Each time tea is introduced to a new land, it evolves and mutates into a new “tea culture” that profoundly influences that society. The Camellia sinensis plant, from which all tea derives, is one of the few, if only, known plants in history to spur dramatic change in the societies to which it is introduced, providing impetus for poetry, meditation, civil disobedience, economic shifts, social and spiritual rituals, and all-out war. Tea has also been greatly valued as a medicine and in some cultures used as currency or as food. As it did in Asia and Europe hundreds of years ago, tea has enhanced the American economy as well as the social and physical health of our society.
The internationalism and multiculturalism of the United States is mirrored beautifully in our emerging tea culture, and extends to all who participate, a warmth and hospitality that have been long forgotten in the rush to produce more, acquire more, and know more.
A native American healer with whom I once studied taught me that plants needed for our own healing will often show up in our gardens. Perhaps in the same way, tea has re-emerged in a significant way in our country when we most need the benefits for which it is heralded: slowing down, contemplation, serenity, illumination, intimacy, and community. It is the antidote to the alienation and rush brought on by technology and our national addiction to productivity.
One will find many expressions of tea here — whether Japanese, Chinese, British, or Fusion — but the universal threads of tea culture are woven through each and every expression of tea. These threads are Community, Sanctuary, Intimacy, Art, and Ritual. Like our country, which is rich in diversity and therefore in opportunity and understanding, American tea culture culls its richness from its multi-culturalism, and while each manifestation of tea culture might look or feel different, it is made of the same stuff and is a piece in a greater whole.
“Tea culture” is a term that comes from Asia, where tea originates. Because tea was first embraced by Buddhists as an adjunct to meditation, by healers as a miracle plant, and by artists and scholars as a mystery– rites and rituals around tea preparation and service began to develop, and tea was used to both heal and entertain the elite class who had time for poetry, social gathering, and philosophy. Over time, tea culture became widely enjoyed by all classes of people in China, and later in Japan and other neighboring countries. (For more information on the history of tea culture, find it in The Way to Tea: Your Adventure Guide to San Francisco Tea Culture).
You could say that American tea culture first emerged at the end of the 17th century, when it was brought to New Amsterdam (now New York) by Dutch settlers who arrived as avid tea drinkers. Early in our history, one could find “tea gardens” (situated handily by natural springs equipped with pumps) in New York City.
As tea was heavily taxed by England, a black market tea enterprise developed among colonists who snubbed the East India Company’s very expensive imports, sparking the historical Boston Tea Party. “Take your tea and shove off,” was the message from those who dressed in costume as Indians and with tomahawks broke open and threw overboard three shiploads of tea chests in defiance of the Crown and her duty-laden tea. So, as it turned out, tea was pivotal in provoking the American Revolution.
The rest was not only history but also became our present and future. Fast forward a couple of hundred years to contemporary America, and you will find a tea culture newly in the making. Had we not told the British they weren’t our cup of tea, we might still be sipping only English Breakfast and Early Grey. Instead, our belated fascination with tea is inspired as much by the later-migrating Asian traditions and influences as it is by those of the Occident. Stimulated by the many cultures in the country which merge, blend, and mingle so artfully, we are building a marvelous alchemical tea culture that is unmatched and unrepeatable anywhere else in the world.
Here you will find Chinese tea rooms like The Tao of Tea in Portland, which resides in the lovely Chinese tea gardens in the center of the city as well as the traditionally European style venues in NYC like Tea And Sympathy which thrives alongside contemporary tea cafes like Teany. In the San Francisco Bay Area–my hometown and what I consider to be “the epicenter of the new American tea culture”–we are spoiled by the more heavily Asian influenced tea salons like Teance and Red Blossom Tea, which focus on tea connoisseurship and education, as well as hip, multicultural tea lounges like Samovar Tea Lounge.
Some venues like the Urasenke Foundation, which teaches Japanese tea ceremony, can be found in several cities in the United States. In Boulder, Colorado, if you are lucky you’ll come across the amazing Dushanbe Tea House, which was built as a gift by their sister city in Tajikistan and which is the setting of the annual Rocky Mt. Tea Festival. Seattle’s tea scene flourishes as evidenced by the new Northwest Tea Festival, which takes place in that city each October. In Washington D.C.’s Georgetown district, you might be pleasantly surprised to find an oasis of light and peace at Ching Ching Cha or down the road, to find Teaism.
Not only is tea culture thriving in America’s larger cities, but it is finding appreciation outside of urban capitals. Buffalo, Boise, Scottsdale, Savannah, and Madison all have engaging tea rooms where tea lovers can meet and share a brew; and for each actual tea room or tea shop in the area, there might be another few people selling tea from their homes, putting on afternoon tea salons, or creating tea clubs.
In truth, there are so many fabulous tea lounges, tea rooms, tea houses, tea gardens, and tea nightclubs opening that it is hard to keep up. No worries, it’s Tea: it’s not about keeping up, but about slowing down, relaxing, imbibing, sharing, and enjoying the moment.