Starbucks asks tea drinkers to pay up

Tea has long been considered both a drink imparting many health benefits and -- even better -- a relative bargain. Due to a new move from Starbucks, those days are numbered.

I remember well so many times in business school, when a study group would meet at the cafe at a Barnes & Noble or at a Starbucks. Possessed of a hefty amount of student loans, but no vast pre-business school wealth (yep: many of my classmates were so lucky), I really had to pinch my pennies.

My go-to order was always tea; I could spend barely more than a dollar and perhaps feel flush enough to slip a quarter into the tip jar. I could sip my beverage and, if the discussion yawned on, ask for a refill on hot water gratis and guilt-free.

Even now that I'm a bona fide adult, I have three kids and this economy, so when I head to Starbucks for some alone time, I'm also budgeting for the cheapest drink on the menu. Tea? How perfect. The zen I need plus the price I can live with.

That was: before Jan. 4, 2010, when Starbucks helpfully upgraded its Tazo tea line from the traditional paper bags containing tea leaf bits to full-leaf fabric sachets, in which "because the teas and many of the botanicals are used in their whole form, the true flavor of the blends really come through."

Yes, this is good news for the sort of tea drinkers who have come to love the tea lattes, like the London Fog, and those more complex flavors of the "real" tea in the fabric pouches. This is not great news for the penny pinchers.

In my market (Portland, Ore.) the grande, or 16-ounce tea has gone up in price from $1.65 to $1.95. More shocking was the tall, or 12-ounce size, which is likewise $1.95, a 50 cent increase. A Twitter friend in Washington, D.C. reports a 50-cent increase, there, too, to $2.05. (For the record, the venti, 20-ounce size is $2.35 here; tea lattes range from $2.85 to $4.10, at the venti level, 20 cents more than a mocha.)

The switch to fancy bags filled with "botanicals" isn't the only change; Vanilla Roibos is now available in an ordinary tea as well as the tea latte version, and a new variety, orange blossom, has been added to the menu -- "a tea inspired by a spa featuring fragrant jasmine green tea, goji berries and other soothing herbs."

And in some markets, customization of the ordering process is leading to higher prices for customers (according to Starbucks Gossip, this is simply because some customers were previously being undercharged) for "tea mistos," a hybrid between the regular tea and the tea latte.

Variety, and a more premium tea-drinking experience, are lovely and I'm eager to try that orange blossom on my next respiteful visit to Starbucks. However, we're already pinching pennies, here, Starbucks, and now we're going to have to trade our zen for some zing -- the cheapest 12-ounce beverage on the menu (save milk) is now drip coffee. Expect your customers to be overwired and buzzing with frustration.

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