In colonial America tea drinking followed the British pattern, where during the eighteenth century tea was adopted as an alternative to drinking polluted city water and as a replacement for beer and gin. But the pattern of tea consumption in America was abruptly altered when a rowdy protest staged by residents of the Thirteen Colonies to fight taxation without representation left their tea cups empty.
Today is the 235th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, a signal event on the path to the American Revolution. As part of the process of overthrowing the governance of the British Empire, 116 patriots boarded three American ships loaded with tea that belonged to the British East India Tea Company. Between 7 and 10 PM they heaved 90,000 pounds of tea in 342 wooden crates into Boston Harbor.
The authors of The Empire of Tea report that as a result of the Boston Tea Party, Americans publicly represent themselves as coffee drinkers while continuing to enjoy tea in less public settings – at home rather than in tea houses or shops. Americans spend four times as much money on coffee as tea. According to a New York Times article, in 2003 consumers in the U.S. spent $5 billion on tea, compared with $20 billion spent on coffee.
Perhaps a lasting result of the 1773 rejection of tea as the national beverage is that tea in the U.S. is likely to be consumed in a form other than from a traditional pot of unfurled leaves. In a 1971 history titled Tea, Jamie Shalleck judged U.S. tea drinkers quite harshly. “American contributions to the art of tea-drinking are not calculated to reassure the tea purist. Tea bags, iced tea, instant tea, and canned tea are among the dubious American claims to tea inventiveness.”
Welcome news for those pursuing the pleasures of pure tea comes from the Speciality Tea Institute, which presently numbers tea shops in the United States at 1500, compared with 200 only five years ago. Many of these stores promote high quality, loose leaf tea.
Two of my favorite tea authors, both passionate and articulate exponents of Camellia sinensis are Helen Gustafson and James Norwood Pratt. Ms. Gustafson’s tea career began while hostessing at Berkeley’s citadel of dining, Chez Panisse. She suggested to owner Alice Waters a few improvements to the restaurant’s tea selection. Ms. Waters welcomed the changes, and Ms. Gustafson’s work eventually focused entirely on tea.
The Agony of the Leaves: The Ecstasy of My Life with Tea by Helen Gustafson
Mr. Pratt, known as America’s Tea Sage, writes about tea, leads tea tours, and lectures on tea topics. I met him in Seattle a few years ago. He is as charming as is his writing.
Steep some leaves. Sip and read. Or have a tea party!