Exploring American Tea Culture

Tea culture in the United States involves the ways of preparing and consuming tea in the context of American culture. Typically, American restaurants and workplaces provide machine-made drip brew coffee by default, with hot tea made by the cup using tea bags available upon request.

Tea parties are a popular social occasion in America, ranging from small intimate gatherings to large family celebrations. In the Southern region of the country, a regional favorite called sweet tea is served at all meals and throughout the day. It’s brewed, sweetened, and chilled in advance of consumption, providing an alternative to other beverages.

In the United States, approximately 85% of tea consumed is served cold, or iced. Iced tea is more frequently consumed during hot weather or in lower latitudes, while hot tea is preferred in colder weather. To avoid any confusion when visiting different parts of the country, explicitly requesting “hot tea” or “iced tea” will ensure the desired drink is served.

Unlike in other cultures, afternoon tea as a meal is rarely served in the U.S., except during ritualized special occasions such as tea parties or when enjoying an afternoon out at a high-end hotel or restaurant, which may also offer cream tea on their menu.


Tea has a rich history in American culture, appealing to people of all classes and adapting to customs in the United States. In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York), tea was served with the finest silver strainers, porcelain cups, and pots, as well as wooden tea caddies. Tea ceremonies were popular across all classes, and in Salem, Massachusetts, tea leaves were boiled and served as a bitter side dish with butter. By the time of the American Revolution, tea was enjoyed throughout the colonies, from the backwoods to the cities.

However, the view of tea in American culture shifted when the British government introduced the Townshend Acts in 1767, which taxed tea and made it less affordable for Americans. Although cheaper tea was still smuggled in, the Tea Act of 1773 gave the East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in America, leading to public protests and the Boston Tea Party. As a result, tea drinking became unpatriotic, and boycotts led to an increase in consumption of other beverages such as coffee and herbal teas infused with peppermint, sage, or dandelions.

Despite this history, the American specialty tea market has quadrupled in size from 1993 to 2008, now worth $6.8 billion annually. Specialty tea houses and retailers have emerged during this time.

U.S Tea Publications

Some of the most popular tea publications in the United States are:

  • Tea Time Magazine
  • World Tea News
  • Fresh Cup Magazine
  • Tea Journey Magazine
  • The Daily Tea
  • Tea Magazine
  • Tea Biz
  • STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International
  • The Art of Tea
  • Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.

The American Tea Masters Association

The American Tea Masters Association was established with the aim of offering advanced level training, education, and certification to those who aspire to become tea masters and tea sommeliers.

Iced Tea

Iced tea is a refreshing drink that is typically prepared using tea bags or loose tea. Powdered “instant iced tea mix” is also available in stores and is made by dehydrating prepared tea, similar to instant coffee.

Pre-made iced tea can be found in canned or bottled form at vending machines and convenience stores. These pre-made teas are usually sweetened with corn syrup and sometimes flavored with lemon or raspberry.

In some restaurants, iced tea is served unsweetened, especially outside the Southeastern United States where sweetened iced tea is more common. The reason for this is that sugar can be difficult to dissolve in iced tea, which can result in insufficiently sweetened tea or gritty, undissolved sugar crystals.

Some restaurants now serve pre-flavored iced tea with fruit essences, such as passion fruit. Due to its popularity in the United States, iced tea spoons have been added to standard cutlery sets. These spoons have long handles that are suitable for stirring sugar into the taller glasses typically used for iced tea.

Tea Bags

Roberta C. Lawson and Mary McLaren were awarded the patent for the tea bag, which they called an “Improvement in Tea-Leaf Holders.” However, the invention of the modern tea bag is credited to Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea importer who sent tea samples to clients in small silk bags to reduce costs. When the clients mistakenly steeped the bags whole, they found the brewing convenience of the silk bags appealing. To address the issue of silk’s expense, Sullivan began creating tea bags made of gauze. Later, the paper fiber tea bag was invented in the United States.

Today, most tea sold in the US is in bag form, though loose leaf tea and iced tea are also available. Environmentalists prefer silk to nylon for tea bags due to health and biodegradability concerns, though the pyramid shape of the nylon tea bag is said to allow for more room for the tea leaves to steep.

Instant Tea

In 1946, Nestle USA introduced Nestea, the first instant tea product. These instant teas are typically made from off-grade black teas that are processed to extract the liquor, with green tea sometimes added as a “clarification agent” to improve color clarity and minimize cloudiness.

The resulting extract is concentrated under low pressure and dried using freeze-drying, spray-drying, or vacuum-drying methods, with low temperatures employed to preserve flavor.

The American market for instant tea powders grew quickly after Nestle’s introduction but has declined in recent years as consumers increasingly prefer naturally iced loose teas or tea bags and ready-to-drink iced teas available in supermarkets, ranging from smaller sizes in the refrigerated drinks sections to larger gallon sizes in the non-refrigerated drinks sections.

Revival of fine teas

Yellow and white teas were difficult to find in the United States, and even green tea had become uncommon due to the People’s Republic of China’s ban on exports to the USA. However, this ban was lifted in 1971, allowing these teas, which are typical to China, to re-enter the American market for the first time since the first two decades of the 20th century.

In the early 1980s, there was a mini-revival of demand for better quality teas from all origins in the United States. Prior to this time, much of the tea available in the 20th century was blended specifically for gallon and half-gallon-sized iced tea bags, with “clear-liquoring” teas being required to prevent “creaming down” (a creamy-looking color that imparts to some teas after cooling down) when iced.

Most iced tea blends in the USA have traditionally been made from the teas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Argentina, and Malawi. Clear iced teas were considered more attractive by consumers, even though there is no correlation between the quality of cloudy teas versus clear teas.

Recently, there has been a rise in demand for orthodox tea in both gallon and half-gallon iced tea bags, as well as 500 and 1,000-gram loose tea packs, causing manufacturers to reinstate orthodox manufacturing methods. This is a departure from the more common Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Argentinian, and other nations’ orthodox rotorvane tea-making method, which has limitations and cannot produce whole leaf black tea. The rotorvane method was adopted primarily to satisfy the demand for the smaller leaf sizes that fit into small (1-2 gram) tea bag blends worldwide starting in the early 20th century.

Varieties of Teas

Currently, there is a growing interest in the various types of black teas in the United States. Other exotic teas from Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as different brewing methods, are also becoming more common. The US tea market is known for its flexibility and openness to trying new drinks compared to traditional tea markets in other parts of the world.

Decaffeinated tea is widely available in the US for those who want to reduce their caffeine intake. However, the demand for decaf tea has been decreasing over the past 20 years, despite the high price tag. This is because the decaffeination process used on tea depletes much of its flavor, and the highest caffeine content in tea is still much lower than in coffee. As a result, many consumers prefer to buy higher quality non-decaf teas. Nevertheless, decaf tea remains a popular choice for those who are caffeine intolerant, as it provides a refreshing and flavorful alternative to caffeinated beverages.

U.S. Regional Tea Traditions

Sweet Tea

In the Southeastern United States, sweet tea reigns supreme as a staple beverage. Made by adding sugar or corn syrup to freshly brewed hot tea, then cooled with ice, it’s ubiquitous and often referred to as just “tea”. In contrast, unsweetened tea is called “unsweet” tea. Sweet tea is a cultural marker of the Southern United States and is consumed frequently with meals. It’s known as the “table wine of the South.” To make sweet tea, tea is brewed at double strength, mixed with a large amount of sugar, and then diluted to the appropriate strength. The final product is served over ice and is often garnished with a lemon slice. Although commercially manufactured tea may contain high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, refined sugar is typically used for homemade sweet tea.

In the Northern and Western United States, “tea” usually refers to the hot beverage, and iced tea is referred to by its name.

Sun Tea

Sun tea is a popular method of brewing tea in temperate areas. To make sun tea, tea leaves and room-temperature water are combined in a glass jar and left outside in direct sunlight for two to four hours. Another way to brew tea without heat is by immersing tea bags or an infuser in room-temperature water for several hours, usually overnight. However, sun brewing can promote the growth of bacteria, such as Alcaligenes viscolactis, so it’s important to store sun-brewed tea in the refrigerator and dispose of it after 24 hours. The Centers for Disease Control and the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. both recommend this practice.

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