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America warms up to tea

Though tea is the world's most popular drink after water, it ranks only seventh in the United States. Americans consume, on average, three cups a week, while the Irish drink four cups a day and the English three cups a day.

There are signs, though, that the specialty coffee craze is waning and that tea is getting its turn in the U.S. limelight.

The twist: Most growth will come from iced teas.

The tea industry is undergoing a period of rebirth the likes of which is seen rarely in the food and beverage industries, says Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the U.S.A. Inc. in New York. The council reports that annual sales climbed from $1.8-billion in 1990 to nearly $4-billion in 1995.

Helping to increase consumption is the perception, in these health-conscious times, that tea is a healthful drink. It is fat-free, sugar-free and calorie-free (at least in its purest form). It is also caffeine-free in its herbal varieties.

Nonetheless, it is sweetened Snapple that has given tea the hip image that is making it a viable competitor in the soft drink market. Thomas J. Lipton Co. and Nestea also are capitalizing on the trend with new varieties of their own iced tea products.

Lipton, based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., is introducing a powdered iced tea, Lipton Natural Brew, that uses a two-step manufacturing process the firm says allows the tea to retain the flavor and color of fresh-brewed tea.

Standard tea products also are evolving. While traditionally there has been a strict division between the herbal and black tea markets, those lines are beginning to blur. Celestial Seasonings, the grandfather of herbal teas, now markets specialty black teas. It has also come out with a "Brews in Your Fridge" iced tea line. Twinings, maker of black teas, introduced a line of herbal teas about a year ago.

As summer heats up, look for new varieties and flavors and check out the high-value coupons that typically kick off the season.

Phillip Lempert is editor of the Lempert Report Newsletter, which analyzes food and supermarket trends.