sarah says. "For our orange ginger tea, we actually take ginger and brew it in the tea, and people go crazy for that because they like the benefits of the ginger."
With more and more people turning to tea, the future is bright for local tea rooms and retailers. And for my fellow tea drinkers and me, that means we can look forward to even more ways to enjoy the world's second favorite beverage in the future.