Rowdy politics, refined tea parties a strange brew

World Tea Expo president George Jage sips a cup of tea Thursday in Las Vegas. Jage recently changed his Google alert to “tea minus party.”

? The tea party movement has riled plenty of people, but especially those who drink the stuff.

“It’s certainly an exciting time to see this kind of fervent activism, but for our industry, it has been very damaging in an overshadowing type of way,” said World Tea Expo president George Jage, who recently had to make a change in his Google alert settings.

Now he tracks industry news using the command “tea minus party.”

Strange things are happening as the refined world of tea parties — the kind where you mind your manners and consider proper brewing temperatures — collides with the rowdier milieu of the other kind of tea party, the kind where you brew political dissent.

Take Jack Cheng, co-founder of Steepster, a New York-based online tea-drinkers community.

“It’s becoming harder for people to find relevant information,” said Cheng, who was visiting San Francisco this week. “You always find some politically driven tea party as opposed to what you’re looking for.”

Political opinions within the trade vary; some are carefully neutral while others lean left or right. But all seem bemused by the idea of blending tea and tumult.

“I do everything in my power to promote the benefits and power of drinking specialty tea. With all the media attention that the tea party (movement) gets, it’s shifted that focus,” says Beth Johnston, owner of Teas Etc. in West Palm Beach, Fla. She’s staying neutral on the politics, but she has definite opinions about tea. “Tea is soothing and it’s restorative and it’s healing and that’s really the polar opposite of the energy of the movement, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.”

Partisans vs. partiers

Activists, of course, are harkening back to 1773 and the Boston Tea Party, when colonists boarded British ships and threw tea into the harbor in a symbolic act of protest.

Even then, the juxtaposition of protest and propriety was jarring, said Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. “That was kind of an ironic play on what a tea party was supposed to be.” Taking the name for modern-day protests was “what people like me refer to as intertextuality — which other narrative you hook into,” Lakoff said.

Some tea partisans think tea partiers — who occasionally incorporate actual tea into their protests, for instance, flinging bags into a barrel or using them to decorate signs or clothing — are going about things the wrong way.

At least use specialty tea, says Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Perryville, Ky. “If these people are really serious about it, they wouldn’t be using tea bags,” he said with a laugh.

Political tea partiers aren’t sitting around mulling linguistics, said Mark Meckler, a California attorney and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which has more than 1,200 chapters around the country.

“People simply associate it with the Boston Tea Party,” he said. “Today, there are a lot of people who feel that regardless who they voted for, they’re not actually represented by our government any longer.”

As for the plight of the tea merchants, he advises them to take advantage of the phenomenon.

“I hope they’re selling a lot more tea because people are so focused on the tea party these days,” he said.

While tea is a long way from knocking coffee off its perch in America, it has become more popular in recent years, especially specialty teas. Devotees include people like Kaya Mindlin, a yoga instructor who was sharing a pot of tea with friends at Far Leaves Tea in Berkeley this week.

“To me, the political tea party is divisionary,” she said. “Real tea parties are the opposite of that; it’s bringing people together.”

Jesse Jacobs, owner of Samovar, a San Francisco tea lounge and retailer, also is struck by the contrast. Still, he’s not entirely unhappy about tea’s celebrity.

“A lot of people, they hear ‘tea party’ and if you’re a tea fan, you say, ‘Hey, that’s great. Let’s go have one.’ If you’re on the forefront of political debate it may not sound good, but it still creates buzz,” said Jacobs. “At the end of the day, what’s important in life hasn’t changed. Having time for yourself. Being healthy and connecting with what you’re close to. Having tea allows you to do that.”

At the World Tea Expo, Jage can understand the discontent that led to tea party protesting. He’s thinking about borrowing from the activist playbook and adding a town hall-style session — this one focused on the mission of selling specialty tea — when the Expo holds its annual meeting this June in Las Vegas.

Like a true tea drinker, he takes a philosophical view.

“Tea has been around for 5,000 years,” he said. “I am more than confident that we will survive.”