There’s something brewing in the Pacific Northwest, and, this time, it’s not coffee.
It’s tea. And while it hasn’t taken off with the fervor of a caffeine buzz, the tea revolution - particularly in specialty teas - is taking hold.
It’s not just that warm liquids go well with a cool, rainy climate. Experts say some of the same consumers in Portland and Seattle who demanded a better cup of coffee are developing a more refined taste for tea.
Formal afternoon teas are becoming an increasingly popular alternative for business meetings and after-work gatherings. And tea houses are quietly springing up amid a market long saturated with coffee cafes.
“It’s not the fast-paced grab a cup and run,” says Sarah Bennett, who runs the British Tea Gardens in Portland with her mother, Judith, and another partner. “It’s something that adds to conversation. People come here and really let their worries go for a while.”
The women, all from England, started with a gift shop three years ago. “But people kept coming in and asking for tea,” says Judith Bennett, whose menu includes crumpets, scones and the occasional steak-and-kidney pie specials.
She has opened a second shop in Portland, including a growing mail-order business with more than 300 varieties of tea from China, India, Australia and other parts of the world.
“If I didn’t do it, I know someone else would,” she says.
It’s a testament to the growing taste for variety - from the more traditional Earl Grey to fancy Formosa Oolong, smoky Lapsang Souchong and tangy Ceylon Orange Pekoe. Green teas also are growing in appeal, as is chai (black tea with milk and spices) and fermented tea, which is sold on tap in bars.
Even Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee king, now sells a few varieties of tea.
“Oh thank goodness,” says Claudia Groth of Portland. “We tea drinkers are tired of not being able to walk down the street with some trendy drink. You’re kind of left out of the social thing.”
Groth drinks at least one cup of Earl Grey each day. But, otherwise, she’s as happy with a cup of McDonald’s iced tea as a fancier tea from such companies as Portland-based Stash Teas, and relative newcomers Republic of Tea, based in Navarro, Calif., and Tazo Teas, also based in Portland.
While Groth long has been a minority tea drinker in her office, experts say a growing number of people are switching allegiances - especially in the afternoon and evening - because of tea’s lower caffeine content.
The progression from coffee to tea is not surprising to Frank Miller, president of the Blue Willow Tea Co. in Seattle.
“They are beverages that seem to go hand-in-hand with one another. Tea percolated through coffee,” says Miller, who founded Blue Willow with his wife, Christine Miller Higashi, in 1989.
The fastest growth is among ready-todrink and specialty teas.
“The bright light is premium products,” says Steve Smith, who founded Tazo Teas two years ago.
His line of products includes “microbrewed” bottles of tea, which he distributes to such places as New York’s Guggenheim Museum. He also has opened several “tea bars” in specialty supermarkets, at universities - from Portland State to Harvard - and at the Beaverton headquarters of Nike Corp.
In the specialty tea arena, Tazo is concentrating on putting a better grade of tea into bags. Meanwhile, companies such as Blue Willow Tea are concentrating exclusively on loose tea.
Both methods seem to be working, says Shannon Loch, a buyer for Nature’s Fresh Northwest, a natural and specialty foods chain with stores in Oregon and Washington.
Consumers are buying more tea, she says, whether they take tea bags to work or keep loose tea at home for more leisurely moments.
“People are looking for ways to create rituals and traditions in their lives,” Loch says, from boiling the water to choosing the tea and serving it.