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Tea becoming hottest drink in town

Tea is hot north of Boston. Not quite boiling, but, like, 205 degrees -- hot enough to make the flavor open up.

In October, Licorice & Sloe began serving individual pots of tea in coffeehouse-laden Newburyport at a spare, modern storefront that looks and feels like a less-caffeinated Starbucks.

Joanne Buck, who has become a regular, carries a copy of the menu and checks off each of the 86 teas and tea drinks as she tries them.

''I just decided in my life, it was time for weaning off hot coffee, and this just opened up for me," Buck said.

Over the border in New Hampshire, White Heron Tea and the Portsmouth Tea Company recently began importing, blending, packaging, and selling teas to retailers, restaurants, and online customers. White Heron is served at Mizuna Cafe in Greenland, while Portsmouth Tea Company blends are a hit with students at Phillips Exeter Academy.

These three join businesses like the Special Teas shop in Peabody and importer Signature Estates Teas in Melrose, all dedicated to spreading the pleasures of tea from the leaves and buds of the Camellia sinensis plant.

Three new businesses may not signal an avalanche of, well, Avalanche Rooibos. But as people in the tea trade never tire of saying, tea is the second most popular beverage on the planet, behind only water. And it is making inroads among the coffee-loving populace of the northern suburbs.

On a recent weekday afternoon, three 15-year-old Newburyport High students hunched over their homework in the backroom at Licorice & Sloe, which is at 21 Middle St. And despite the prevailing coffee culture, they were ready to fight for their right to oolong.

''This is cutting edge, new stuff. This is good stuff," said Charlie Knowlton.

''I never really liked coffee because there was a bitter taste," said Sam Szabo.

''It's nice to have a place that doesn't sell coffee. You don't have all those people coming in craving caffeine," said Connor Lynch.

Licorice & Sloe's Bil Silliker said the coffee jag of the last 15 years has made his kind of business possible: ''It's made it acceptable for coffee and tea to be more than 50 or 75 cents. That, combined with consumers who are more aware of what they consume."

That would be tea from water steeped with loose leaves of white, black, or green teas -- they differ mainly in the processing -- sometimes combined with herbs or other flavoring agents like dried cranberries. This is not powdered tea in mass-produced teabags.

''To me, tea is like drinking wine," said customer Paul Bouchard of Newburyport. ''I know coffee has flavors, too, but tea is more subtle."

The Portsmouth Tea Company began importing, blending, and selling loose tea to online customers from a Somersworth mill in October; owners hope a Portsmouth retail location is coming soon. For now, the firm occupies a long, narrow space on the second floor of an old brick mill building overlooking the Salmon Falls River. Desks, chairs, computers, and teacups are clumped at one end, packaging machine and supplies at the other. In between are lined up roughly 125 grey Rubbermaid Brute trash cans -- ''Food-grade containers," corrects company president Marshall Malone -- filled with a stunning variety of tea leaves and tea blends, all colors and shapes and scents, most from the other side of the world.

Green tea, white tea, black tea, oolongs. Assams and Kenyans and Nepals. From Delicat Second Flush White Tea to Rose Congo. Tisanes and Rooibos. And from Kirkoswald Single Estate of Ceylon to New Hampshire Blueberry Muffin.

''The market is primed for this type of business," said Malone. ''We try to give everybody the primer. The market needs to be educated on what it is they're drinking."

Meanwhile, in Portsmouth, Jonathan Blakeslee's White Heron Tea is offering 24 certified organic teas, 12 of which are also fair-trade certified. Both he and Malone say the people who pick the tea leaves often get the short end of the deal, that the politics involved can be brutal, and that they're trying to do right by those who produce their product.

White Heron's operation is modest, filling two small rooms at the back of 909 Islington St. One room provides an almost surgical atmosphere for storing and blending the teas. The other features almost a temple atmosphere, with a large relief of the Buddha and a sort of tea altar made from simple Chinese stools and an old sewing machine table.

Blakeslee is a culinary school graduate with long restaurant experience, but he uses his eyes and nose to time his tea, rather than a timer or a thermometer. And he has mixed feelings about making tea a ''gourmet" topic.

''In wine, you'll have people talking about the nose and the bouquet, and I don't use those terms for tea, because people would just laugh and really think you're being prissy or something," Blakeslee said.

But as with wine, many say, it's all about location, location, location. Signature Estates is run by Anand Chatterjee, a former Fidelity Investments manager whose family had been in the tea business for generations; he now imports and sells single-estate teas, mostly from family plots in India.

Many also claim health benefits from drinking tea, and there are even tea-based skin-care products. The rule of thumb is that tea generally has about half the caffeine of coffee. None of the new tea entrepreneurs overtly sells the health angle, but the perception doesn't hurt.

''The daily indulgence is what we're offering," said Malone, ''but the difference between us and coffee is we're the daily healthy indulgence."

Even more traditional tea businesses are sensing a trend.

The 94-year-old Wenham Tea House describes itself as the oldest continuously operated teahouse in America. With its china cups and afternoon teas, it traditionally hasn't been a place for guys, admits Tissy King, business liaison for the Wenham Village Improvement Society, which operates the tea house.

So it caught her attention recently when ''this man came to the door, and he was probably in his 30s, which is even more rare, and he . . . said he and his wife are really into tea, and he asked me a million questions about tea, and he said he's going to bring his wife back," King said.

The Wenham volunteers have realized ''there's a lot about tea we haven't kept up with," said King, and they're ordering new varieties of loose tea from their suppliers, ''trying to catch up."

And of course warm weather is coming, which brings a new tea challenge.

For Licorice & Sloe's Silliker, who makes every cup individually, ''iced tea is going to be a lotta work."

Acquiring a taste for tea

Licorice & Sloe in Newburyport (www.licoriceandsloe.com) will have a specialty tea tasting on May 9 ($40) and a Japanese tea ceremony on May 23 ($20). Seating is limited. On Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m., you can have your tea leaves read by a psychic ($15-$35).

White Heron Tea of Portsmouth, N.H., (www.whiteherontea.com) will offer numerous free tastings in the coming weeks, including April 30 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Portsmouth Health Food, and May 6 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Portsmouth Farmers Market.

Portsmouth Tea Company (www.portsmouthtea.com) will hold an open house and a free tasting at its Somersworth, N.H., headquarters on May 4, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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