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Café to Café

Is tea the new coffee?

By Heather Byers

Remember when coffee was just coffee? There was one option on the menu and only one way to be prepared and served. Today, there are seemingly endless ways to experience coffee, whether by preparation method, flavor profile or the additions of various dairy or non-dairy options, sweeteners and flavors. Aside from being enjoyed as a beverage, there are now a plethora of culinary experiences that include coffee. Entire concepts are built around the coffee bean to explore the full range of potential that can be extracted from it. In the Pacific Northwest, coffee is as plentiful as rain and just as much a part of daily life with little effort required to find a delightfully satisfying experience. It is now a normal expectation rather than an anomaly to be able to order your coffee beverage exactly how you like it, and in places where you cannot, the palate is left wanting. At the same time, where it makes sense only to serve drip coffee, it has become more commonplace to serve coffee brands that boast qualities like environmental and social responsibility, local roasting and distribution, and even country of origin with specific flavor profiles.

How did coffee go from one basic experience to a world of endless variety? It began with a single decision to turn something perceived far and wide as a pantry staple into something special and unique. Others quickly followed suit and added their own creativity and ingenuity to bring about a societal movement. With each new experience, creators dug deeper, experimented more boldly and consumers became hooked…no longer on the caffeine kick but on the sheer experience.

The foodservice industry is built upon the purpose of bringing an experience to the table. In the Pacific Northwest, there is a pervading culture of unique culinary expertise that cannot easily be duplicated at home; carefully crafted often by chefs and supporting staff whose lives are dedicated to working their magic on your senses. These same chefs are beginning to recognize another forgotten pantry staple with great potential beyond what coffee has brought us: tea.

Tea is rising in popularity and according to some industry sources, demand for tea in the United States is projected to overtake coffee by 2017. In fact, tea is the most consumed beverage worldwide, only second to water, yet it has taken a back seat to coffee in the United States until the turn of the last century. Even the coffee industry as a whole over the last few years has been asking the question, "Is tea the new coffee?"

No longer is tea being enjoyed along generational or gender lines. Men, women, teens and children alike are all seeking out tea as their preferred alternative to sugary sodas, energy drinks, coffee and even alcohol. Moreover, tea is being used as a base ingredient in craft cocktails, craft sodas, sparkling teas, tea lattes, tea smoothies, tea-infused foods and more. Entire café concepts, like in the coffee world, are being created around tea.

Major contributing factors to this shift in demand for tea include an increase in immigrants from tea-drinking cultures moving to the United States, an increase in demand for specialty beverages nationwide, an increased mainstream awareness of the variety that tea has to offer as well as a growing demand for healthy beverage alternatives. In Seattle, nearly every coffee shop and roaster has integrated tea into their menus and some of the most popular restaurants feature locally crafted, organic teas sourced from rare gardens all over the world. Higher-end establishments and those wishing to step up the quality of their tea experience have upgraded from having one basic black tea to providing a variety of black, green, herbal and even white and oolong teas.

Seattle's icon Grill presents their guests with a special tea menu that describes each of their eight organic, whole leaf teas, including favorite standards plus unique options such as exotic Lychee White, delicate Darjeeling and an herbal blend that tastes very much like a chocolate mint dessert. The menu also provides suggested steep times for the ideal brew.

The key in delivering a delicious cup of tea is not only in the selection, but how it is prepared and served. Some establishments prefer to leave the brewing to the customer. In other settings, tea is served freshly brewed to the standard of the particular tea selected. At some locations, staff is educated in the finer methods of brewing green tea at a lower temperature than black tea to bring forward the naturally delicate, sweet green notes and brothy depth to the infusion, complemented by a gentle astringency. Many people have never experienced the complexities of green tea because it has been scorched and over-steeped by the time they drink it. As establishments seek to bring a better experience to their patrons, they are paying close attention to preparation to ensure the qualities of the teas carefully selected for their menu. In these establishments, many people are experiencing for the first time how tea is meant to taste.

Among the many establishments in the Puget Sound area that serve organic tea, tea lattes and other tea creations, are the Tilikum Place Café, Portage Bay Café, Tom Douglas' Lola and Etta's, Osteria La Spiga, Black Bottle (Eastside location), The Hitchcock Restaurant and The Hitchcock Charcuterie on Bainbridge Island, Ivar's in Mukilteo and even the PCC Natural Market's deli counters. However, a simple inquiry or suggestion to your favorite venue may be all that is needed to encourage them to bring an exciting tea experience to your table.

February 2015


Heather Byers is a Certified Tea Specialist and the National Foodservice Sales Director for Choice Organic Teas, based in Seattle, Washington. Heather has been working closely with the foodservice industry since 1994, using her passion for business development in consulting with businesses to develop creative tea programs.

Thanks also to Valerie Skubal, Journalism graduate from the University of Kansas who assisted with this piece.

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