Tuesday, March 30, 2004 | 7:52 a.m.
In a clear glass teapot, a white lychee flower rests on infused tea leaves.
Nearby are delicate hand-sewn bundles of dry tea leaves that when immersed in hot water will bloom into exotic shapes. Some include rosebuds and chrysanthemums that blossom and add fragrance.
A step up from the traditional tea bag, they are the Artisan Teas introduced by Numi, a brother-and-sister-operated tea company in Oakland, Calif., which offers specialty organic and full-leaf teas.
Looking at a collection encased ideally for a high-end restaurant, Reem Rahim of Numi said, "This is the way fine dining is going."
"With connoisseurs, tea is like wine. This is the champagne of tea."
Reem and Ahmed Rahim's teas were part of the second annual Take Me 2 Tea Expo held at the Las Vegas Hilton, a three-day event ending today, that drew tea growers, wholesalers, fanciers and tea companies from all over the world.
Attendees sipped herbal blends, indulged in rich Chai and explored fruit teas, white teas and Rooibos, a South African red tea. Seminars included tea etiquette, the Social History of Tea, the Aspects of Wholesaling, Celtic Tea with Friends and the Art of Pairing Chocolate and Tea.
Most astonishing, even to the exhibitors, was that the expo was all about tea. Not coffee and tea. Not food and tea.
"What is happening in the tea industry is what was happening in the coffee industry 10 to 15 years ago," said George Jage, president of SFG Group LLC, the trade show company presenting Take Me 2 Tea.
"The industry is growing very, very fast. There are more and more tearooms opening every day ... For a 5,000-year-old tradition, there are a lot of new things going on."
In the exhibit hall Sunday representatives from specialty tea companies mixed with representatives from the Sri Lanka Tea Board, the World Green Tea Association in Japan, the Tea Board of Kenya and even such household names as Lipton and Bigelow.
Hand-painted papier-mache tea boxes and tea T-shirts ("Will work for tea" and "Got tea?") were among assorted accoutrements. The World Green Tea Association provided samples of a pastry made out of gunpowder leaves and showcased its green-tea powder, which in addition to steaming is good for cooking or blending with alcohol.
"Just being able to have an exhibition like this -- and that this many people turned out for only the second year -- is a great show for where tea is going to go in the future," said Kisha Omer, Specialty Tea Institute Program Coordinator for Tea Association of the U.S.A., Inc.
According to the association, Americans drink more than 2.2 billion gallons of tea per year. Of that, 90 percent is black and 10 percent is green. Between 1990 and 2002, U.S. tea sales shot from $1.84 billion to more than $5 billion annually.
Omer said more Americans are showing interest in tea as part of an overall interest in good health.
Of the expo, she said, "It gives people an opportunity to move things along, instead of just trying to contact each other over the Internet."
Jage formed SFG Group LLC after meeting Faith Taylor, who was looking to open a tearoom in Las Vegas.
"We ran around the country, went to every possible significant event, met with tea companies to get some momentum going," Jage said. "The tea industry is very exhibit savvy."
This year there were 135 exhibitors, including trade journals and magazines, and more than 2,000 attendees. Last year there were 65 exhibitors and 1,200 attendees.
"There was a kind of wait-and-see attitude," Jage said, referring to last year's inaugural expo. "Everybody who was sitting around wondering if it was going to make it has now joined on."
Though tea is second only to water as a popular beverage worldwide, the United States has yet to absorb tea and the tea culture as much as other countries, Jage said.
"Unfortunately, Americans are focused on being 'bean heads,' " he said. "Tea is completely opposite of what coffee is all about. There's so much social history, so much art involved with tea. It's about having a moment of reflection, tranquility, as opposed to gulping a $4 cup of coffee."
But at an expo where Starbucks would seem to be a dirty word, some tea connoisseurs secretly credit the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain for bringing Tazo tea and Chai into the mainstream.
Ai Okubo, sales manager for David Rio in San Francisco, said Chai tea is really hot in the market.
"Chai is kind of between coffee and tea," Okubo said. "People who don't like tea, like Chai tea. It has taken off so well and people are expecting to see it when they walk into a coffee shop or store.
David Rio even sells Kid's Chai, which is decaffeinated and low in sugar.
"The face of tea is changing," Ahmed Rahim of Numi, said. "What people consider tea is not run-of-the mill Lipton. Coffee's had its climb for the last 15 years. Starbucks led the way. Now tea is on its way.
"The market was hungry for specialty teas."
In addition to fruit teas, such as all-natural Fruiteas and Teasans (herbal brewed beverages), Numi offers certified organic and kosher teas and full-leaf tea bags that use real ingredients with no oil flavorings.
Artist Reem Rahim does all of the artwork on the packaging. Ahmed Rahim, referred to as a tea alchemist by others in the industry, owns teahouses in Europe.
"In Europe people take a lot more time, doctors, lawyers, they come in from noon to 2 p.m.," Ahmed Rahim said. "Not bustle like here. They can come in for an hour and take a pot of tea."
Rahim is hoping that the emerging specialty teas and Numi's Artisan line will help cultivate the tradition in the United States. The teas are available for individual purchase and are also marketed toward high-end restaurants.
Artisan Teas offers something more elegant than a tea bag, said Chef Jean Alberti, part owner of Evvia restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif., and Kokkari in San Francisco. Alberti attended the expo to see the latest in specialty offerings.
"For a restaurant, that's fantastic," Alberti said, referring to the Numi collection. "Each one of these has a story."
To tea or not to tea
Milling the floor, Ivan Trufkin, a massage therapist from Irvine, Calif., and owner of I Spa, was contemplating the idea of opening a tearoom.
"Mostly I try to find really quality tea to offer clients," Trufkin said. "I'm from Russia. We drink coffee occasionally. Mainly we drink tea.
"But how many tearooms are you going to find in the U.S.? How many Starbucks? You find one (Starbucks) on every corner. You have no option but to go to Starbucks to drink tea because that's all there is.
"I work in Beverly Hills (Calif.), there's one tearoom, maybe."
Terri Rudenko has faith that the tea market will expand. She gave up the dress-making business to start an Internet business that sells floral teas. She has violet tea from France and rose tea from Barcelona, Spain.
"I've traveled all over the world from childhood on," said Rudenko, who had a gray, vinyl, three-dimensional teapot-shaped purse draped over her shoulder. "I always bring home tea."
Rudenko expects Americans' interest in teas to grow.
"Especially the new specialty teas," she said. "It's becoming the new wine."
At the Special Teas Inc. booth, Jurgen Link displayed mango tea with real bits of mangoes, a blackberry tea with real blackberries, a mate tiramisu tea and blends that were so close to potpourri they actually doubled as potpourri for some clients.
"It's an art because flavors are so difficult to get it right. Also, you don't want the flavor to overpower the tea," Link said.
Holding a dish of dried fruits that creates a fruit beverage, Link explained, "You can infuse it or if you want to you can put it over your cereal and eat it. Fruit blends are popular because the whole family can drink them. It tastes great iced."
Among accessories were high-end filters and infusers. The Tea Spot, a Boulder, Colo., company, showcased its prototype Tea Spot Tech. Hitting the market this summer, the Tech has a precision-controlled brewer that uses a timer and a mechanical device that lifts the leaves out of the tea so it will brew accurately. The timer can be set for black, oolong, green and herbal infusion and will retail for $49.95.
Riensch & Held GmbH & Co. in Germany released a finum Tea Control that keeps tea hot and, by turning the lid of the tea maker, stops the brewing so there is no need to remove the filter. The product is less than three years old and is just moving into the U.S. market.
In a new twist, Henry Little of Devonshire Tea & Coffee Co., was presenting its new line of flavored, freeze-dried, t:ease (in black and green).
"There's a lot of orthodoxy in a show like this," Little said. "But if they're after the taste of tea and not the perception, they'll love it.
"Everybody's got coffee beans. Everybody's got tea leaves. This has to be the next progression."