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The future of tea is more than hot or cold

Tea is the most consumed beverage, after water, in the world. Here in the U.S., however, coffee rules. That may change. On any given day, about half of the American population drinks a cup of tea, according to the Tea Association of the USA, with the greatest concentration of tea drinkers in the South and Northeast. They like it cool, too; 85 percent of tea consumed is iced and much of that is RTD (ready to drink). Of the hot stuff, 65 percent is brewed from bags, but loose tea is gaining popularity.

As an indication of its confidence in the tea category’s growth, coffee king Starbucks paid big bucks—$620 million—for Teavana, the Atlanta, Georgia-based chain with some 300 mall teashops/retail outlets. “We believe the tea category is ripe for reinvention and rapid growth,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chairman, president and CEO, in a statement about the deal. Starbucks also owns the Tazo Tea Company, and opened a Tazo-branded teashop late last year in Seattle.

Coffee tea? British researchers reported in the journal “Annals of Botany” that tea made from the leaves of the coffee plant—drunk in some parts of the world—boasts more antioxidants and contains an anti-inflammatory compound.

Tea gets the coffeehouse treatment

What began as a college business project turned into the five-unit Townshend’s Tea Company. The idea was to target an underserved niche market, explains founder Matt Thomas about his University of Oregon thesis. He had noticed that even the hippest Pacific Northwest coffeehouses only offered teabags. “So I developed this cool campus coffeehouse but only sold tea.”

Townshend’s Tea collection features 120 kinds of loose teas, including a high-end selection of rare varieties for connoisseurs as well as a wide-ranging line of black, green, oolong and white teas. There’s also an Apothecary line of 24 herbal infusions claimed to cure ailments like colds, headaches and stomachaches.

Townshend’s serves teas in 32-oz. shareable and 20-oz. individual pots as well as 12- and 16-oz. mugs and to-go cups. Presentation is key, insists Thomas. Teapots are glass and warmed by candles, creating a golden glow. All drinks are made from loose teas. “Once you’ve switched to loose, you’ll never go back to teabags.”

Ten different chai recipes are prepared to order from scratch. Thomas sees an overall trend toward creative house blends. The popular Roasted Coconut Mate Latte, for example is brewed with coconut roasted in-house and a blend of roasted and unroasted mate. “Specialty value-added drinks have taken off for us,” he says.

One value-added specialty, fermented kombucha tea, has grown into a profitable sideline for Townshend’s. “We started making our own, and it caught on fast,” notes Thomas of his proprietary Brew Dr. Kombucha. The teahouses serve seven flavors on tap, and it is also bottled for retail sales at Whole Foods Markets.

Thomas predicts the kombucha trend will grow, in part because it’s a soft drink substitute. “Kombucha is basically a tea soda and satisfies the need for carbonation,” he explains. The bacteria in the fermented tea have reputed health benefits as well. Thomas notes that bars are starting to carry kombucha. “Designated drivers can drink it, or people who want to take a break from alcohol but still hang out in a bar with a drink.”

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