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'Teaism': Americans Give Old Drink New Try - 2003-05-17

Tea is the second-most consumed beverage among adults worldwide. Only water is drunk more often. Yet despite its global appeal, tea is not as popular among Americans as coffee is, though that is changing. As new medical studies tout the health benefits of tea consumption, more Americans are giving the ancient drink from China a try. And shops like one called "Teaism" in Washington, DC, are also contributing to the drink's growing popularity.

Teaism is located in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, one of the trendier neighborhoods in America's capital city. Smooth jazz music softly plays, as young and hip customers file into the warmly decorated shop, looking to order steaming cups of darjeeling, sencha, and lapsang souchong. Linda Orr is co-owner of Teaism. She and her partner opened the shop in 1996. "We had been wanting to open a restaurant of our own, and we found this sweet location here at Dupont Circle, which is close to the art galleries and the embassies. And we really wanted to do something about loose-leaf tea," she says. "You know the boom that's happened around coffee? We thought tea is this whole other beautiful product. It's an unexplored beverage. We thought with the embassies, there are a lot of native tea drinkers right here, you know, in a five or six-block area. There's also the universities. So between the professors and the students, it's a traveled population who might have been exposed to tea, or gone to China or Vietnam, and be looking for a source here."

Linda Orr says she and her partner didn't exactly set out to convince people who aren't tea drinkers to try the beverage. But she says there are two popular misconceptions in America about tea that they wanted to combat. The first is a fairly old misconception that Linda Orr says has been around since the days when America was just a collection of British colonies. "There's a lot of traditional English places that do a stuffy, formal tea, where the focus is more on sandwiches and petit fours," she says. "And we wanted to do a real casual, Asian, comfortable place, where the focus is on really good, top quality loose-leaf tea."

The other misconception, Linda Orr says, is a fairly recent phenomenon, and it's one she had her partner have had only limited success in combating. "People tend to think that tea is a process, that steeping anything in hot water is making tea. And it's not. Tea is actually a particular plant. It's the Camellia Sinensis plant," she says. "So only when you're steeping tea leaves are you making tea. When you're steeping, maybe mint leaves, or dried berries, or chamomile flowers, you're making an herbal infusion, which people tend to call "herbal tea", but it's not really tea at all. And we really didn't want to have any herbal infusions at all, but we knew people would come in asking for them. And a lot of people can't do caffeine, so that's the area to steer them towards."

Teaism offers people more than 40 different green, oolong, black, and white teas from around the world. The blends from China, India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam tend to be the most popular. Linda Orr says most of the people who come into her shop are like Theresa, a woman in her 30s who didn't want to give her last name. They're well established camellia sinensis fans who were a part of the tea drinking minority in America long before the beverage started to become popular.

Theresa: "I lived in England for two years as a teenager and started drinking tea there. Then as an adult, I've become much more interested in different kinds of teas, and herbal teas especially."
Farrelly: "You're aware of the fact that that's not really tea?"
Theresa: "Yes, I know. But yes, I know."
Farrelly: "What is it about herbal teas that you find interesting?"
Theresa: "Well, the lack of caffeine. And also the benefits of herbs. I'm very interested in that kind of thing, as well. But I find now that I tend to drink a lot of green tea, or green tea blends with herbal teas."
Farrelly: "Is there anything about, sort of the ritual that you find interesting?"
Theresa: "Definitely."
Farrelly: "Tell me about that."
Theresa: "I like the serenity, and sort of the calm feeling of having a cup of tea and taking the time out of the day to do that. I do that a lot during the day. And I like the ritual of making tea and also sharing it with people I think is really fun."

Theresa isn't the only person in Washington, D.C. who thinks it's "fun" to take time out of the day to share a pot of tea with family and friends. Coffee may still reign supreme as the hot beverage of choice in America's capital, but since Linda Orr opened her shop in Dupont Circle seven years ago, the demand for tea has grown, such that she now has two other tea houses in different, but equally trendy, Washington neighborhoods.