The crawl on the cable news channel was positively alarming: “White House north lawn evacuated after tea bags thrown over fence”. It begged an immediate question; is Orange Pekoe our current colour-coded state of emergency?

It was just a conservative stunt, dreamt up by lobbyists and frantically fanned by the Fox network. April 15, when Americans confront the Internal Revenue Service, had been dubbed Tea Day, for “taxed enough already” and in homage to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a precursor to the war of independence. It was supposed to be symbolic, though in Washington it was also very wet.

Still, the affair made me wonder: has America, weaned on coffee, become a tea-drinking country? (By tea, I mean the black stuff consumed by the British, stewed to the point that a spoon can stand unsupported in the middle of a cup of it.)

Diligent research suggests it might have, or not, depending on whether one shares my definition. Our very own kitchen cabinet, stocked by the other (American) half, reveals eight different substances described as tea. Admittedly, they are dwarfed in quantity by several tons of PG Tips and Five Roses, smuggled from South Africa in dirty socks to avoid detection by US airport dogs.

The Starbucks online menu advertises no fewer than 19 alleged teas. They include Vanilla Rooibos Tea Latte, Tazo Green Tea Shaken Iced Tea (lemonade optional) and the immortal London Fog Tazo Tea Latte (“delicate floral Earl Grey tea with Italian bergamot, vanilla and lavender”).

But this cornucopia is rendered feeble by Celestial Seasonings of Boulder, Colorado, which boasts 90 “delicious varieties”. Among them are Canadian Vanilla Maple Decaf Black Tea, Powerfully Plum White Tea and Sweet Clementine Chamomile Organic Herb Tea, plus other “zingers”.

All this is a far cry from the days when an innocent in America might ask for it and be served a jug of hot water and a single Lipton tea bag. High teas are now available in trendy establishments where the bill for a pot of whatever, scones, jam and cream can run into Madoff-esque money.

Of course, tea does have healthy properties, attracting Americans confronting crippling medical bills. The University of California’s Wellness Letter has just reported “if you drink tea, you may be reducing your risk of stroke” – by 21 per cent if three cups are sunk daily (lattes presumably excluded). This was clearly ignored by most Tea Day participants (and Fox anchors), who were visibly apoplectic.

Dr Johnson said it all, confessing to be a “hardened and shameless tea drinker …whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight and with tea welcomes the morning”. He wrote that 16 years before it was dumped into Boston Harbor and now it seems all America is similarly addicted – depending, of course, on what we take the meaning of tea to be.

The writer is a former FT Washington bureau chief

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