Chicagoans warm up to tea culture

Written By By Liza Roche For Sun-Times Media Posted: 04/17/2014, 12:34pm

Is Chicago putting down its cup of Joe for a nice spot of tea? Coffee may continue to reign as the beverage of choice here, but tea’s popularity is definitely brewing, say Chicago-area tea experts.

Bill Todd of River Forest’s Todd & Holland tea merchants, which has been selling fine teas for 20 years, said he’s certainly noticing an increased number of new customers entering his store.

But the idea of Chicago become a tea-dominant town? Not anytime soon, he said.

Todd’s business does a significant amount of online business, and by his assessment, Chicago has some catching up to do before it becomes as much of a tea-drinking area as many parts of the East Coast, West Coast, and even fellow Midwestern city, Minneapolis.

Chicagoans, like those in the rest of America, are waking up to the potential health benefits of tea, which is rich in antioxidants. Studies have also shown that tea can help encourage weight loss, lower cholesterol, and improve mental alertness.

Plus, tea tends to bring about a different state of mind. Drinking tea is entirely different from the gulp-and-go culture of coffee, Todd said. Tea drinkers “realize that sometimes the journey is enjoyable as the destination,” he said, adding that eight cups of coffee per day might leave a drinker jittery and tense, but an avid tea drinker’s only question might be: “Where’s the bathroom?”

Hair stylist-turned-tea master Shane Talbott has been evangelizing the benefits of tea for years. Even before he started his Talbott Tea business about a decade ago, he offered clients tea — and education about the drink — in his Chicago hair salon. He and business partner Steven Nakisher appeared on entrepreneurial reality show “Shark Tank” with a dream to expand their specialty tea business in 2012. Investors read the tea leaves on the industry’s future, and the fruit beverage giant Jamba Juice bought the Talbott Tea in 2012.

Chicago’s interest in tea has grown stronger in the past decade, he said.

“I think Chicago has a history of coffee culture, and some of the classic diner culture,” he said. But tea’s prominence in Chicago is bound to grow, he said.

”I think people just didn’t know the possibility with tea. The more we are able to show that tea is more than the old-fashioned Earl Grey, it will grow.”

Health benefits may be initially attracting new drinkers, but tea’s diverse flavors make those drinkers eager to try other options. Talbott’s top-selling tea is Blissful blueberry, a naturally caffeine-free herbal blend with fruit pieces.

So what’s the next step for tea in Chicago?

Even though newcomers Teavana, Chicago-based Argo Tea and other retailers have joined traditional tea houses, such at the Drake Hotel’s Palm Court, Talbott believes there’s more room for even more tea-centric places to sprout up in Chicago. Part of that is due to tea’s almost endless flavor profiles, Talbott said.

Tea’s entrance into the culinary world — chefs are already using culinary techniques such as poaching, pickling and brining to create tea-infused foods and the drink is even making its way into the world of cocktails — is bound to continue.

The next tea frontier? Chai, which Talbott believes pairs well with savory foods.

“I think the majority of people think of chai as one or two things,” he said, adding that spices in the drink can include cinnamon, but also coriander or cumin. “Just like there are thousands of recipes for barbecue sauce, there are thousands of ways to do chai.

“I think that’s the next big area.”

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