James Norwood Pratt: Serving up Real Tea

No one is more delighted about America’s recent embrace of tea than connoisseur James Norwood Pratt, author of The New Tea Lover’s Treasury (PTA, 2000) and founder of the Tea Society networking group.

November 1, 2007

What drives your passion for tea?

NORWOOD: I’ve become so fascinated with the subject of tea that I’ve written about nothing else for more than 20 years. For one thing, I love it. For another, I believe I must have been smitten by the spirit that inhabits the tea plant or nominated by the vegetable kingdom to be the apostle of tea to non-tea drinkers. Something like that clearly happened.

Is there a rivalry between the coffee and tea worlds?

NORWOOD: Far from it. I think the rival that tea has is the same rival that coffee has, and that’s soft drinks. The good news is that soft drink sales are declining for the first time in 100 years. Meanwhile, U.S. tea sales have grown from under $500 million in 1990 to about $7 billion a year currently. By 2010, they’re expected to reach $10 billion.

Is tea on the way to becoming as popular as coffee?

NORWOOD: Yes, I think we’re on our way to becoming a tea-consuming society. At one time, we weren’t a wine-consuming society, and we have become one in our lifetime. The same thing is happening with tea.

Real estate professionals are accustomed to serving coffee and soft drinks at open houses and meetings with clients. Should they be adding tea to those offerings?

NORWOOD: I think so. For one thing, more and more people prefer tea. When restaurants began to offer good tea after dinner, they were surprised at the proportion of their customers who called for it. There are tea drinkers lurking among us. They’re still a little closeted, but various factors are making their tribe increase in size. One is all the health benefits: Science documents what the Chinese have long known. Tea helps fight everything from tooth decay to cancer. It protects against heart attacks and strokes. Two to four cups a day is the usual requirement to get these benefits. As the medical facts become more widely appreciated, more and more people will think this isn’t a bad idea.

Are certain types of tea right for certain business situations?

NORWOOD: The best tea to choose for any occasion is the one your mood dictates. In other words, if it’s cold and rainy, you’re going to feel like one kind of tea, and if it’s bright and sunny, your mood is going to call for something else. On a cold, rainy day, I would welcome a warm spot of black or oolong tea. On a beautiful day, jasmine teas are always charming.

What else is behind the surging interest in tea?

NORWOOD: The aging of the Baby Boomers. Something seems to happen as you age, and coffee ceases to be your friend. I don’t exactly understand it. I’ve never sworn off coffee, but I drink less and less of it. In my 20s and 30s, I may have knocked back four, six, or eight cups of coffee a day, but believe me, there aren’t many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are doing that. Coffee is a fierce substance. It gives you a jolt. Maybe our systems are just not ready to withstand that past a certain point. The fact is that tea simply gives you a lift. It’s so gentle you don’t notice the liftoff or the letdown.

Will we see a dominant retail tea outlet one of these days?

NORWOOD: I don’t think there will ever be a Starbucks of tea. Tea is too fussy a product. There are too many variations. It requires too much attention to detail. You can’t teach a college kid everything he needs to know about tea preparation. There’s a lot more dedication that’s called for. Tea people are somehow different; they won’t respond to a mass market experience like Starbucks.