The tea-he's: Men savoring brew by the cup
The 10 men bantered about their wives' cooking, boxing greats, and suits that fit too snugly. This, however, was no sports bar meet-up or barbershop chat. Two hours earlier, Howard James, a co-proprietor of Tea Country in East Oak Lane, had called the group to order by taking requests for a beverage steeped in centuries of elegant tradition.
The 10 men bantered about their wives' cooking, boxing greats, and suits that fit too snugly.
This, however, was no sports bar meet-up or barbershop chat. Two hours earlier, Howard James, a co-proprietor of Tea Country in East Oak Lane, had called the group to order by taking requests for a beverage steeped in centuries of elegant tradition.
"Can I have yerba maté?" asked regular Weller Thomas, 54, a travel magazine publisher who lives nearby.
James, 61, wearing a maroon apron stamped with his shop's name, looked pleased. "It has four times the antioxidants than green tea," he told the men, the first of many tea tidbits he would pass along this afternoon. "It keeps you alert without the jitters."
So began the third meeting of the budding Gentlemen's Tea Club - one more indication of guys' growing interest in the aromatic liquid.
No one keeps track of how many macho types find the leaves of the Camellia sinensis to be just their cup of tea, but it is known that tea itself is big business.
In the United States, the wholesale market has nearly quadrupled from $1.84 billion in 1990 to $7.13 billion in 2008, according to the New York-based Tea Association of the U.S.A. Also, Americans consume more than 55 billion servings of tea - 2.5 billion gallons.
But if the idea of men sharing stories sipping blueberry rooibos rather than Budweiser sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit, consider the anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
Tea drinking is no longer confined to lace-covered parlors. In recent years, tea cafes and tea bars with chic, hip vibes (and no pink) have joined the party - more than 2,400 tearooms exist around the country - and have offered a welcoming hub for men. One New Mexico venue even provides tea and cigar tasting for the manly.
Last year, Thistledown Shop in New Hampshire, which has long made teapot covers in flowery motifs, added a man cozy, called a hob (cozy being too feminine-sounding), "to appeal to the growing number of male tea drinkers," as its Web site notes. Hobs come in olive greens and grays with a buckle - no silk ribbons here.
Meanwhile, TeaGuySpeaks blogs about "Tea and Boobs," "Tea During Wartime," and a company called Manteas.com.
"It's not an Earl Grey, English breakfast tea scene anymore," said tea blender and author Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Perryville, Ky.
Men, of course, have historically enjoyed the brew, including George Washington, but the rise of Victorian-era tea culture in the 19th century was a dealbreaker for many fellas. Now, America's renewed interest in tea, particularly among men, has "gone into fifth gear," Richardson said, taking off like a Maserati. When he began tea talks two decades ago, he attracted mainly women. Now, men make up at least 20 percent of the audience.
"A gentlemen's tea club is right on for this time in our tea world," said Pearl Dexter, editor and publisher of Tea A Magazine, who has noticed more male tea imbibers in her travels.
Even though the club makes sense, James himself seems an unlikely enthusiast of tea. "People are amazed I'm around," he said. He grew up in the rough James W. Johnson Homes in North Philadelphia, where gangs ran rampant. "I've been stabbed and stomped, all that kind of crazy stuff." But he also was a Boy Scout, and mentors kept him at his studies, he said.
His interest in tea began as a requirement. As a master's of business administration student at Eastern University while working full time in information technology (eventually retiring as assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia), he had to create a new-venture business plan. Classmate Richard Miller, an avid tea drinker, suggested a tea business. James and another student, Duane Higginbotham, "looked at him like he was crazy." But because it was only an academic exercise, they thought, why not?
When research showed tea was a growth industry, the trio decided to invest in Tea Country as an online vendor in 2001 before opening the East Oak Lane shop in 2004. (A second location near Temple University's campus never got enough foot traffic and closed last year.)
A few years later, James noticed that not only were more men buying tea at his shop - where shelves are stocked with black canisters that feature 100 varieties (Golden Assam, Monk's Blend, Organic Wuyi Oolong) - but they were asking questions on the finer points of tea leaves.
"Some of them would sit down and chat," said James, who replaced his addiction to two large cups of Starbucks a day with three cups of tea. Before long, he was introducing customers to one another. Why not create a club?
"This is really a relaxation spot," he said, noting that membership comes with no obligations beyond a $40 annual fee that includes the gatherings on the third Saturday of the month (and plenty of tea). New members also get a free porcelain teapot.
Several of the men live in East Oak Lane, as James does, and joined the club because they knew the trim (he has taught karate) shopkeeper with the shaved head through Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
"He was someone I respected," said Emerson Willis, 59, a sales rep who admits he wasn't much of a tea drinker at first. But tastings turned to full cups, green tea among his favorites. "I've grown to like it. Howard brought a whole new world to us."
Thomas, who serves as the club's vice president, agreed. "I was just fascinated," he said. "I'm always learning something. At a bar, you have so many different distractions. Here, you don't."
As the day's guest speaker, Donald Schuler, Sr., talked about "taking charge of your body" and the pluses of fruits and vegetables, the men poured the rich brown liquid from mustard-colored or white pots into patterned Chinese-style cups (no handles) and black mugs with a splash of color. English teacups held with a raised pinky would be "too soft for the men," James said with a chuckle.
Health was the topic of the day, prompting discussion of recipes for smoothies and how best to prepare greens. It's the health benefits, and foodie allure, of tea that often attract the testosterone set. "It's a very easy way to alter your lifestyle," said Joe Simrany, the tea association president.
The jury is still out, but studies have shown an association between the antioxidant-rich tea leaf and improved cardiovascular function; reduced incidence of cancer, particularly colon; and increased bone density.
As recently as January, tea was touted as a way for men to trim a belly after researchers found that men who drink more than two cups of tea a day have trimmer waistlines than men who drink coffee or nothing at all. (Alas, women didn't see the same advantage.)
"You're not going to see specialty tea advertised on the Super Bowl," said Frank Viola, 60, of Rydal, an adjunct who taught James at Eastern. But, he said, "men have a lot of issues. They want to take time to decompress. It doesn't have to be alcohol or physical sports contact."
For this group of men, at least, a hot cup of tea will do.