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The effects of tea on maintaining health are compelling. Tea is a healthier alternative to coffee and soda, and according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, a leading authority on the health effects of tea, drinking three mugs of tea a day has been associated with an 11 percent decrease in the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Additionally, antioxidants and polyphenols in tea may help to prevent cancer, though that research is far from conclusive: “Despite promising results from animal studies, it is not clear whether increasing tea consumption will prevent cancer in humans,” states the Pauling Institute website.
For those interested in the health benefits of tea drinking, brewed tea is a better choice than those bottled teas that have become commonplace in the past decade. Bottled teas contain fewer antioxidants than conventionally brewed teas, because these compounds are “unstable and degrade quickly with time,” says the Pauling Institute.
Large brands like Lipton and Snapple have given tea products a huge presence on the market. But it was public curiosity that gave rise to the number of teas available today, says Tea Laden’s Francis.
Marks says the rise of tea can be attributed in large part to America’s insatiable appetite for the “next big thing.” Americans are always looking for the new trend, she observes. A large part of her customer base is college age, young women and men who are into healthy living. They hear tea is good for you, and become tea drinkers, in turn fueling a larger movement, Marks says.
Health concerns have trumped a long-standing indifference toward tea in this country. It used to be, when the average American thought of tea, we thought British—crumpets and cucumber sandwiches and the like. Few people know that tea was actually an American beverage first, brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch colonists in the early 1600s. According to the British Tea Council, the British picked up the tea habit from Catherine of Braganza when Charles II married her in 1662. Tea’s great popularity in the American colonies, and the ongoing battle between the British and Dutch trading companies, is what led the British to heavily tax it, prompting the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It’s hard to say exactly when coffee replaced tea in America—perhaps it was around the time the precious commodity was pitched into Boston Harbor.
For decades, tea was something that came in tiny white bags, but today’s market is awash with new brands and flavors. Smith, who like all connoisseurs scorns the commonplace (“tea bag teas are garbage,” she growls), is eager to show me her teas. When she opens her bins, they release an exotic, earthy aroma that conjures images of ancient history and exotic locales.
Smith dips an oversized stainless-steel scoop, dubbed “Big Ben,” into a container and resurfaces with heaps of pungent leaves and flowers, holding them up to catch the afternoon light. She points out each separate treasure—the Ceylon leaf, the orange peel, the tiny lavender flowers, the mint—all intact, each like a small miracle. She describes the finer points of each, the way the rooibos reminds her of plants she’s seen while she’s been scuba diving; the Royal Baihao Yinzhen, which looks like white-silver needles and is covered with a downy white fluff that spills out when you first lift the lid; and the white tea with its long, silvery leaves from the very center of the plant.
Smith began with just 13 types of tea, but now offers over 200 teas to choose from, ranging in price from $32 for a pound of Moroccan mint to $148 for a pound of 20-year-old Pu-erh from China. Some 70 percent of Divinitea’s sales are wholesale to coffee houses, with the rest split between restaurants and direct retail sales. Smith also works with companies that bottle tea—whose names she won’t disclose—coming up with blends for the mass market. She says sales have risen about 30 percent every year since the business opened; last year, she sold 10,000 pounds of tea.
Smith first became enchanted with plants and herbs as a child. She recalls watching her mother pick fresh chives for a salad, a simple act that led Smith on a quest to find other edible plants. In college, she studied culinary arts and business, and upon graduation went to work in the restaurant industry. She worked in a number of what she calls “white-tablecloth restaurants.” These fine-dining establishments were almost beyond reproach—except where tea was concerned. Smith, who by this time had studied with Woodstock herbalist Susan Weed and become familiar with a variety of uses for herbs, including tea, was always dismayed to find fancy restaurants serving plain tea.