In Adagio Tea, across the street from Starbucks, almost everyone is smelling the exotic teas. One couple spent perhaps 15 minutes smelling. The woman lead the way, giving each tea a whiff and her judgement. The man, following behind, smiled and agreed.
Adagio Tea is one of 16 Chicago tea shops which have opened in the city since 2013 that present exotic, healthy teas in a modern atmosphere. The popularity of tea shops, compared to that of its chief rival the American coffee chain, could be attributed to tea’s attractive health benefits, variety of flavor, and comfortable convenience and atmosphere.
Touchpad screens accompany those visitors next to the tea wall, there to remind them of the health benefits of tea. “Weight loss,” one said. “Breathe easy—allergen relief” another said.
After the lid of a tea jar is pulled with a soft pop one discovers the colorful mixture of ingredients. There are hundreds of flavors, from honey brush chocolate, thai chai to darjeeling sungma summer. The tea’s ingredients vary as much as the smells.
“Tea is the number one drink all over the world,” said Heather Cook, assistant manager at TeaGschwendner. “The only place tea is not number one is the United States, where water, soda and coffee are.”
From 2003 to 2013 the amount of tea consumed by the average American grew 22.5 percent, according to business research firm, IBISWorld. Coffee, on the other hand, grew 1.9 percent during the same period.
There are now more than 4,000 specialty tearooms and tea shops across the country, the Tea Association of the USA reported.
Popular tea shops in Chicago.
The most numerous tea shops in Chicago are Argo Tea, David’s Tea, Adagio Tea and TeaGschwendner. There are also an assortment of high tea shops that serve $30 pots and Japanese teahouses where one can buy matcha, a ground green tea.
Tea’s unpopularity in the United States could be accredited to its role in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. After the British government imposed a tax on tea, some colonists boarded British ships and threw crates of tea into the Boston Harbor, citing “taxation without representation.”
But tea is now making a comeback, perhaps because of its proposed health benefits. In recent years, thousands of medical journals and media articles have advocated tea’s positive influence on the human mind and body. Many Americans are mending their diets to adhere to these findings, and food and drink stores are following their lead.
“America is becoming more health conscious and tea is just a healthier choice,” Cook said.
A study by the Tea Association of the USA found that regular tea drinking can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It also found that tea can be used for its relaxing and anti-anxiety affects, due to the large amount of antioxidants tea contains.
“I’d say the main reason I drink tea is for its health benefits,” Emily Banks, a student at Columbia University, said. “I don’t drink soda so I like to drink tea.”
Tea has a smaller amount of caffeine than coffee does, according to a study by Mayo Clinic. A cup of black tea, one of the most caffeinated teas, has about half as much caffeine as a cup of coffee does.
“Coffee gives an instant boost, while tea has a slower dip,” Cook said. “Tea uplifts you, but doesn’t give you a crash.”
Another attractive aspect of tea is its variety of flavors. There are many types of loose tea that grow, and those types can be combined to make new mixtures. Teas can also be used in soaps, candy, chocolate and other foods.
“It’s really cool to smell the loose tea, and learn about how the tea is grown,” said Amy Tournoex, who drinks about four cups of tea a day. “There are even teas that are used to cook with.”
Doug Flavin, who works at David’s Tea, recounted a time when a man came into the shop and purchased a can of tea. The next day the man came back and said that he needed another can because he had eaten all of his tea as a topping on yogurt.
Tea shops have adopted some of the qualities of the coffee shop, presenting tea as convenient beverage that can be enjoyed in a soothing atmosphere. Cups of tea can be fixed within minutes to allow those on the go to keep moving. For those who have more time, many shops offer lounges for people to take a seat and sip a tea, work on laptops connected to Wi-Fi or catch up with friends at a table.
Emily Chapmen, a Texas native who was visiting a friend at Argo Tea, approved of the tea shop atmosphere.
“They tend to be warm and quiet and cozy,” Chapmen said. “Starbucks tends to be pretty loud.”
Flavin said tea shops attract a mixed crowd of people.
“A lot of young couples come in, and the “bro” kind of guys say they only drink coffee and beer,” Flavin said. “Those are the hardest customers, but I like the challenge.”
Tea bags, as opposed to loose tea, are shunned in tea shops.
Bagged tea such as Lipton tea “is dust, like at the bottom of a cereal box,” Cook said. “It is the tea left over from the tea leaf. When you make your own you get variety and more antioxidants.”
Tea is from a plant called camellia sinensis, which produces green, black, white and oolong tea. Herbal teas are from a different plant and are technically not tea.
When someone picks a loose tea from the wall, the employee at the counter places the mixture into a strainer, to which boiled water customized to the particular tea is poured through. Tea can also be served iced, and honey and almond or soy milk added to taste.
“Hopefully tea becomes as popular as coffee is,” Cook said. “But I don’t know what the future will be.”