Photo: Chris Craymer

From left to right:

Danielle Altschuh, 31
"I always keep a stash of tea in my firehouse locker. Chamomile-citrus is great for getting calm."

Sean Lundbeck, 26
Financial Analyst
"On nights and weekends you'll find me in my bedroom/painting studio, bent over an easel, a thermos of tea at my feet."

Oprah, 60
The O of O
"Who says you can't take it with you? I bring all my tea equipment, from mug to strainer, whenever I'm on the road."

Rashgene Gazi-White, 42
Nursing Supervisor
"Tea gives me my daily dose of flavonoids—compounds that help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy."

Kerry Steffen, 48
Salon Owner
"I switched to iced tea from diet soda and felt so much better right away. I even lost a few pounds without trying."

Jacqueline M. Koh, 34
"I discovered yuanyang tea—black tea, milk and coffee—while visiting Hong Kong as a teenager. I love that it's sweet yet strong."

Robin Harmon-Myers, 46
Interior Designer
"At my store, I serve tea to customers.It's gracious to offer something warm in the winter, something cool in the summer."

Brendan Barrett, 32
Mixed Martial Arts Fighter
"When my body is amped up, tea forces me to sit down and relax. I like to use a tea set I bought when I was training in Chinatown."

Robinder Bahniwal, 29
"Tea is a symbolic tradition in my family. It reminds me of everything my parents sacrificed to put me through medical school."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Humans have rarely agreed on any subject the way we agree on tea—a beverage that the Chinese, British, Thais, Kuwaitis, South Africans, Sri Lankans and Gambians all find delicious. Tea is a global infatuation that spans cultures and continents, savored by royals (Louis XIV), rock stars (the Beatles) and everyone in between (like the family in India who served Oprah the best chai she'd ever tasted). The most popular beverage in the world besides water, tea is in many places a ritual, a time of day, a religion. In the United States, however, it has long been the forgotten sister of coffee, that pulse-quickening enabler of our national religion: work. If coffee is a blunt instrument with which to attack one's to-do list, tea has seemed in comparison both fanciful and bland, a fusty affectation of the mother country and an inferior caffeine delivery system.

But to quote tea drinker Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin'. In 2013, Americans drank around 79 billion servings of tea, or some 250 per person. Our tea consumption has increased about 20 percent in the last decade, and it's still growing: We now grab bottled teas in the soda aisle and use tea to flavor food (green tea–poached salmon, anyone?). And while we love to guzzle it sweet and iced, we're also awakening to tea's dazzling diversity of flavors, trying loose-leaf Chinese jasmines and spicy Indian chais, fruity South African rooibos and delicate Japanese senchas. Katy Perry and Jay Z have reportedly requested hot tea service in their dressing rooms, and LeBron James and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o sipped tea (chamomile with three lemon wedges for LeBron, verbena for Lupita) during recent magazine interviews.

Tea drinkers, like tea itself, are endlessly diverse, united only by the rhapsodic way they describe their drink of choice. Danielle Altschuh, a firefighter and nurse in New York City, swears by tea's holistic medicinal powers, which she delights in sharing with her colleagues. "One of the guys felt like he was getting a cold, so I made him ginger tea with lemon, honey and cayenne pepper, and he didn't get sick," she reports. "Whenever I can get firefighters to drink tea, I'm super proud." For Oprah—perhaps the biggest tea lover of all—a cup of chai is a meditation, a way of tapping into her gratitude and clearing her head. "I love the process of steeping it, of steaming the almond milk, of letting the spices fill my kitchen," she says. "The whole ritual is so delicious and comforting."

Tea's growing popularity feels less like a whim of taste than a shift in the collective mind-set. Subtler than coffee—and harder to grab on the go, since it has to be steeped—it's the beverage of deep breaths and long exhales, one that a nation of strivers may be reaching for because they've finally decided to slow down and drink it all in. "Brutal" Brendan Barrett, a mixed martial arts fighter in New Jersey, cuts an intimidating profile—until you get him talking about the teas that help him unwind from his intense training. "When I fight in Atlantic City, I eat at P.F. Chang's, and I like their tea so much that I found out who their supplier is and ordered it," he says. (While Barrett may be the only fighter in the ring to relax with a delicate oolong, "I also knock people out for a living, so you got a problem with that?" he says with a laugh.)

In addition to snuffing out sniffles and calming jangled nerves, tea is also a potent builder of community: a drink that begs to be sipped ensemble. Marketing executive Jill Acord wakes her husband each morning with his favorite green tea and gathers in her Connecticut kitchen by night with her two kids, ages 13 and 17, over a chocolate tea or a chamomile-mint blend. (She stocks about 40 flavors in her pantry.) "Sharing a warm cup of something that you have to be stationary to sip—it brings out conversation," she says, "which isn't always easy with teenagers."

A word tea drinkers mention often is focus. They don't mean on that stack of unpaid bills in the kitchen, but on creativity, the friend sitting next to them, their own thoughts. Sherine Patrick, a Brooklyn eyewear designer who loves Earl Grey, says, "For that moment when you're drinking tea, you feel like, mmmmmm, life is good."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Evan Gillies, 30 | Construction Worker
"I start work between 5 and 7 A.M. and have my first cup of tea around 8—and more on all my 15-minute 'coffee' breaks after that."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Jo Johnson, 62 | Tea Consultant
"Tea is like wine: You can taste where it's grown. Black tea from Taiwan and black tea from China are different experiences. I especially love a high mountain oolong from Guangdong Province. It's exquisitely woodsy and floral."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Manda Jacobi, 24, and Donna Moriarty, 60 | Daughter and Mother, Artist and PR Professional
"When I was 4 or 5, we'd have tea parties, and she'd make me my own little pot," says Jacobi. Adds Moriarty: "Now she takes me to high tea on Mother's Day."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Jill and Vaughn Acord, 47 and 53 | Wife and Husband, Marketing Executive and Salon Owner
"I discovered green tea after being diagnosed with breast cancer; friends told me about its health benefits," Jill says. "We were hard-core coffee drinkers, but I converted him."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Sherine Patrick, 25 | Eyewear Designer
"I drink tea every night while working on my embellished eyewear line. But as exotic as my glasses can get, I'm a classic gal at heart: I love Earl Grey."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Chris Craymer, 57 | Photographer
"I have a whole tea regimen: green in the morning, rooibos in the afternoon—it's caffeine-free, but somehow fills me with energy—and mint or ginger at night, for digestion. As a Brit, I am so happy that tea is catching on over here."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Michele Dale, Sophie Higgs, and Mica Bahn, 16 | High School Students
"Bubble tea is like iced tea, but there's a ton of different flavors," explains Higgs of her drink of choice. Says Bahn: "It will help you stay up to do your homework, but not so much that you can't fall asleep afterward." "The bubbles are actually little tapioca balls," adds Dale, who favors Thai iced tea (Higgs and Bahn go for fruitier varieties like mango or peach). Perhaps most important, "tea is a social thing," says Higgs: Bubble tea shops are an afternoon hangout for teens in New York City, where the girls attend school, and "everyone drinks it."

Photo: Chris Craymer

Oprah Winfrey, 60 | The O of O
Oprah usually makes her chai with almond milk—but when she feels like a splurge, she'll "throw caution to the wind and go for the 2 percent!" she says.