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Why our national perception of loose leaf tea drinking is all wrong

Why our national perception of loose leaf tea drinking is all wrong

Unlike our cravings for coffee, our appetite for ales, or our wanting for wine, tea has never really tickled the tastebuds of the average American consumer. We don’t make it into the top 25 tea-drinking nations of the world and domestically coffee consumption continues to remain the caffeinated beverage of choice by a long shot. So just what is going on here? Why aren’t more Americans enjoying a fine blend of loose leaf tea?

There was a time when tea drinking in America was almost big. A time when those in the know would extol the virtues of tea to anyone who cared to listen. A time when it appeared the ancient practice of tea drinking was about to go mainstream.

Valhalla Tea Company

Why didn’t the ascendency of loose leaf tea come to pass?

Is it our long memory of being pushed around so much by the tea-drinking Brits that we had to dump on them? Possibly. Or maybe it’s our perception that loose leaf tea doesn’t serve our fast-paced, get it done yesterday lifestyle.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this perception of loose leaf tea is all wrong.

It’s a fact. By and large, Americans drink way more iced tea than loose leaf tea. Only about 20% of all the tea consumed in this country is of the heated variety, whether that be black tea or green tea. Whilst there is nothing necessarily bad about an ice-cold pitcher of iced tea on a hot summer’s day, this is considered an abnormal way to drink tea by world standards. And drinking tea this way is a recent invention. Indeed, during the 1950s, to overturn tea’s reputation as wimp juice, marketing companies helped promote the notion that drinking a sweetened tea in a tall glass full of ice was akin to enjoying a cocktail or a beer. The thinking was that American men would more likely drink tea if it was packaged this way. It was a way of repackaging tea to capture the male market rather than it letting it remain synonymous with old ladies, tea parties and the British.

And the marketing worked. Now we have this skewed perception of what drinking loose leaf tea represents.

A perception of loose leaf tea that is not really serving us

Tea drinking has been with us since time immemorial. Long used in many ancient societies as both a healing and social practice, over time tea drinking took on ceremonial proportions within many cultures. Wars have been fought in its name. Whole empires built because of it. It’s even fueled warriors to go into battle and face down the enemy.

Which is a vastly different take on tea than what we currently have in this country.

The incredible richness and variety that is the world of tea is not able to be distilled down simply within the space of one article on the matter. Today, the role that tea plays in many people’s lives, how, when and what type of tea they drink is as unique as the people who drink it. Whereas our predilection for coffee emanates from a desire to get a quick (and short-lived) pick-me-up, a desire to have things instantly, tea is much slower. Whereas drinking coffee is largely a solitary ritual, tea is brewed by the pot and brings people together.

In the many countries where tea has risen to supremacy, drinking loose leaf tea works to slow the pace of life. It brings people together, be it in a town square in Turkey, a hookah lounge in Afghanistan, or a teahouse in Japan.

A beautiful blend of loose leaf tea is a metaphoric putting on of the brakes. It hits a much-needed pause button on our overly fast lives. Or, as Christina Xu puts it in her essay What I Care About When I Care About Tea, preparing loose leaf tea “is the most satisfying kind of ritual. There’s cleansing, and repetition, and precision, and waiting. There’s time to appreciate the feel of your teaware in your hands, and time to experience the flavors and smells of the tea unfold...”

Final thoughts

There is much to be said about the greatness of American ingenuity. Of taking something good, like the German invention of the automobile, and making it great. However, when it comes to loose leaf tea, we’ve bastardized it. We’ve taken something that was already great and turned it into something that misses the whole point of drinking tea. Tea is meant to help us heal. It’s meant to bring us together and fuel a warrior mindset. It’s not simply a refreshment, but a way of being.

Maybe the fact that most Americans have the wrong perception of tea is a good thing. It just means that those of us in the know get to enjoy a wonderful cup of tea with a smile on our face because we know we are sampling one of life’s untouched pleasures. You have your coffee, leave me my cup of Valhalla Tea Company loose leaf tea.

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