Iced or hot, tea regains popularity as a favorite drink

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Millions of Americans still reach for that first cup of coffee to get them going in the morning, but tea is making inroads into the java market.

People are beginning to experiment with the variety tea has to offer, said Annette Emmons of Grace Cafe in Cape Girardeau.

National tea sales have climbed from just over $1 billion to about $5.1 billion over the last decade, according to the Tea Council of the USA, a trade group. And it's not just traditional black and orange pekoe tea behind that growth -- more people are buying green and specialty teas.

Whether it's red, white, black or green tea, "people are open to trying more of a variety. It's not just plain old Lipton's," Emmons said.

Martha Maxton of Cape Girardeau enjoys a raspberry iced tea during the summer months but still reaches for an occassional cup of hot tea.

"I really like the raspberry tea and that's probably what I drink the most of in the summer," she said.

Over the years, she's made pots of tea with loose leaves, bags and even sun tea. She once bought the Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Pot to use for brewing tea. But now she's scaled back to a single favorite.

Iced tea is always popular, particularly when food is served, said Emmons.

The orders for tea are minimal at the Corner Cafe, where coffee is the drink of choice -- except during lunch time.

Iced tea orders have really begun to pick up now that the weather has gotten warmer, said Renee Shoulders. Even people who drink hot chai tea during the winter want their beverages on ice during the summer.

Part of tea's popularity is its versatility. It can be served hot or cold and comes in such a variety of flavors that almost anyone can find one they like.

"Tea is for fun," said Susan Zuege, co-owner of the Perennial Tea Room, located near Seattle's famous Pike Place Market and the original Starbucks coffee shop. "You should enjoy it. If

you don't, you might as well do coffee."

Mike Spillane, owner of G.S. Haley Company Inc., a tea wholesaler in Redwood City, Calif., said specialty teas are also growing in popularity.

Baby boomers, looking to move away from traditional coffee drinks, have likely helped feed into the tea frenzy, Spillane said. And the emergence of bottled, ready to drink teas have brought tea to younger people who normally view it as a drink for the older generation, he said.

"It has legitimatized the word 'tea' to the youth," Spillane.

Lipton, the best-selling brand of tea, also leads in the bottled and canned tea industry, according to 2002 figures from Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York.

Most Americans use tea bags, although loose tea is making strides among the specialty tea sector, said Joseph Simrany, president of the New York-based Tea Council. "It's convenience that's winning out over flavor delivery. Americans still love their convenience," he said.

Tea bag sales nationwide have increased by about 6 percent in the last five years, according to recent numbers from Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm.

Meanwhile, tea shops have sprung up throughout the United States and currently number about 1,200. However, there are none in Southeast Missouri because coffee still seems to have the stronghold. All the area's coffee shops also sell tea, but coffee is by far the more popular drink. Iced coffee and frappucino drinks carry coffee drinkers into summer when they seek a cool refreshment.

In Woodbury, Conn., Mrs. White's Tea Room has been catering to its regulars' affluent tastes for almost five years, owner Tom Winters said. He bought the shop from a friend about a year ago and said he was "surprised how many people drink tea."

Just as Winters has broadened his knowledge of the product, so too have his customers, who are about 95 percent women.

"They're more in tune to more than just a plain Earl Grey," he said. "They're trying the Chinese Lychee ... and more people are trying the green teas, seeking the benefits."

Health is perhaps one of the biggest driving forces behind tea's acclaim.

Green tea is best known for its health benefits, primarily because some of the first studies on tea's health attributes came out of Japan and China, where that particular type is widely consumed, said Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.

And the green teas are popular among drinkers who visit the cafe at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Cape Girardeau. The shop offers a variety of flavored teas, from wild berry plum green tea to a daily green honey ginseng tea.

But ginger peach is one of the more popular, said Amanda Webb, who works in the cafe.

Whether green or black, all tea comes from the same camellia sinensis plant. It is how the leaves are processed that determines the different types of tea.

"Black tea has similar properties but has not gotten as much attention," Blumberg said.

A recent study by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Harvard medical School showed that tea, unlike coffee, boosts the body's immune system to fight infection. It also showed blood cells from tea drinkers responded five times faster to germs than did those of coffee drinkers.

A study published last year by the American Heart Association journal Circulation showed that people who drank large amounts of tea -- about 19 cups a week -- also were less likely to die after a heart attack.

Tea boasts a range of benefits, including health and flavor, that culminate to provide people with a relaxing experience, said Cindi Bigelow, vice president of R.C. Bigelow Tea.

Connecticut-based Bigelow Tea was started in 1945 when the company launched its Constant Comment brand. The company now offers dozens of flavored teas and sells honey, gift sets and other products.

"It's just a great way to take a moment for yourself during the day to do something that's good for the mind, the body and the spirit," Bigelow said.

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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