- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2010

BERKELEY, Calif. | The “tea party” movement has riled plenty of people, but especially those who drink the stuff.

“It’s certainly an exciting time to see this kind of fervent activism, but for our industry, it has been very damaging in an overshadowing type of way,” said World Tea Expo President George Jage, who recently had to make a change in his Google alert setting.

Now he tracks industry news using the command “tea minus party.”

Strange things are happening as the refined world of tea parties — the kind where you mind your manners and consider proper brewing temperatures — collides with the rowdier milieu of the other kind of tea party, the kind where you brew political dissent.

Take Jack Cheng, co-founder of Steepster, a New York-based online tea-drinkers community.

“It’s becoming harder for people to find relevant information,” said Mr. Cheng, who was visiting San Francisco this week. “You always find some politically driven tea party as opposed to what you’re looking for.”

Political opinions within the trade vary; some are carefully neutral while others lean left or right. But all seem bemused by the idea of blending tea and tumult.

“I do everything in my power to promote the benefits and power of drinking specialty tea. With all the media attention that the tea party [movement] gets, it’s shifted that focus,” said Beth Johnston, owner of Teas Etc. in West Palm Beach, Fla. She’s staying neutral on the politics, but she has definite opinions about tea. “Tea is soothing and it’s restorative and it’s healing and that’s really the polar opposite of the energy of the movement, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.”

Activists are harkening back to 1773 and the Boston Tea Party, when colonists boarded British ships and threw tea into the harbor in a symbolic act of protest.

Even then, the juxtaposition of protest and propriety was jarring, said Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. “That was kind of an ironic play on what a tea party was supposed to be.”

Some tea partisans think tea party activists — who occasionally incorporate actual tea into their protests, for instance, flinging bags into a barrel or using them to decorate signs or clothing — are going about things the wrong way.

At least use specialty tea, said Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Perryville, Ky. “If these people are really serious about it, they wouldn’t be using tea bags,” he said with a laugh.

Political tea party activists aren’t sitting around mulling linguistics, said Mark Meckler, a California attorney and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which has more than 1,200 chapters across the country.

“People simply associate it with the Boston Tea Party,” he said. “Today, there are a lot of people who feel that regardless who they voted for, they’re not actually represented by our government any longer.”

As for the plight of the tea merchants, he advises them to take advantage of the phenomenon.

“I hope they’re selling a lot more tea because people are so focused on the tea party these days,” he said.

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