The humble cuppa has come a long way in recent years, with premium tea consumption at an all-time high. Will Hawkes reports
Asparagus is one of those foods that keeps sommeliers awake at night. It's notoriously difficult to pair wine with asparagus, but there is one terroir that produces the perfect match: Nishi Garden in Kagoshima, Japan. But this part of Japan doesn't grow grapes, it grows green tea: Okumidori Kabusecha, to be precise.
"Tea and asparagus is a classic pairing," says Jameel Lalani, founder and owner of single-batch tea merchants Lalani & Co. The Kabusecha (‘shade-grown') is on the menu at Thomas's Cafe at Burberry in Vigo Street in London, alongside a dish of asparagus and poached egg. "The vegetals and the umami in the asparagus match what's in the tea," he says. "We're so used to drinking tea with sweet food, but actually in the whole spectrum of tea, there are a lot more matches for savoury foods."
It's a long way from the humble British cuppa, but tea is changing in the UK. According to a survey commissioned by food wholesaler Bidfood, 53% of consumers are now willing to spend more on a premium tea experience, while research by Tetley reveals that there has been a 3.6% year-on-year rise in out of home tea consumption.
"The mainstream media sometimes throw around the statistic that tea consumption is decreasing, but this doesn't tell the story of the tea revolution taking place in the UK," says Marco Geraghty of National Tea Day. "Tea consumption isn't decreasing; it's changing. Our research is telling us that younger consumers in particular aren't drinking six cups of tea with milk and two sugars before they leave the house, but instead opting for fewer cups of premium tea instead."
For Lalani, tea's next revolution will happen in restaurants, not cafés. "Tea is the other terroir drink," he says. "It is the only other drink that has the same history, provenance and seasonality that wine does - and the ability to match with food. It's what people are looking for, what the dining industry is hoping to find. We got a lot of emails from people who don't drink or who are cutting back. There's a gap - what do you sell to people who are non-drinkers?"
It's a well-made point. More and more restaurants are offering tea as a non-alcoholic (and, provided you don't take milk - and Lalani insists you shouldn't - non-calorie) option. At Thomas's Café, a short but well- chosen list offers six teas, including that Kabusecha, a 2nd Flush Grand Reserve Darjeeling and - by far the most expensive at £20 a serve - A'a Black tea from Hawaii.
The other five teas, though, are £5-£6 each, making them affordable for customers and retailers alike. "It's not an expensive luxury," says Lalani. "Your cost per serving for a very fine tea is going to be between 15p and £2.50, with most under £1.20. You can have the most beautiful Darjeelings from gardens 6,000 feet above sea level, or shade-grown Japanese green tea from an organic garden - the best teas from the region - and the cost per serving is low. Compared with wine or whisky, people can access the very best tea."
One of the big successes of recent years has been matcha, a Japanese green tea where the leaves are dried and then ground to make a powder. Lalani & Co has been importing high-quality matcha for the past four years. "We weren't sure it was going to sell - now we're shipping it very frequently," says Lalani. "It's important to remember that it's a tea, not an ingredient. It has flavour notes, producers; that message has been lost. A lot of the matcha that comes into the UK is cooking matcha, they expect it at a low price and that's the end of it."
An interest in better-quality tea is happening across the market. Taylors of Harrogate has seen a big increase in demand for speciality tea, according to out of home manager Natalie Cross. "We're seeing strong category growth in fruit and herbal, green and speciality black teas and are continuing to seek out new and different flavours for our product range to meet the demands of adventurous consumers wishing to expand their tea-drinking repertoires," she says.
Much of the interest in quality tea is thanks to the efforts of one company: Teapigs. Launched in November 2006, Teapigs' focus on whole-leaf tea and pyramid-shaped bags was revolutionary. Investment from Tetley, the company the founders had worked for previously, helped them break into a market which, in the words of co-founder Nick Kilby, "was an old-fashioned, gentleman's world".
"Back in 2006, there was a food revolution going on, but not in tea," says Kilby, whose company turned over £12m last year. "But tea has huge diversity and authenticity; Teapigs was about wanting to change the face of the tea industry, to have a bit more fun. We wanted people to have access to better quality tea.
"We wanted people to think more about tea - it's not just a cuppa. There's a lot more to it than that, how you can prepare it. We wanted people to get more involved.
"Ours is not loose tea, but it's served] in what we call a tea temple. This method of serve had been around for a long time, growing in Asia and in the US; we were inspired by gourmet tea companies in the US - why was no-one doing that over here? It was quality tea in a convenient format, with a brand people would engage with."
Kilby and business partner Louise Cheadle were inspired partly by what was happening in coffee, he says. "When we launched, the coffee revolution had already happened," he says. "It was good for us because we could go to these new coffee shops and say, 'You have great coffee, but what about tea? You have a lot of customers who would choose tea, given the choice.'
"What pleases us is that now, on menus in coffee bars, gastropubs and restaurants, there will be more of a tea menu. It doesn't just say 'tea'. Out of home it's still the poor relation to coffee, but tea has certainly caught on, with a younger age group too - 10 to 15 years ago you'd associate it with grannies. Nowadays tea is up there. And some people are over coffee and they want something lighter and healthier, like matcha."
This new younger drinker is behind the demand for better quality and variety, according to Twinings' shopper marketing manager Andrea Stopher. They're also more interested in their health. "They are increasingly savvy about calorie content and healthy ingredients," she says. "Health and wellbeing is still a driving trend out of home, which continues to influence consumer food and drink choices. One in five consumers intend to increase their tea consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle."
Marshall Kingston, Tetley senior brand manager, out of home, agrees. "Health remains a current key trend: consumers, in particular millennials, are creating an increasingly health-conscious generation. Tea is often chosen for its health and thirst-quenching benefits: green and fruit and herbal blends are growing by 5.6% and 2.5% respectively, and by promoting their health benefits to the under-45s, operators can tap into the current market trend and continue to drive sales."
Is tea healthy? "It's fair to say that it's a healthier drink than its rivals," say Lalani, "but I'm always cautious to make great claims. There is heavy evidence to support tea, but there are still only a few studies that have been conclusive. Without a doubt, though, it's full of antioxidants and it has no calories."
The proper kit
Coffee has seen a huge rise in the equipment an aficionado can buy, from the Aeropress to the Nespresso machine. Tea is a simpler drink to make, but there are still ways in which the experience can be improved, according to entrepreneur and inventor Roland Hill. Hill has come up with Teapy, a tea-making and serving mug that, he says, eliminates the most common problems with tea serving."The idea came from a lifetime's frustration with the methods of serving tea in all types of hospitality and catering establishments," he says. "With teapots, many leak upon pouring and all hide how strong the tea is. My first cup is always too weak and a second cup too strong However, most frustration was caused by being served tea with hot water in a mug and a separate tea bag. Some locations provide a saucer with a napkin to absorb the tea leaking from the teabag, but it still finds a way onto the side of the mug and leaves an unsightly stain." Teapy consists of two elements: a see-through glass mug and a glass lid, which sits on top of the mug and holds the string and tag, ensuring the tea bag doesn't fall in. When the tea is ready, the lid can be taken off and used as a tea tidy. It's in use at the Stables Kitchen, Bramall Hall, Stockport, where the response has been good. "We converted from cup and saucer service to Teapy six months ago and have received only compliments from our customers and servers, who much prefer the reduced preparation time and ease of carrying," says manager Amy Baker-Howell. Boiling point One essential piece of kit is a temperature kettle, according to Lalani. Different teas require different temperatures: Kabusecha, for example, should be infused at 60Â°C. "My advice is always to go for the kettle or even the multi- temperature instant heaters, not the under-counter boilers," says Lalani. "They cost thousands and don't do as good a job as a domestic machine. You can go through plenty of domestic machines before you even touch the cost of a domestic boiler. So don't waste your money!" Lalani also recommends that outlets have a single-serve vessel. "You need the right equipment to infuse; if you go to a large hotel, they serve tea from a big silver vat. That's terrible, because silver takes on the flavour of what's in there, so your fine Taiwanese Oolong is going to taste of mint. "If the vessel is too big, the first cup is OK, the second is too strong, the third is horrific. You need a single-serve vessel, in porcelain or glass. You infuse it and then you pour it out." ![lalani-0724-highres](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/IpSP1JwwSiu6zkHbJQVA) You can be up and running for an initial outlay of between £300 and £1,000. "Tea is a super-high-return section of your drinks list," he says. Training is crucial too; a bad serve can impair the finest of teas. "We train people," says Lalani, whose tea is available in 150 different restaurants and cafés around the UK. "It's not hard to do, but establishments have to decide they're going to do it properly. Some people are stuck in their ways. We're not afraid of stopping an account if the staff are serving in a bad way - we've done that. It's important. The customer has to get the best." What's next? Lalani says that you'll soon find tea in all the places you'd expect to see wine. "Everything you see in wine is going to happen in tea," he says. "It's the new skill to have: for individuals and sommeliers to be able to talk about and know tea. If you can tell your Okumidori, if you know your different Darjeeling gardens, you're ahead of the trend." Not only that, but you'll be one step ahead of your rivals when it comes to finding a match for asparagus. Contacts [Lalani & Co](http://lalaniandco.com) [National Tea Day](http://nationalteaday.co.uk) Taylors of Harrogate taylorsofharrogate.co.uk [Teapigs](http://teapigs.co.uk) [Teapy](http://teapy.co.uk) [Tetley](http://tetley.co.uk) [Twinings