Friday, February 17, 2006

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.”

And as news of tea’s health benefits spread, its sales rose. Green tea, which made up 2 percent of the ready-to-drink tea market in the early 1990s, now makes up 25 percent, Mr. Rigg said.

“It’s had quite a phenomenal run,” he said. “The driving factor of that is the health benefits of green tea.”

Other popular teas are red, white and estate teas, which originate from a single Asian plantation of a few acres, and are better quality than blended teas.

Restaurant owners have found the profit in selling tea: a pound of leaves, which ranges in price from $32 to well over $100, brews about 200 servings.

“A little bit of tea goes a long way,” Mr. Simrany said.

The success of teahouses overflowed into the tea bag and ready-to-drink tea markets, which grew 11 percent in 2005.

Since the late 1990s, tea chains Tea Emporium, Tealuxe, Teaism and the largest, Teavana, have opened in the United States.

Washington’s proximity to foreign embassies made it a natural spot for Ching Ching Cha and Just Paper and Tea shops in Georgetown and Teaism in Dupont Circle.

Teaism owners Linda Neumann and Michelle Brown opened their shop in 1996, the dawn of tea’s popularity.

Teaism stores — they since have opened in the Penn Quarter and Lafayette Park — serve loose-leaf tea, which is made with large leaves instead of the lesser-quality bags of tea-leaf pieces, Ms. Neumann said.

Tea makes up about 20 percent of Teaism’s sales, which average about $3.5 million annually among the three stores, Ms. Neumann said. Sales have risen 8 percent to 9 percent each year for the past two years.

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