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How Indian Chai Conquered America

June 2007
How Indian Chai Conquered America

To understand how chai—like yoga—has become such a household word in America, here's a telling fact: the consumption of tea here has grown six-fold in just 15 years. The interactive Urban Dictionary, known for its hip and frequently tongue-in-cheek definitions, has several entries for tea. "A drug stereotypically popular in England," reads the top-rated entry. But tea is also highly popular in India, of course, and now it's making big inroads in America, traditionally known to be a bastion for coffee drinkers. Stateside, the total yearly sales, having already crossed $6 billion, are projected to hit $10 billion by the end of this decade.

The more than 2000 teashops around America represent a ten-fold increase in just a decade. It's a far cry from the days of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when a group of revolutionaries went to the harbor disguised as Native Indians and dumped the tea that had been shipped by the colonial East India Company. It wasn't until the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis that Indian tea made a comeback. When the promoters, inspired by the wilting heat, poured black tea over cubes of ice, they attracted droves of thirsty visitors. Iced tea, as it came to be called, remains hot in America, accounting for 80 percent of the sales. There are over 14,000 tea estates in India, making it the largest producer in the world. Though India can take credit for half the world's production, it's also the biggest consumer. The most famous teas come from Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri, with Assam accounting for over half of what India produces. India's tea industry has had some setbacks lately because of rising competition abroad and slowing demand at home. Nevertheless, it's a $1.5 billion industry that set a new record last year by producing over a million tons of tea.

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