Monday, October 18, 2010

Tea Selections of Supermarkets

Any tea connoisseur knows that supermarkets are not the stronghold of tea culture in the U.S. Many of them sell only one or two loose teas, usually Twinings, although my local Pathmark surprised me when I picked up a loose organic sencha from Two Leaves and a Bud the other day.

But the tea selection of supermarkets does vary greatly from one to the next. Wegmans, a supermarket chain in the mid-Atlanic, has a surprising selection of its own brand of tea, which, from what I've heard from others, is not bad. RateTea lists Wegmans teas, which include loose teas and even a few single-region teas; I have yet to try any of them, but one has received a favorable review on the site.

As someone who cares a lot about "public food culture" in the U.S. (and hopes to influence it), I like to keep an eye on what is for sale in supermarkets, even if I'm not going to shop there. I just want to get a sense on what's going on out there in society, so that I can get a greater sense of how I fit into the picture. Here's what is in my local PathMark:

Doesn't look terribly exciting, right? But note the tea strainers hanging in front of the numerous boxes of teabags from various mainstream brands. They're not the best choice of a tea infuser, in my opinion--I'd rather see a Finum Basket Infuser myself, or something similar--but it's good that they at least sell them. The only loose tea I found in this part of the store was Twinings, and they only had a few varieties, but hidden in the "organic" and "health food" section of the store was the Two Leaves and a Bud tea I mentioned above.

It seems that the retail industry in the U.S. seems to consider tea more of a "health food" item than a mainstream food item. Fitting with this, the Newark Natural Foods Co Op had a bit of a better selection:

Although these are better teas (Brands like Numi, Choice Organics, and a few more esoteric brands), they are almost all tea bags. I found this disappointing. It kind of fits with the whole "whole foods" mentality that I often hear people criticize: people will buy organic and fair-trade certified products, often at higher prices, but they don't get at the core issue--the fact that they're paying for all this packaging, the fact that they're still spending their money on an industrialized food supply. I've even heard people argue that all these organic brands are essentially "greenwashing"...I'm not sure I'd go that far, I do think there's a difference between having the certification and not having it, and that it is probably worth paying for. But I also think it might be better in the interest of sustainability to just buy high-quality loose tea, even if it has no organic or fair trade certification. And I'm not seeing this transition reflected in the offerings of even health food stores...yet.

There's a little bit of good news out there, but we still have a long way to go.


  1. Sadly, the Assam Tea Company is doing away with much of its high end tea line, because they feel there isn't the market for it. They have really good Assams - best I've ever had. Rats. But they are keeping a couple I liked.

  2. That is sad. I've also seen some of my favorite teas discontinued by Upton. I always wonder when it's due to the market (people not buying them) and when it's a question of supply -- as they have discontinued popular teas for this reason too.

    I am confident though that in the end, high-quality teas will win out. Why? I think that the global culture, and especially the culture in the U.S. has already reached a low-point in terms of the industrialization of our food supply, and the domination of mass-produced food and drink. People were sold on the idea that such standardized food was tastier and healthier, but the opposite is true.

    Once our culture moves back towards real food and drink, the move will be permanent. There are some mistakes that only need to be made once.

  3. I don't even expect to find something worthwhile in the grocery store anymore, but that doesn't stop me from looking. Kind of like slowing down to look at an accident, I suppose, and once in a while you might come across something decent.