History of Tea in the USA
America is not as well known for its tea traditions as the UK, China or India but tea has played an important role in American history and has developed some of its own unique traditions including the invention of tea bags, iced tea and sweet tea. Although coffee remains a more popular drink than tea and around 80% of the tea that is drunk in America is served iced, fine teas are enjoying a revival in recent decades. Their absence from traditional American culture is as significant as its presence in China because the availability of tea has been bound with American politics since the 18th century through to the 1970s.
Initially tea was required to be sold by the East India Company exclusively to London where it paid a duty before being exported to the American colonies. This created a number of opportunities for smuggling tax free tea to America. In an attempt to control this, and boost the fortunes of the East India company which was suffering financial difficulties, the British parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773. The Tea Act taxed the tea at its source, in India, and allowed it to be exported directly to America without landing in London first. This was meant to made tea cheaper for the Americans, encouraging sales to help the East India Company, while ensuring that Britain could still claim its taxes on all tea leaving India and curb the smuggling industry. But the colonists were not happy upon realizing that they were being made to pay a tax to an authority that was not elected by them and in response they rebelled. In three colonies they refused to accept the tea and prevented the importers from unloading their cargo, but in Boston they went one step further and refused to allow the tea to be sent back to Britain too. They threw the cargo into the harbour in an event that has become known as the Boston Tea Party which led Britain to impose the Coercive Acts on the colonies, a set of draconian laws that punished Americans indiscriminately for their part in the protest, regardless of their involvement, partly to reclaim payment for the destroyed cargo. It had the opposite effect, to create stronger anti-British sentiment amongst the colonies and ultimately triggered the American Revolution.
With independence from England and its Indian tea supplies, most American tea come from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Argentina, Malawi and America’s only home plantation in South Carolina. This caused US tea traditions to take on a different style to the rest of the world, in particular their preference for sweet iced tea. This development directly parallels the invention of refrigeration in the early half of the 19th century. Initially tea was made as punches and contained cold green tea with a considerable amount of liquor served at social gatherings and special occasions. Frequently they were given regional or patriotic names such as the Chatham Artillery Punch or Charleston’s St. Cecilia Punch after the musical society at whose annual ball it was served. These were particularly popular in South Carolina where tea was grown locally and temperatures were hot. As refrigerators became more commonplace in the mid-19th century iced tea became more of a daily drink and during the last half of the century we see a move from alcoholic green tea punch to sweetened iced black tea being prepared at home and appearing in domestic cookbooks. This sweetened iced tea is still the standard variety of tea that is served in southern states of America and often just referred to as just “tea”.
Iced tea finally became commercialised and spread throughout the country when, at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Richard Blechynden, the Indian Tea Commissioner, was distributing free tea during a hot summer. He soon realised that people were shunning his stall for cooler drinks and so took his brewed Indian tea, put it in several large bottles and filtered it through iced pipes. The free iced tea was very much welcomed by fair goers and so after the fair Blechynden took his apparatus to Bloomingdale Brothers department store in New York where it continued to enjoy considerable popularity. Two decades later, during the prohibition era (1920-1933), Americans searched for alternatives to alcoholic beverages and iced tea became a natural choice, ensuring it a place in American cuisine.
Another significant invention from the United States is the tea bag. Invented in 1903 and appearing commercially by 1904, they were first successfully marketed by Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea importer, who sent samples in small silk sacks. He intended the tea to be removed from the sack but many of his customers did not realise this and dipped the bag in whole. When they later ordered tea from him and found it did not come in the small bags they complained and so he quickly got to work designing some gauze sacks that would do the same job. The ease of being able to control the exact time of steeping and remove the leaves with minimal effort has made them a staple part of American tea culture since.
In recent years there has been a revival of fine teas in America, mainly due to the lifting of China’s ban on exports to the USA in 1971. Since the 1920s Americans could not get Chinese tea and very little Indian tea was imported. The ones they did get were specifically blended for iced tea bags: always black and selected to be clear when cooled. This is because clear black iced teas were considered more attractive by consumers although there is no difference in quality of taste. With China’s ban lifted, people in the USA begun to experiment with green, white and red teas. American tea consumers have become increasingly interested in the origins of their tea and wanting to try teas from all parts of the globe. Many are now sold under the producing garden’s factory trademark and where this is not possible the district, state or elevation is named on the box or the proportion of each tea in the blend is listed. The drive to try as many different teas from as many sources as possible has replaced the urge to invest in complex preparation methods and simple steeping in hot water is generally favoured. To the American mindset money is better invested in trying many different teas in a simple, economic and time efficient way than in buying complex and expensive tea making equipments which are not universally agreed upon, even by experts, as the best way of making tea. Tea producers also agree that this is good for business as whatever sells more tea is good for the tea production industry in general.
American tea culture has been strongly influenced by its position in world politics as the revolution against England limited their sources and made them take on different customs. The hot climate of the southern states where tea was most common and the invention of refrigeration also influenced what they did with the tea they had resulting in a culture of iced rather than hot tea. As the world has opened up to trade Americans have started to explore alternative ways of enjoying their tea resulting in a revival of fine teas while other countries have adopted the American innovation of icing to produce many local variations around the world.