Throughout the beverage industry, consumers are gravitating toward small-scale operations that offer premium products with an exceptional attention to detail. Features like terroir and preparation time, once considered esoteric, have entered the vernacular of everyday enthusiasts. At the core of the trend is the generation of “third-wave coffee” establishments, which have influenced the strategies of microbreweries, craft wineries, and, increasingly, purveyors of tea.
The concept of third-wave coffee has existed since at least 1999, when Timothy J. Castle, a former president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, wrote about the reemergence of American roasters dedicated to producing quality coffee. The proliferation of pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee in the early twentieth century transformed consumer behavior, making coffee an item to be prepared at home. In championing convenience and consistency, however, it sacrificed quality and variety. Sensing a market for premium coffee, a new breed of cafés specializing in whole bean sales emerged in the 1960’s and 1980’s. Yet the most successful of these coffee shops, chief among them Starbucks, would also consolidate and commercialize their products for the mass market as they expanded globally.
The doors were thus left open for the third and most recent wave of specialty coffee retailers. Today’s independent roasters maintain an unprecedented commitment to premium-grade coffee sourced from single lots and rigorously monitored throughout the manufacturing process.
Tea has undergone a similar trajectory. In the 1950’s, Lipton, in the United States, and Tetley, in the United Kingdom, introduced their tea bags, revolutionizing the way that tea was consumed. Half a century later, a shop in Atlanta, Georgia, selling specialty tea would eventually grow into Teavana, the half-billion-dollar empire that dominated the North American teahouse industry in the 2000’s. With the acquisition of Teavana by Starbucks in 2012 and the imminent shuttering of all Teavana stores in 2018, tea is now entering the next phrase, in which smaller establishments focusing on single-origin, looseleaf tea are defining the standards.
These third-wave teahouses are striving to correct the major misconceptions that have long hindered tea from achieving the status of coffee or wine. In an interview with Fast Company, Jesse Jacobs, founder of Samovar Tea Bar in San Francisco, explains, “Most people’s experience of tea is through a tea bag: watery, weak, limp, unimpressive.” Samovar, with its sleek white interior and prime location in The Mission, has amassed a loyal fanbase by serving loose-leaf tea in an on-trend setting.
Taking a different approach, Shunan Teng, owner of Tea Drunk in New York, is introducing customers to the traditional art of Chinese tea appreciation. “I wanted a place for tea geeks to drink exceptional ‘true origin’ Chinese teas that come from the regions that historically grow them best,” she explains, in an interview with the New York Post. The tearoom is most notable for its guided tasting
experiences, though it offers à la carte options as well.
The third wave of tea is also giving rise to a cohort of “tea sommeliers.” At Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, including Eleven Madison Park in New York, Club Gascon in London, and Yan Toh Heen in Hong Kong, these flavor experts have been recruited to offer pairing suggestions for the ritziest of degustation menus. That’s not to say that tea professionals did not formerly exist in the fine dining industry; the most notable example is the late Helen Gustafson, who revamped the tea menu at the influential Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in the 1970’s. But the increasing prevalence of premium tea in both neighborhood establishments and gastronomic temples is testament to its newfound cachet.
Beyond changes to the dining scene, third-wave tea has had ethical ramifications as well. Accompanying the rise of single-origin tea is a heightened level of consumer consciousness in which quality, technique, and flavor go hand-in-hand with considerations of sustainability and societal impact. Tea producers have taken notice: the Ethical Tea Partnership, established in 1997 as the Tea Sourcing Partnership, currently counts over 50 member brands that subscribe to the vision of fostering a socially and environmentally responsible tea industry. Transparency is now vital to brand growth.
Organizations focusing on broader ecological issues have honed in on tea as well. The Rainforest Alliance, which established the first global forestry certification program in 1989, is teaching small-scale tea farms around the world to produce a greener cup of tea using farming methods it promotes and certifies. In 2013, Forum for the Future, a British non-profit dedicated to sustainability, launched Tea 2030, an initiative to ensure the growth of the tea trade even as climate change and shifting consumer patterns threaten its viability.
The third wave of tea, with its emphasis on transparency and curation, marks a new era of tea consumption. Coffee now has a deserving peer.