BELFAST — History is full of figures spouting off about the uses and benefits of Camellia sinensis, the evergreen plant better known as tea.
In the eighth century, Chinese tea expert Lu Yu wrote, “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”
“Make tea, not war,” Graham Chapman advised more than a millennium later, in a skit for British comedy troupe Monty Python.
Yet if tea’s global following is deep and wide — it’s second only to water as the world’s most consumed beverage — it can seem more like chopped liver on this side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
When’s the last time a server approached you at a diner and asked, “How ’bout some Earl Grey?”
Of course, America and tea go way back. The Revolutionary War began after colonists dumped 342 chests of the stuff into Boston Harbor to protest British taxation.
Whether because of that history or not, many modern Yankees look to coffee, soda or energy drinks for their morning or afternoon pick-me-ups.
And if they do think of tea, says Shelly Patten, who recently opened The Treasured Leaf Tea Co. on Route 1, it may not be fondly. “That’s what grandma always gave me when I was sick,” they may groan.
Actually, though, tea has been having a moment here.
Between 1990 and 2014, national tea sales grew from less than $2 billion to more than $10 billion, reports the Tea Association of the U.S.A.
The group attributes that growth to increased offerings of tea at supermarkets and the spread of specialty shops such as Treasured Leaf Tea.
Patten, a Northport resident who grew up in the area, hasn’t always been a serious tea drinker. But after working in the specialty food business for a number of years, she recognized the growing demand, then had an “aha” moment while drinking black tea with a friend on a trip to South Carolina.
To capitalize on that trend, Patten spent two years drinking tea, researching the industry and contacting distributors around the country, who have in turn supplied her with teas harvested from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and Africa.
Last summer, she opened her business next to Perry’s Nut House. The shop carries more than 70 types of loose-leaf tea, along with pots, cups and brewing gear you never knew existed.
Part of the growing demand for tea by Americans are the health benefits associated with it — including lower risk of depression, stroke and heart disease — and the break some want to take from coffee.
Patten doesn’t dwell on the specific health benefits when interacting with customers. Instead, she focuses on the flavor profile of different varieties.
“Any tea is going to be good for you,” she said, “so you should find one you like and just drink it.”
Black tea’s flavor, for example, includes hints of astringency, crispness, nuttiness and spiciness. Pu-er tea, on the other hand, is grown on trees in China’s mountainous Yunnan province and is notable for its fermentation.
Herbal teas, finally, don’t actually contain any tea. Instead they can include everything from berries to flowers to spices such as chili pepper, in blends carefully arranged to help you concentrate or relax.
Regardless of the tea, Patten also stresses to customers how it should be prepared. To that end, each of her 2-ounce bags contains specific brewing instructions. Those bags range in price from $4 to almost $20.
While it can be tempting to prepare any tea by just dumping boiling water on it, Patten said that can lead to an overly strong and bitter taste.
Instead, the instructions printed on every package include how long and at what temperature each tea should be steeped.
That lets the flavors of the teas speak for themselves, avoiding the need for sugar or milk to mask the taste, Patten said.
With iced tea accounting for 85 of the tea consumed in the United States, Patten also encourages customers to consider cold brewing methods, which involve just mixing water and tea in special containers and chilling them in the refrigerator.
At the same time, Patten has been getting into the community to evangelize for tea and push what its means to drink it.
She’s visited the geography class at a local school to serve tea unique to the parts of the world getting studied. She’s also worked with the owners of a local pub to prepare a Bloody Mary cocktail using a tea with a particularly smoky taste.
Think about that the next time you’re at war with a cold.
The Treasured Leaf Tea Co. is located at 45A Searsport Ave., Belfast. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Tuesday.