Tea sales are expanding far more quickly than coffee sales at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a business that recognized tea as something that should be treated properly-long before tea latte and the antioxidant craze put tea on the American pop culture map. As the most consumed beverage in the world (after water, which should go without saying), tea has long been somewhat of an international party to which Americans have never been invited.
But the world is changing. This is in some small part thanks to the Coffee Bean’s “Master Tea Blender,” David De Candia. De Candia has a deep understanding of tea’s appeal, having approached it as a layman years ago. “I took to tea pretty quickly,” said De Candia, who began learning all he could about tea when the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf-then “just a baby,” in his words-put him in charge of legitimizing their leafier half in 1998.
Today, it is arguably the tea side of business that separates the Coffee Bean from its competitors. The shop’s tea is purchased directly from small, independent fields where it is dried onsite, and shipped to Camarillo for processing, then brought fresh to the Coffee Bean’s 200 California locations. (Now, for a dried and well-preserved product, “fresh” is a relative term, but De Candia reminds us all that tea has an often overlooked and important shelf life.)
The Coffee Bean features “orthodox” teas – that is, handpicked and rolled teas that have leaves and buds intact – but the company is also giving California an edge in the American tea industry as the Tea Leaf’s Camarillo processing plant is the only one on the West Coast. Tea and coffee arrive in Camarillo in huge and fragrant sacks, bearing labels from countries all over the world. Most of the facility is committed to the blending and packaging of coffee, which is done in a cavernous room that overwhelms the senses with the smouldering smell of coffee and the roar of machinery.
The atmosphere is decidedly different in the smaller room reserved for tea production, a room of light smells, with a single bagging machine-the bottleneck, we’re told, in the tea packaging process. While pounds and gallons of ground and un-ground coffee fill countless bags zipping though industrial machinery in the coffee room, every single tea bag must be filled and sealed one at a time. Leaves are blended on site for flavored teas, all of whose flavor profiles are personally designed by De Candia, who educates laypersons in his little office, giving tea tastings and slide shows in a room brimming with teapots and international mail.
A brief history of tea has to feature three main characters: green, Oolong, and black classifications that come from the amount of oxidation that takes place in the leaves. All of these teas come from the same plant, the internationally beloved Camellia sinensis, which can grow up to 50 feet if not carefully pruned.
Tea leaves are plucked carefully and “withered” in the sun, “bruised” by hand to begin enzymatic activity, and allowed to oxidize for a set period of time; oxidation then is halted by heat. Unoxidized teas are green teas; these have the greatest health and anti-oxidant benefits, according to De Candia. They taste, well, green: grassy and fresh. Black teas go through the most oxidation, and have the strongest flavors. Oolong stands between the other two, keeping mild dark flavors along with some green-like brightness.
All teas fit somewhere in these three categories, and all categories can be blended with other flavors in exotic combinations. A notably unique blend is the Jasmine Green, whose tea leaves are “scented” by jasmine flowers (a variety that blooms only for seven days each year), which are allowed to wither below drying tea leaves. This imparts to the green tea a powerful jasmine flavor even though the flowers never touch the tea.
Tea, evidently, has made an impact on international business. The Coffee Bean’s practice of direct purchase from small fields sidesteps the usual global purchasing and distribution companies. The Coffee Bean takes this route not because it desires to make a difference in world marketing patterns necessarily, but simply because the best tea comes from small farms. This smaller scale system is more affordable for buyers and more profitable for tea growers, though it leaves out some middlemen. Tea, it seems, is the friend of free trade.
Likewise, the campaigns the Coffee Bean makes to improve the lives of tea fieldworkers in the seven countries the company buys from is not part of some sweeping humanitarian plan on the part of the Coffee Bean to make the world a better place; it’s just good business, according to De Candia. The Coffee Bean has built schools, donated toys and books, and worked to improve the living conditions in small towns in tea-producing countries because, De Candia said, “Providing them with better lives makes them better workers.”
One thing is certain: America continues to drink tea. And thanks to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, tea drinkers can add the smugness of supporting independent trade to our already formidable smugness over choosing the more esoteric pick-me-up. Soon, however, tea drinkers may have to cope with the fact that the brew is loosing its arcane appeal, and catching on. Perhaps it has simply taken this long for America to forgive and forget our tiff over tea with Old Mother England, and come back around to drinking the beverage again. But drinking it we certainly are. As David De Candia says, “There’s always time for tea.”