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A glass mason jar filled with cold, refreshing iced tea.
Food & Drink

Steeped in History: The Rise of Tea in America

Tea is one of the most consumed beverages in the world and it’s enjoyed in almost every country on the globe. Whether you’re whisking up a matcha tea in Japan or you’re adding cream to a traditional East Frisian Tea in northern Germany, the way tea is prepared and the styles in which it is served show just how versatile tea can be.

American tea drinking culture has changed in a multitude of ways over the centuries. It has been influenced by socioeconomic and political forces, molded by innovation, and the demand for tea continues to shift according to fads and how well capitalism can keep up trends.

A brief history of tea in America

As a British colony, American colonists were drinking over 1 million pounds of tea per year during the 1760’s. There was a shift in American tea consumption in 1773 after the passage of the Tea Act which triggered a disagreement over the taxation of tea (taxation of the American colonies without representation in the British Parliament). This led to boycotts on tea sold by the British East India Company, the Boston Tea Party,  and eventually the Revolutionary War. Not long after independence was declared, Americans were back to drinking tea, but their behavior would change in the 1800’s with cold green tea punches which were potent alcoholic cocktails diluted with green tea instead of black tea.

A period of technological advances and entrepreneurship would steadily increase American interest in tea around the turn of the 20th century beginning with the birth of the ice trade and iced tea. Because ice at the time was harvested from ponds and lakes in New England, these cold green tea punches were a sign of luxury. By the mid-19th century, the commercialization of ice made it more accessible to the average tea drinker. The first nonalcoholic version of iced tea first appeared in print in Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookbook in 1876. It was shortly followed by the South’s take on iced tea, sweet tea, which appeared for the first time in a community cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree in 1879.  Iced tea would reach an audience of around 20 million people during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis which further established its popularity throughout the United States and the world. Tea bags, which hit the market in 1908, made brewing tea and making batches of iced tea and sweet tea even more convenient.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, most of these iced tea recipes called for green tea which were imported from China and Japan. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Americans were evenly split between green tea and black tea, drinking around 40% green tea, 40% black tea and 20% oolong tea. But during World War II trade with China and Japan was cut off, and Americans went to drinking almost solely black tea – upwards of 99%.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the growing interest in yoga, meditation, and the Eastern beliefs surrounding the supposed healing properties of tea, Americans became more interested in other hot tea varieties exploring green teas, white teas, and other herbal blends. And marketers were there to supply the demand, packaging teas for large scale consumption making way for the rise of specialty teas in America.

"Over 100 years later, iced tea still reigns supreme over hot tea..."

Black tea is still the preferred among Americans, which factored for 84% of tea consumed in 2019 according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A Inc. Over 100 years later, iced tea still reigns supreme over hot tea with around 75% to 80% of tea consumed in the United States being iced. Despite black tea’s pervasive popularity, there has been steady growth over the past few decades in the green tea and specialty tea markets.

Because of the growing interest in tea, grocery stores are expanding their tea selections.  Cafes, restaurants and even bars are adding tea offerings to their menus and even incorporating tea into dishes and cocktails. There to help guide the American food industry’s voyage into the world of tea are tea consultants like Alexis Siemons. As a tea consultant, not only does Siemons keep up with the latest tea trends, she helps to inform those trends by advising restaurants on how to add tea to their programs, teaching tea classes, and helping tea companies with brand strategy and product development.  

Tea is a nuanced topic, so Siemons has a lot to work with. Even the worlds of black and green teas contain multitudes of nuanced flavors and subtle notes ranging from earthy herbal to tangy citrus. Tea also doesn’t have to be brewed hot – it can be cold brewed overnight in the refrigerator or even steeped in cream or broth with which to cook. But in order to appreciate the many ways tea can be enjoyed, you have to start out with the basics.

How to brew a perfect cup of tea

According to Siemons, it doesn’t take much to brew the perfect cup of hot tea. As long as you consider all of the foundational elements of tea – the leaves, the water, and your steep time – you’re on your way to an excellent cup of tea. “Picking fresh, good tea is the first step toward making a good cup of tea,” explains Siemons who is certified in the Foundations of Tea (Level 1 & 2) by the Specialty Tea Institute, a division of the Tea Association of the USA. This can be either loose leaf tea or tea bags, but one thing to consider with any tea is the shelf life. Tea, like other foods, can go stale and lose its flavor and potency over time. “Treat your tea like a good olive oil,” says Siemons. “Keep it away from heat, light, moisture, other strong aromatics.  If you’re properly sealing your tea in an airtight container, then you’ve probably got a good two years.”

The next thing you need to consider is the water. Siemons recommends starting with good, filtered water which gives you pure canvass. The water temperature is key, as is your steeping time, because, yes, you can actually burn your tea. “Think of it as toast,” says Siemons. “I love toast that is really toasted but once it becomes charred and bitter, it’s no longer enjoyable. The same goes for using the right temperature of water as well is your steeping time.” Most tea that you purchase will include the water temperature and steeping time on the brewing instructions.

You aren’t limited to brewing your tea hot. A technique that’s rising in popularity, one that guarantees that a refreshing cup of tea is always available, is cold brewing. Unlike iced tea where tea is brewed hot and then cooled and served with ice, cold brew tea is made by steeping the tea leaves in cold water anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, depending on the type of tea you’re using. The result is a smoother and naturally sweeter tea. Why is there a difference in taste if you’re using the same kind of tea? The hot water used to brew hot tea releases not just flavor, but also tannins which gives the tea a stronger, mildly bitter and astringent taste and texture. The cold brewing method has a different chemical reaction which extracts less tannins as well as less caffeine.

“Using fresh herbs is a great way to revive teas, especially if they’ve gone a little stale.”

As you drink more tea and experiment with different brewing methods, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of what flavors you like and how to best enhance them. “I think that having an herb garden is a great way to experiment with a combination of fresh herbs,” says Siemons. And you don’t have to dry your herbs first, you can chop them up and add them straight to either a hot brew or cold brew tea. “Using fresh herbs is a great way to revive teas,” says Siemons, “especially if they’ve gone a little stale.”

A great place to start experimenting with fresh herbs is with black tea. Siemons recommends muddling mint leaves in a jar, adding ice and black tea and giving it a shake for around 60 seconds to impart the fresh mint flavor to your black iced tea. If you happen to have cold brewed black tea in the refrigerator, Siemons says adding basil and watermelon before serving is an excellent way to naturally flavor your tea. “If you’re a fan of flavored tea and you’re trying to stay away from things that are artificially sweetened,” says Siemons, “brewing and chilling a tea and adding herbs is a great.”

Pushing the culinary boundaries

Restaurants and cafes have been adding tea to their programs not just as a hot beverage offered at the end of a meal, or as an ingredient in a cocktail, they’re using teas to infuse flavors into pastries as well as into the main course. You’ve probably seen Chai latte cupcakes and Earl Grey cookies at your local bakery, but what about Rooibos paired with spicy meats, green tea in your miso soup or even a refreshing mint added to fish?

An easy place to begin with cooking and baking with tea is to steep the tea in whatever liquids you’re using in your recipe. “If a recipe calls for cream or milk,” says Siemons, “all you’d need to do is steep the tea in the milk to infuse the flavor.” Just keep in mind if you’re incorporating this method into your cooking, add a little bit more milk than the recipe calls for as the tea will absorb some of the liquid.  

Another easy method to add tea into your cooking is to use tea to cook your grains instead of just water. Out of stock for soup? Siemons recommends using herbal tea instead. “When I want to have a quick cup of miso soup, there are two green teas that I really like,” says Siemons. “One is a Genmaicha green tea, it’s Japanese green tea with roasted rice so it has a toasty, nutty flavor. The other is Houjicha, a roasted Japanese green tea that’s much earthier and nuttier.” Green teas are one of the friendliest teas to cook with, as are herbal teas. Black teas can be a bit strong, but if you pay close attention to your steeping time, cooking and baking with black teas can give you excellent results, especially when it comes to Earl Grey.

"Beyond its ability to infuse drinks and food with complex flavors, tea engages all of the senses."

Beyond its ability to infuse drinks and food with complex flavors, tea engages all of the senses. If you are present while making tea, Siemons says the process has a meditative quality. “If you can give yourself 5 to 10 minutes of listening to the water boil, looking at the dry leaves, adding them to the water, watching the colors change, smelling the aroma, and savoring that first sip,” says Siemons, “you’re going to appreciate the whole experience of tea so much more.”

Written By Kae Lani Palmisano Food Writer & TV Host Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.