Tea that Isn’t Really Tea

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Tea is not something I ever give any real thought to.  For me, it is one of those products that has always just been there.  As much as I claim to be a curious-minded person, I had never even sat and pondered who was the first person to come up with the idea to take a bunch of ground up leaves, put it in a tiny little bag and dip it into a cup of hot water.  In fact, if you think about almost every product we use on a regular basis from the standpoint of a culture that has never been introduced to that product, it probably sounds absurd.  As I write this, I am eating a bagel.  Imagine telling someone who has never heard of a bagel that you have an idea to take condensed bread, bake it into a cylindrical shape with a hole in the middle, and maybe put some random seeds on top.

You would have probably been told, by at least some portion of the people around you, that your idea was either absurd, or unnecessary.  If I could, I would communicate this point to an entire generation of aspiring entrepreneurs, as nearly all of them, will at some point receive a similar reaction from people they describe their idea to.  In fact, some will even be turned down and laughed at by potential customers and investors.

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One of the reasons I had never given tea too much thought is that in my mind I had always associated it with things that I do not find too exciting.  Our subconscious minds have this strange ways of synthesizing our experiences, the experiences we hear about, and even some of the media we consume into some general associations.  Whenever anyone mentions tea, the image that naturally pops into my head is a fancy table with fancy chairs on someone’s lawn, in front of a garden on a day with the most pleasant weather imaginable, and people wasting that pleasant afternoon, with so many possibilities to engage in activities and explore what the world has to offer, just sitting around drinking tea.

In fact, I did not even start drinking tea until I got my first job after Graduate School.  It was free at work.  I started drinking it to save both money and calories, particularly on chilly mornings.  The only variety of tea that was free at my job was “black” tea, which is perfect, because, as I learned at the Celestial Seasonings tour, it is one of the most heavily caffeinated teas out there (surpassed only by Oolong tea).  So, I conditioned my taste buds to the rather plain flavor of black tea and did not ponder other options.

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However, Celestial Seasonings is a place that has way more character than the stuffy images I think of when I think of the average “tea time”.  It was started by a bunch of hippies, which should not really surprise me given that it is in Boulder and was started in the late 1960s.  They would gather leaves in the Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder to make their beverages.

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However, the leaves that constitute “tea” come from plants that cannot be grown in this part of the world.  So, the beverages they put together were drinks that could not actually be considered “tea” by the technical definition.  They would have been considered “herbal infusions”.  The phrase “herbal infusion” had a clear association with the hippie movement.  So, to sell these products to the general public, which was (and still is) largely skeptical of the hippie movement, they labeled the beverages “herbal teas”.

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Now nearly a half a century has passed.  A lot has happened.  First, the hippies reached full-fledged adulthood (over 30, is that what they said?), got jobs, bought houses on cul-de-sacs, and, eventually SUVs and mini-vans.  A new generation emerged, powered by a rejuvenated economy, and became Yuppies.  They managed to both continuously enlarge the houses and vehicles in suburbia, while also turning formally blighted neighborhoods in city centers across the country into high-class urban playgrounds.  Many of the areas that were once focal points to the hippie sub-culture, including San Francisco, and even Boulder, are now firmly under the domain of this new urban culture.  Of course, this is all an over simplification, but hippie communes still exist, largely in the same way soda fountains and other relics still exist.  A family will randomly encounter one in an out of the way place on a road trip, and grandma and grandpa will explain to the children what they are/ were all about.

Yet, the label “herbal tea” is still there, both in this tasting room, and in their packaging.  It is still there despite the fact that so much has changed.  Not only does the general public have absolutely nothing to fear from the hippie sub-culture anymore, but, I would argue that many of their ideas have penetrated our mainstream thinking, both “right” and “left”.  We do not wear suits to baseball games anymore.  People aren’t mocked or reprimanded nearly as much when they explore their feelings, and try to find themselves.  There is no more stigma around going to seek therapy, and tons of people participate in yoga classes.  We may largely be in boring cubicles and offices, but it is not unheard of to openly defy the authority structures there.

Despite all of this, people are still drinking “herbal tea” instead of “herbal infusions”.  “Herbal teas” are Celestial Seasoning’s three top selling “teas”.  Is this simply the power of inertia?  Are there still a significant enough number of people that would shy away from drinking something if it was labeled an “herbal infusion”?  Or is something greater at work?  Our world is in a constant state of flux, and that flux includes language, definitions, and standards.  The hippie movement did not survive, but some of the ideas joined the mainstream.  Maybe, although, these “herbal infusions” were not considered “tea” in 1969, they are now.  Very few people, when they buy these products at the store, even ever realize that they are not actually drinking tea.  For all practical purposes, it is tea despite the technical definition.  After all, Colorado is already a major part of a movement that changed the standards for what is considered beer, why not another product?

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