On a recent work trip, I had some free time to explore a bit of the US tea scene in Los Angeles and New York City. Although I grew up in the US, I haven’t lived there for a decade, but I’ve been watching this growing interest in tea over the past five years or so. It is clearly more popular, and demand for better tea is up. Below are a few thoughts and observations about the US tea industry, as well as a sampling (not a complete list) of some of the tea places I visited in New York City.
Tea in the U.S. of A.
The tea industry is booming in the US. You’ve always been able to find iced tea almost anywhere from coast to coast. But the big change seems to be in the growing interest in speciality teas – served both iced and hot. During my recent trip, I noticed that cafes and restaurants in Los Angeles and New York City are not only serving standard black iced tea, but many are also offering iced teas with flavours or iced tisanes made out of fruit or herbal blends. Existing cafes and restaurants are reacting to the growing popularity of tea by expanding their current offerings. Starbucks’ acquisition of Teavana is an example, but smaller coffee shops are also offering more teas. Popularity in tea is also fuelling the opening of more tea shops throughout the country. The expansion of bigger chains like DAVIDsTEA and Teavana are clear, but you have smaller, independent tea shops as well as internet-based shops popping up everywhere. Interest in tea is also is apparent in that so many of the well-known tea bloggers are US-based.
I would have to say that I’m still a bit sceptical that the popularity of tea in the US is here to stay. When I open US news articles that begin by talking about the perceived health aspects of tea, not the taste of it, alarm bells go off. The US food and drink scene is dominated by of-the-moment fads that come and go from one year to the next, especially when it comes to things like ‘super foods’ and their perceived health benefits: one day’s quinoa is the next day’s teff (yeah, I hadn’t hear of it until recently either). Tea could go this ‘super food’ path. I casually chatted with one tea shop employee in New York City and she stated that customers were not only matcha crazy (a tea heavily marketed on health benefits), but that customers regularly came in looking for ‘detox’, puerh or flavoured teas. When I heard that, and when I reflected on my visits to US tea shops, they clearly stock huge amounts of herbal, fruit and flavoured teas – so many that some shops have a strong aroma because of the flavoured tea selection. Personally, the smell of flavoured teas turns my stomach, but shop stock is market-driven and this is what the consumer wants. Teavana clearly takes the cake by combining puerh (a tea that is thought to help you lose weight) and flavourings. Their ‘Weight To Go! Pu-erh Tea’ and ‘Strawberry Slender Pu-Erh Tea’ bring tears to my eyes.
Regardless of whether the popularity of tea continues to grow in the US, or whether or not I personally care for what type of tea is in demand and sold, I find the US tea scene exciting and having a lot potential to change the whole tea industry. When it comes to companies opening shops on high streets and cafes popping up where you can go in and order a good cup of tea and relax in a cafe setting without the whole high tea rigmarole, it seems like positive steps to me.
Exploring New York City’s tea scene
Harney & Sons
I started my tea exploration at Harney & Sons in Soho. When I lived in North America, I regularly ordered tea from Harney & Sons and was super keen to see their shop (they have another shop where the company is based in Millerton, NY). Their Soho shop will celebrate its fourth anniversary in November. Judging from my two visits to their Soho shop, it must be a very successful venture: lots of people were in to buy tea, and their cafe was packed.
I must admit that I was extremely impressed by my Harney & Sons experience. As I walked into the shop, the first thing I noticed was their wall of tea and tea tasting counter, where you can try and buy numerous loose leaf teas. On the other side of the shop, they have pre-packaged teas, and the cafe is in the back. The shop also carries a large selection of teaware – everything from tea tasting cups, thermometers, caddies, timers, teapots, travel mugs and so on. The shop and cafe are beautiful, and the staff are knowledgeable and friendly.
The shop gives each customer one free tea tasting (there is a $1 fee on some exclusive teas). They present you with a menu of their teas that contains a short description of each. Teas are infused in proper tea tasting cups and staff time the infusion.
The cafe is a great little oasis at the back of the shop. Pots of standard tea start at $6. You can have any of the teas in the cafe that you can buy in the shop. Thin matcha lattes are $6, with thicker ones for $7 and $8. Each day they make two iced teas, one green and one black ($3). And the cafe has a selection of food that ranges from scones to salmon on crackers (starting from $6). While sipping on your tea, you can also make use of the cafe’s free Wi-Fi.
My next stop was at Physical GraffiTea in the East Village. Opened in 2011 and located on the ground floor of the Physical Graffiti buildings, which were featured on Led Zeppelin’s sixth album, Physical Graffitea carries an extensive selection of teas, as well as tisane and medicinal infusions.
It is a small, cosy tea shop/cafe that fits right into the alternative scene that I associate with the East Village. There are about five or six tables in the cafe, and I could see myself spending a weekend afternoon in this shop reading the newspaper or a book (from what I could tell, the shop doesn’t have Wi-Fi).
You can get pots of tea or matcha in the cafe starting at $4.50. They also serve various iced teas. I am always glad when a cafe, whether it is tea or coffee, serves drinks in proper cups and teapots, so Physical Graffitea scored big with me when my pot of sencha landed on my table with a ceramic cup. My only small criticism is that my tea didn’t come with a timer, so the owner of the shop was standing there counting out the infusion time.
DAVIDsTEA is a company that started in Montreal, Quebec and jumped into the US market in 2011 with a big splash. Currently DAVIDsTEA has over 75 shops in the US and Canada. There are five DAVIDsTea shops in the greater New York City area.
When entering the DAVIDsTEA on Bleecker Street, I instantly noticed a massive tea wall, as well as an extensive teaware/accessories selection. A friendly and enthusiastic staff member instantly came up to me and asked me if I had ever visited DAVIDsTEA before, and then told me about the shop. The staff member told me that they specialise in loose leaf tea, and that they carry 188 different kinds of tea.
From the wall of tea, I selected a tea to drink in shop. I am not sure if they have menus for people to look at and see prices of each tea, but the tea caddies behind the counter were colour-coded to indicate tea type and the tea labels could be easily be read from a distance. I selected a black Nepal tea which cost $3.80 (prices vary from tea to tea) and sat in their clean and comfortable seating area, which is located at the back of the shop. The cafe provides free Wi-Fi.
I was really interested to visit DAVIDsTEA, a growing chain across North America, after going to the smaller shops and cafes like Harney & Sons and Physical Graffitea. The environment in DAVIDsTEA is clean, sterile and lacking a bit of character – something that resembles chain coffee shops in North America and Europe. The shop, however, had a nice seating area, friendly staff, a knockout teaware selection and a vast selection of teas. I definitely like the tea I had, but I will have to deduct points for it being served in a paper cup and in a filter bag, especially after the staff person told me that they specialise in loose leaf. For me, nothing can beat a teapot. But all in all, I know that if I lived near a DAVIDsTEA and needed a place to nip in for a quick cup made with high-quality tea, I would.
Ten Ren Tea
Ten Ren Tea is located in the heart of Chinatown on Mott Street. Two doors down is a small Ten Ren cafe that sells some of their tea. Currently Ten Ren Tea has shops in seven countries, and while they specialise in Chinese tea, they have a good selection of Taiwanese and Japanese teas. Ten Ren Tea also stocks a large selection of teapots, cups, gaiwans and caddies.
This was my second time to visit a Ten Ren Tea, and on both occasions I was given a tea to sample upon entering, and staff was extremely helpful in showing me teas and teaware. Unfortunately my pictures of the Ten Ren’s shop did not turn out, but the store has a massive tea wall full of some of the freshest green and oolong teas available that range widely in grade and price, and they have an a good selection of puerh teas. In the back of the shop, you can also find a large selection of pre-packaged teas and tea bags.
Two doors down from Ten Ren shop is a cafe that sells some of their teas and finger foods. A cup of tea starts around $4. Ten Ren Tea carries a lot of ginseng products, and one of their well-known teas is called King’s Tea, which is oolong blended with ginseng. I had to try it. While the tea was good, I was disappointed to have it served to me in a disposable cup with a filter bag. The cafe lacked any sort of ambience. In fact, the fluorescent lights made it a bit unpleasant in the setting area.
Conclusions about tea in New York City
I really enjoyed my tea experience in New York City. I like the fact that you can find a good variety of tea shops and cafes. They are family-run shops like Harney & Sons, independent places like Physical Graffitea and chain tea shops. There seems to be something for everyone. Regretfully, I didn’t have time to visit all the tea places I was told about. Ippodo Tea, which specialises in Japanese tea, and BELLOCQ, which has an impressive selection of exclusive teas, are just two places of many that I need to hit up during my next trip. Hope to see you again soon, New York City!