Sometime during the past few months, I came across an article about tea ceremonies in different parts of the world (you can find the link at the bottom of post). While I did find it to be an enjoyable read, it bothered me that the author began by stating “America doesn’t really have what you’d call a tea drinking culture, save for the sweet tea sipping crowd down South.” Well, this got stuck in my head and kept on nagging me. I don’t agree with that statement. We may be a young country in comparison to the rest of the world, but to say that we don’t have a tea drinking culture, hmm? Nope… I think America’s tea culture is alive and well!
What is “Tea Culture”?
According to Wikipedia, included in the definition of tea culture is the way in which tea is made, brewed, how we drink it, and how people interact with it on both a social and personal level. Basically, the entire aesthetics surrounding tea. So what would make someone think that our tea culture is limited or nonexistent?
Maybe it’s because, in this country, most of us live our lives non-stop. From the moment we wake up, we try to cram our days with to-do lists and feel that each second needs to be accounted for. Even our weekends or days off are treated in the same manner by a vast majority of Americans. It seems that, as a culture, we do have a problem slowing down. So maybe it would be understandable for us to be looked upon as having no time for tea, and therefore, no tea culture!
In other countries, such as England, teatime serves a very important function. During the earlier part of the day, it’s that midmorning break to catch your breath after a crazy, rushed morning. It’s a few minutes to give you the time actually to connect and have a conversation with your co-workers over a nice relaxing cup and a small treat for an energy boost.
If you’re home, that break in the day (whether mid-morning, late afternoon or early evening) can do wonders for the relationships with those you love and those who are important to you. It’s moments to share a little of what’s been going on in your life, to get some advice or maybe give a little bit of it. And if you are enjoying your tea in solitude, it’s a time to relax and reflect. These in themselves are such healthy practices, without even taking into consideration all the health benefits of the tea itself!
So what exactly is America’s tea culture if we do have one? Well, interestingly enough, tea culture has existed in this country before we even came to be known as America. It just seems to have evolved a bit differently than in other parts of the world.
How Did America’s Tea Culture Develop?
While we were still called The New World, tea quietly arrived along with the Dutch in 1602, the same year in which the Dutch East India Trading Company was established. Apart from protecting trade in the Indian Ocean and providing support during the Dutch war of independence from Spain (1566–1648), it also dealt in tea importation from the Orient. So the Dutch were already enjoying their tea and brought it along with them to their new home!
Although we immediately and stereotypically associate tea with England, the majority of Great Britain did not even know tea existed yet. During this time, the only tea to be had in England was brought into the country by British sailors who were working for the British East India Company. These men would bring it back from their travels to the Orient and give it as gifts to family members. Other than for these fortunate few, tea was still very much unknown to the English population.
The years pass quickly and in the later part of the 1630’s tea had become quite popular and was being greatly enjoyed by the Dutch royals in their courts. This practice, of course, immediately made tea fashionable and the ladies of the Dutch colony in New Amsterdam started copying the aristocracy of their homeland. By the end of the 1650’s, there was an established tea culture in New Amsterdam. British tea influence began only after New Amsterdam was invaded by England and eventually renamed New York.
Tea continued to grow in popularity and was now being enjoyed by everyone in the colonies, from deep in the countryside to the growing cities. It had found its way into the hearts and homes (and stomachs) of the people, and everyone was happy!
Always The Taxes!
But then came the famous taxes. Always the taxes! England started to heavily tax the colonies on tea (considered a luxury good) in order to help with the British debt. We all know what happened next.
The people got mad, got together, and hence, the Boston Tea Party. Other revolts broke out in Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Greenwich as well.
As we all know, our American Revolution resulted from these sad events. But many of us don’t know that a by-product of this revolution was that tea (sadly) lost its popularity. Some of the settlers even renounced it completely, as ladies were indoctrinated on the evils of the drink!
Tea After The Revolution
During this time, the settlers tried to find herbs to infuse that would take the place of tea. They started using such things as peppermint, dandelion, and sage. They even made infusions from the Labrador Tea plant (now known to us as the Rhododendron), but there was nothing that could compare to their lost beloved tea.
Labrador Tea Plant
Luckily, with the passing of time and faltering memories, people’s convictions about staying away from tea began to weaken. It took some years, but there is documented evidence that by 1833 (and maybe even earlier) real tea was once again being enjoyed by Americans.
Tea was once again being discussed in print, as the ladies of the households learned the correct ways of preparing and serving it. Tea was again a happy part of our culture, and many wealthy socialites would write about tea being served at parties and other social events. Americas’ tea culture continued to grow and evolve.
The Legend of Iced Tea In America
According to legend (as there is no written proof), iced tea was born in this country in 1904. It was a hot day at the fair in St. Louis in 1904. Though tea was available to them, no one wanted a hot drink on top of the heat they were already experiencing! Along comes Richard Blechynden, who gets the brilliant idea of putting ice cubes into the hot tea that he happened to be already selling.
Well, the hot people at the fair evidently loved the idea as well as the taste of this new refreshment and couldn’t get enough of it! And as the story goes, a delicious new drink called iced tea was invented. Now, that’s the story, and Mr. Blechynden certainly got credit for the invention. However, there seems also to be evidence that iced tea was being served long before the St. Louis Fair in other areas of the country, especially down South.
Some of the cookbooks (then known as cooking guides) written even before 1861 and the Civil War, gave instructions to add not only ice but also sugar to tea in order to serve a refreshing beverage. And yet, more than forty years later, Richard Blechynden gets the credit? Go figure!
These days, according to the Tea Association of the USA, Inc., tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. And recorded in its findings, 80% of the homes in America serve up tea! Any day of the week, 158 million of us will be drinking tea in one form or another. That’s approximately 4 out of every 5 of us. Pretty impressive, right?
Worldwide, we are the third largest importer of tea (Russia and Pakistan being 1 and 2), and we are the only western country to show an increase in tea consumption and tea importation.
Although we do love our tea in all its glorious varieties, it does seem we lean toward drinking it cold. Nearly ninety percent of the tea that we drink in our country today is served on ice. And statistics show that one American citizen alone will consume six and a half gallons of the drink every year!
Tea Production In America
You’ll also find it very interesting to learn (unless you already know) that the United States is currently home to a large and lovely tea plantation which is entirely mechanized and doing very well.
Since Camellia Sinensis can grow in our sunnier and warmer regions, Charleston, South Carolina just happened to be the perfect spot for the Charleston Tea Plantation. Located on Wadmalaw Island (south of Charleston by only a few miles), I was fortunate enough to receive some of their green tea as a gift recently from my daughter, and I have to tell you, it was pretty darn good!
Apart from this established plantation, there are also tea gardens and smaller artisan locations popping up in other states and using traditional hand picking methods.
Some states (besides South Carolina) where camellia sinensis is currently grown are; Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, and Michigan. Hawaii is home to the most significant number of these small growers, which now number in the forties.
Here’s a great little video that walks you through the recipe for making Classic Southern Sweet Iced Tea. Yes, there is a Classic Recipe!
Yes, We Do Have A Tea Culture!
So, I don’t know if you will agree, but I do believe that we definitely have a tea culture in this country. It’s just our very own unique tea culture as are so many other things American. We don’t necessarily always follow protocol because yes, it is true that we are a very busy people. Always on the go, always creating, always moving forward rapidly.
A lot of the times we grab our drinks on the go, but on so many other occasions we do still slow down and make the time to enjoy that cup or glass of tea with friends, loved ones, or even just with the calm serenity of our own souls.
And there are more than enough places in the United States that offer incredibly beautiful and inspiring surroundings where you can drink that delicious tea!
Biltmore Tea – One Beautiful Example of Tea Culture In America
The Library at the Inn on Biltmore Estate
1 Antler Hill Road
Asheville, NC 28803
One very special place (and a personal favorite) is the library at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, North Carolina. The Biltmore Estate is a gorgeous place to go on vacation and a wonderful place to enjoy Biltmore Tea! Eight thousand incredible acres of forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains with its very own winery, a working farm, the largest and grandest house in America built by George Vanderbilt (1889-1895), breathtaking gardens, trails, restaurants, shops, and so much more. It’s one of the treasures of this country and something one should experience at least once in a lifetime.
Inside the Inn on Biltmore Estate, is the very elegant library off to one end of the lobby. It’s a warm, circular room with inviting, comfortable seating and a lovely fireplace. Part of the seating area is exposed to the lobby, while there is a more private area beside a row of spectacular floor-to-ceiling picture windows that look out onto the magnificent grounds and the stunning mountains in the distance.
The service and presentation of your tea are refined and impeccable. The assortment of White, Green, Oolong and Black Teas is delightful and impressive. Four Herbal Tisanes are also offered on the menu. At Biltmore Tea, the offering of traditional English finger sandwiches, scones, preserves, deviled eggs, and other delights are amazingly delicious! And you get to delight in all of this while you are being serenaded by soft, romantic music courtesy of their harp player. Time stops and you genuinely feel that you are part of another era. Believe me, you won’t want the experience to end!
These are a few pictures from our last visit. Hope you like them, and also, maybe you can share your favorite place for tea with us. Can’t wait to hear from you!
Afternoon tea is offered between two and five o’clock, Wednesdays to Sundays and you do need a reservation. They seat you at either two or three thirty p.m.
If you’re interested, you can read the article that prompted me to write this post here: