Tea Takes the Spotlight

From green tea to greenthread, it’s a growing phenomenon.

Green tea continues to rise in prominence and popularity, helped recently by research showing its cancer-fighting capabilities. In July, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), based in Washington, stated that researchers have found that a substance in green tea targets a human protein “with a degree of precision that cancer drugs still aren’t able to match.”

Green tea now accounts for 12% of total tea imports, up almost four-fold from just a few years ago, according to Joe Simrany, president of The Tea Council of the U.S.A. But it’s not the only segment of the tea category that serves a functional purpose. “There’s the same value in black tea,”he contends. “It’s just underpublicized.”

According to an AICR survey, 31% of Americans drink black tea on a daily basis, while 15% consume green tea. “Now, the newest variety is white tea, initially driven by cosmetic companies as a good antioxidant topically (applied) or internally (consumed as a beverage),” Simrany continues. “The specialty tea companies are jumping on it because of all the publicity.”

White tea was produced only in China’s Fujian province, but other areas of the country have followed suit. White tea is very rare and therefore expensive but, to Simrany’s educated palate, it doesn’t taste as good as other, more readily available and reasonably priced teas, and it boasts only a very subtle flavor.

Simrany finds other white teas legitimate, “providing they follow the initial growing and harvesting process,” he notes. “White tea is more of a process than a specific origin. It’s 100% buds with minimal processing of steam-drying or pan-frying.”

Herbal growth: Herbal teas that look and taste like regular tea when steeped are also stirring interest in the marketplace, Simrany reports. Prepared from stems rather than leaves, rooibos tea, also known as Redbush, is out of South Africa. Although it doesn’t have widespread distribution as yet, it can sometimes be found in the growing number of specialty tea shops that are springing up across the country.

Another South African herbal tea variety, honey bush, is less similar in taste to regular tea, he says.

Understandably pleased with the recent tea shop phenomenon, Simrany notes that most venues eventually menu light food to go along with their teas in order to stay in business. “They’re selling steeped tea as well as packaged teas to take home,” Simrany says. “Today, tea shops—offering tea paraphernalia, books about tea, tea cozies, etc.—are springing up across the country. To date, New York City has about three dozen that have opened within the past five or six years—with the latest, The Harlem Tea Room, just a few months ago.”

Perhaps the most significant happening that augurs well for future tea sales: the specialty tea industry that had turned its back on tea bags “is now embracing them,” he points out.”

Welcome back: “They’re not the enemy anymore,” he adds, “especially the new nylon bags out of Japan. We’re beginning to see a lot of this, packed in upscale, pyramidal tea bags of nylon, for a great-tasting tea and the convenience of the bag.”

Visitors to the Hillwood Museum and Gardens in northwest Washington can enjoy high tea at the Hillwood Café. According to Claude Broome, Guest Services’ corporate exec. chef, three samovars (a metal urn with a spigot) are set out daily for the 3 p.m. repast.

“One (samovar) is filled with hot water, another with coffee, and a third with decaf, with cups elegantly stacked around them,” he says. “We set out lemon, sugar cubes and honey with a dipper, as well as very elite English teas in silk bags.”

The tea plate, priced at $14.95, includes locally baked mini scones, sliced fruit, berries, crustless sandwiches with dill spread filling, and shortbread cookies. “We serve from 25 to 80 for tea each day,” Broome reports, “and we’re getting more requests from B&I accounts in downtown Washington. It seems to be becoming quite trendy.”

Greenthread weaves its way into tea supply

More operators are taking the initiative in supporting small-scale, family-based, sustainable agriculture—which means the time for greenthread tea, grown in one of the poorest regions of the United States, has finally arrived.

For centuries, greenthread—an herb of the arid Colorado Plateau—has been gathered, bundled and brewed to produce Hopi tea (ho hoisi), Navajo tea (ch’il ahwehe), and Zuni tea (kyaanaidu). It has become a sell-out at Harvey’s Diner, the café at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, ever since Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ general manager at the site, Jerry Schadt, found it for sale in Gallup, NM, a few months ago.

Tea bags—12 to a box—are also available for purchase. An initial order of 50 boxes sold out in one week and the second order of 200 boxes had just arrived at presstime.

Growers needed: Steve Heil, a Gallup school teacher, cultivates a small plot of greenthread and is a driving force behind High Desert Farmers (www.highdesertfarmers.com) in its effort to encourage others in the area—both on and off Indian reservations—to join in growing, harvesting, drying and marketing the herb. Virginia Yazzie Ballenger (pictured left), a Navajo fashion designer, helps market the tea.

“It’s pulling lots of different cultures together including Spanish for the last few centuries, and Anasazi—it’s been found in the ruins,” Heil explains. “I’m hoping someday it will become the rage. I have enough to supply Xanterra at the Grand Canyon North and South Rims as well as at the Painted Desert. They’ve all placed orders in the last few months but it’s a quite simple cottage industry.”

Heil recently turned to Xanterra to spread the word to its employees at Petrified Forest National Park, where 90% are Navajo, that he needs help in harvesting the plant. To produce greenthread tea, the entire aerial part of the plant from an inch-and-a-half above the ground—including flowers, stem and very fine thread-like leaves—is harvested, tied into small bundles and hung to dry before being boiled to produce the tea.

In the bag: “Now, I send it to a company in San Francisco where it’s put into tea bags,” Heil explains. “They’ve been very generous in dealing with small quantities. The response has been great and the foodservice workers at Petrified Forest are thrilled. Groups like the Center for Sustainable Environments out of Flagstaff—they hook up growers and producers of locally specific foods with markets for the foods—are also thrilled. And thanks to the efforts of Canyon Country Fresh, a group that’s been around for about five years and has grants to do marketing for the growers—that’s how Xanterra heard about us.”