Tea is not quite, as they say, as American as apple pie. For centuries, steeping leaves, or bags of leaves, in hot water, to create a bitter beverage without any discernible grams of trans fats, has seemed to us in the United States to be an exercise in foreign -- nay, treasonous -- futility. But everyone knows that interesting things happen when an unstoppable force, like the American aversion to tea, meets an immovable object. In the United States of the 21st Century, there's no object as immovable as the fast food industry -- which has been trying, over the past several years, to sell its customers tea.
And according to QSR magazine, some have been remarkably successful. Those that have fall into two categories: those selling super-sugary sweet tea at low prices and those that have embraced new flavors and varieties of tea that are sold at premium price points.
The latter group seizes on the forces that have buoyed America tea consumption over the past few years: the embrace of once-esoteric kinds of tea. Many customers have been enthusiastic about such teas because of their refined taste and supposed health benefits.
This cohort is led by Starbucks, which charges $4 for the service of steeping a few grams of dried fruit and white tea leaf dust in a couple of ounces of water and pouring it over a jumbo-sized cup of ice. Others in this camp include Wendy's, which has found success in the form of a berry-infused iced tea, and Caribou Coffee, which sells strains as unusual as rooibos and oolong.
For the most part, though, Americans have stuck to their historical favorite: iced black tea. Iced tea accounts for 85% of the market, and black tea 80% -- so that is where the fast food industry has been eagerest to plant its flag. Sweet tea, a particularly saccharine version of iced black tea, has been a favorite in the South as long as anyone can remember, but fast food companies have encouraged its spread to non-traditional markets.
QSR commended the offerings of Southern fried chicken-and-seafood chain Bojangles, which has served sweet tea since its inception in 1977. The brand was so wildly successful that it encouraged McDonald's to create its own sweet tea, which is now sold nationally at fire sale prices. Fast food companies are able to charge low prices for sweet tea because they can make it themselves, using inexpensive ingredients, letting them skirt the royalties demanded by soda companies like Coke and Pepsi.
The results of this push are impressive; total U.S. spending on tea stood at $7.77 billion in 2010. But the fast food and tea industries still have a ways to go before catching up with the big dogs of non-alcoholic beverages in the United States. American coffee sales in 2010 totaled $47.5 billion -- and the soda market was worth a whopping $75 billion, almost 10 times as much as the market for tea.