If current trends persist, America, a nation of coffee drinkers, may well become a nation of tea lovers.
Of course, that's the way the nation started. So devoted to its tea and so enraged by Great Britain's imposition of the Tea Act of 1773, the colonists staged the Boston Tea Party, which helped precipitate the American Revolution.
What is happening today is not quite that revolutionary; rather, it is evolutionary. While consumption of the coffee presently is declining at the rate of 5 percent annually -- even before the recent reports tying coffee to pancreatic cander -- consumption of tea in its various forms is increasing.
Over the past three decades, America's taste for tea increased at a steady but not rapid rate -- this despite the growth of carbonated drinks and bottled waters. Tea imports to the United States rose to 184 million pounds in 1980 compared with 114 million pounds in 1950.
This is not only a lot of tea but a lot of dollars. Its input value dockside in 1975 was more than $125 million and will be much higher for 1980 when these totals are calculated.
What is known today, however, is that the grocery store tea sales, as measured by the A.C. Nielson Co. for the U.S.A. Tea Council, topped 155 million pounds in 1980, depositing in the tills of American grocery stores $787 million in retail sales.
This trend and these numbers are not lost on the fledging O&V Tea Co., a Virginia-based corporation that quietly, cautiously and inauspiciously entered the tea-importing business now dominated by a few giants like Carter Macy Co. of New York and O.H. Clapp of West Port, Conn.
In an industry measured by millions of tons of production per year worldwide, the O&V Co. has, as a pilot project, imported its first ton from Sri Lanka. "Admittedly," say its directors, "this is not the way Thomas Handasyd Perkins made his fortune in tea or the way John Jacob Astor expanded his. We have ventured this on a part-time basis, willing to take it slowly while we test the waters."
The O&V Co. takes its name from two local attorneys, Bob G. Odle of Maryland and Raymond E. Vickery of Virginia, who a year ago decided to branch out. They do not plan to compete with the "big boys." Rather the plan is to create a specialty market for a select Ceylon tea, perhaps market the product as a gift item packaged with a specially designed Oriental teapot.
The O&V Co. did not undertake this venture, however tenuously, as blind speculation. First of all, the company likes the numbers given above, and secondly it is founded on some firsthand expert advice. Ray Vickery, an inveterate tea lover, is the company's tea expert, having spent a year in Sri Lanka as a Fulbright scholar.
There her learned that Ceylon teas "vary greatly in taste, appearance and bouquet depending on the altitude at which they are grown, soil and climatic conditions."
"Tea from the hill country at Nuwara Eliya," with which Vickery is thoroughly familiar, "7000 feet above sea level is paler, has a greater fragrance, and is less acid than teas grown at lower levels."