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Has tea become the new coffee?

Have you traded in your mug of Joe for a cup of Earl Grey? If so, you’re not alone. According to consumer goods research firm Packaged Facts, American tea sales reached $15.7 billion last year, up more than 30 percent since 2007, and experts predict the market will expand to $18 billion over the next two years. Panelists at the 2011 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas even went so far as to say that tea could outsell coffee by 2017.

While the aromatic drink has been brewed for millennia, suddenly, tea seems to be popping up everywhere and in everything: from lattes and soft drinks to ice cream and booze. The market research firm IBISWorld reports more and more people are also beginning to order the beverage straight up, with the domestic tea-drinking rate growing faster than that of coffee. In the last decade, the amount of tea consumed by the average American grew 22.5 percent and is forecasted to increase another three percent by 2018. Meanwhile, in that same time period, coffee consumption fell nearly two percent and is expected grow less than one percent within the next five years.

While not quite convinced tea will overtake coffee anytime soon, it’s still a trend Leaves ‘N Beans owner James Cross has noted, as he’s seen a dramatic rise in the demand for tea among both middle-aged and younger drinkers. “Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen a very large increase,” he explains. “There’s definitely a huge drive for it. We’ve gotten a lot of questions and we’ve seen ourselves having to become more educated on it… because the general public is becoming more educated on it.”

One of the earliest tea sellers in the area, Leaves ‘N Beans has offered brewed and loose leaf tea since the 1980s. One major factor driving sales, accounting for about a quarter of the business’ overall revenue, is the propagation of tea’s health benefits in the media, with customers frequently asking for specific varieties as seen on TV. “We get that all of the time,” Cross remarks. “A lady will come in and say, ‘I saw that on Dr. Oz. Do you have that?’ ‘We do! We do have that. Thank you, Dr. Oz!”

Also influencing some coffee drinkers to switch to tea is the recent rise in coffee prices, resulting from poor crop harvests in 2010 and 2011, and surging demand for coffee beans in emerging markets, in addition to the simplicity of this age-old refreshment. “I feel like coffee can be overwhelming with different [options],” Cross explains, noting that Leaves ‘N Beans offers seven different ways to make a coffee drink (with a plethora of customizable add-ins and substitutions) while there is only one way to brew a tea. “One thing I love about tea that coffee really can’t do is… when you smell it, it’s exactly how it’s going to taste… So customers have a lot better idea of what they want just from smelling the tea.”

While Leaves ‘N Beans carries more than 40 varieties of tea, from classics like Jasmine and Chamomile to more exotic fruit and spice blends such as Chai and Star of Persia, Cross suggests novice tea drinkers try the more mild Green Dragonwell or Ceylon Supreme, the store’s most popular green and black teas. You can get your sip on at any of Leaves ‘N Beans three central Illinois locations or at the EP!C Farmers’ Market, where Cross and his team brew up a selection of flavored iced teas on Saturdays from 8am to noon.

Whether you’re in it for the antioxidant boost or just to change your morning pick-me-up, there’s something to tantalize anyone’s taste buds. Check out the menu at iBi