It's tea, but not as we know it

In America, the hot new drink comes in flavours such as Irish Crème Latte and Mojitea – and it bears little relation to a plain old cuppa. David Usborne reports

There is a tea party going on in the United States. But before you conjure visions of Sarah Palin and slogans excoriating Barack Obama think instead of the sweet and smooth caress of an Irish Crème Tea Latte. (Which of the two you will find less palatable – politician or beverage – we dare not say.)

This is not about a war between political ideologies but between hot drinks. No one is suggesting that the craze for costly coffee in America, instigated most particularly by Starbucks of Seattle, is coming to an end. But what can be said with confidence is that it is being given a bit of a run for its money suddenly by tea.

Has Uncle Sam himself finally grasped the art of brewing and mashing? Not quite. Most grocery shelves in America still offer the feeblest selection of teas to anyone looking for more than “breakfast” or “Earl Grey”. Ask for a cuppa on a domestic flight and they will serve you hot water and milk in a paper cup accompanied by a tea bag that you must dunk yourself in the vague hope it will all turn the colour of rust.

Yet, a serious effort is going on to do to the humble leaf what the folks in Seattle did to the bean, above all make it appealing enough, in all sorts of new-fangled brews and blends, to anchor full-blown tea shops with prices as shocking as the menus. That Irish Crème concoction is the February special at Argo Tea which recently has been opening branches in such cities as New York, Chicago, Boston and St Louis.

And a head of steam has already been achieved. According to the New York based Tea Association of the USA, there are now roughly 3,000 tearooms open across America compared to only 200 back in 1995. And on the retail side companies such as Harney & Sons Master Tea Blenders in Millerton, New York, are rushing to keep up with demand for new speciality blends for the shelves of shops like Whole Foods.

The founder and CEO of Argo Teas, Arsen Avakian, recently recalled opening his first shop in Chicago eight years ago. “A lot of people thought it was insanity,” he said. Likening himself to Apple founder, Steve Jobs, he added: “I want to build the Apple of tea, and really create a premier global brand. We have really reached a growth tipping point for us and are ready to take growth to the next level.”

A visit to one Argo branch in Chicago revealed that, like Starbucks, the Argo chain is turning the business of ordering a cuppa into a bit of a face-reddening challenge. If Starbucks regulars can appear sometimes to be speaking a new language, you might be similarly baffled by the crowd at Argo. How am I to choose this morning between the Smootea, Tea Sparkle, MojiTea (inspired, allegedly, by the Mojito) and the Ice Green Tea Ginger Twist, all offerings trademarked by the company.

Starbucks, of course, remains the biggest threat to the relative tiddlers of tea such as Argo. When the first Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971, the siren mermaid logo had “coffee” and “tea” beneath it. Tea soon fell away as the founders concentrated on becoming serious baristas. But did you notice that just a few weeks ago, the word “coffee” vanished also? Starbucks is not just about coffee any more. Indeed, its Tazo teas became a billion-dollar brand for the company, it revealed in a recent call with Wall Street analysts.

Still, this may be the time for Argo and other tea purveyors to find their place in the American market where, according to Beverage Digest magazine, coffee consumption fell between 2006 and 2009 by 2.3 per cent – it’s that recession thing – while tea drinking increased over the same period by 4.5 per cent.

“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s getting bigger and bigger, like a snowball,” says Michael Harney, vice-president of Harney & Sons. A humble word of advice to Argo, which boasts that it buys leaves from 16 countries: keep your eye on brewing stuff that actually tastes at least slightly like tea. That Irish Crème Tea Latte tasted like Baileys without the booze to me. Sweet and gooey, oh, and a bit like coffee.