Tea riding wave of coffee craze

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An ancient beverage is making a comeback.

Tea, thought to have been first consumed in China in 2737 B.C., is brewing in teahouses, retail shops, grocery stores and restaurants throughout the country.

Teahouses “were primarily in major metropolitan areas five years ago,” said Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA, a New York trade group. “They’re in towns big and small now.”

The group estimates 1,500 to 1,700 tea shops are in the country today, compared with 200 five years ago.

Teahouses are part of the $6.16 billion tea industry, which 15 years ago was a quarter of its current size. Bottled teas, frozen teas and tea bags of traditional black and specialty flavors also are riding a wave of popularity, bolstered by the coffee craze of the 1990s and the increased awareness of tea’s health benefits.

Green tea in particular is high in antioxidants, which preliminary studies have found lowers the chances of developing some forms of cancer and arthritis while helping weight loss and strengthening the immune system.

Tea drinkers swear by tea’s health benefits.

Julian Jung, 35, of Falls Church, drinks a cup nearly every other day.

“Our bodies need something from the plant kingdom, and tea is a way to get those intangible substances,” he said after buying a cup of lemon-grass tea from Teavana tea shop in Tysons Corner Center on Monday.

Drinking tea can be a chance to socialize with friends or an opportunity to unwind.

“I don’t know anyone who rushes a cup of tea,” said Pearl Dexter, editor and publisher of Tea A Magazine, a trade publication based in Scotland, Conn. “The health benefits come from not only the beverage itself, but the ability to slow down a bit when you’re drinking it.”

Tea is the second most-consumed drink in the world behind water, but hasn’t been widely drunk in the United States since the product was famously dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773.

“Ever since the Boston Tea Party, the U.S. has been a coffee-drinking nation,” said David Rigg, vice president of sales and market development for Redco Foods Inc., a Windsor, Conn., producer of Salada green tea and Red Rose black tea.

But the rise of coffee shops, especially Starbucks in the 1990s, had a trickle-down effect on other hot drinks, Ms. Dexter said.

“It made people aware of the choices,” she said. “The specialty coffee industry put fire under the tea industry.”

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