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Tea Gets Funky Bags, Serious Provenances

Tea has mimicked coffee’s almost comedic transformation.


April 1, 2008
By J.M. Hirsch

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So long stodgy image. With surprising speed, tea has mimicked coffee’s
almost comedic transformation from simple morning jolt to hip
have-it-your-way drink (Will it be organic soy froth or hormone-free,
fat-free cream with your shade-grown, fair trade dark roast?)

So long stodgy image. With surprising speed, tea has mimicked coffee’s almost comedic transformation from simple morning jolt to hip have-it-your-way drink (Will it be organic soy froth or hormone-free, fat-free cream with your shade-grown, fair trade dark roast?)
 
Those reliable bags of black tea your grandmother carried in her purse have given way to a rainbow of hues, a cornucopia of flavours, satchels of all sizes and shapes, and a whole new language for describing the minutiae of it all.

“In the next couple years you’re going to see movies and TV shows making fun of people who drink tea the way they do now about people drinking lattes,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, which tracks tea trends.

teaAccording to Canadian research, 77 per cent of Canadians consume tea and 50 per cent are regular tea drinkers, consuming the beverage on a daily or weekly basis. Among Canadians, Maritimers and Ontarians are the most frequent tea consumers with 41 per cent and 35 per cent respectively drinking tea on a daily basis.

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Recent research conducted by AC Neilsen, on behalf of the Tea Association of Canada, found that 74 per cent of Canadians associate tea – both black and specialty teas – with health benefits. Among the top health benefits cited are that tea is a good source of antioxidants as well as fluid intake, and relieves anxiety.

The growth of the tea market has been impressive, going from a $1.8-billion industry in 1990 to $6.5 billion last year, according to the Tea Association of the USA. And the group, which represents the tea industry, predicts continued strong growth.

Why now? Studies touting tea’s good-for-you qualities are a big part of it. But so too is the insatiable appetite for the new and the different. And when consumers came looking for better options than the bitter brews of the past, the industry answered.

So basic black has been joined by red, white, green and a plethora of herbal blends. And they come in traditional bags, spacious conical sacks, perforated foil tubes, loose leaves, even as whole dried flowers that “bloom” as they unfurl and fill your teapot.
 
Of course, there also are the hugely popular bottled tea drinks, which account for the majority of tea consumed. And though they represent a small piece of the market, organic and fair trade teas are lining up to tempt the socially conscious drinker.
 
Call it the Starbucks effect, says Marshall Malone, president of Somersworth, N.H.-based Portsmouth Tea Company, which markets dozens of tea blends and even offers a tea sommelier service to help customers match the right tea to their event.
 
Thanks to the cafe culture that persuaded consumers that fancy hot drinks can be an everyday indulgence, more people are taking tea much more seriously, he says.
 
“It’s a sexy product,” says Malone. “It smells good. It tastes good. And now we’re talking about tea and food pairings, and cooking with tea.”

 And while spending on tea is up, with the exception of breakfast tea, consumption across the day has been mostly flat, says Harry Balzer, of market research firm NPD Group. Consumption of tea during breakfast has seen modest growth.
 
Whether the tea industry takes big or baby steps in coming years, the budding interest has prompted serious innovation in a beverage that otherwise has been mostly unchanged for thousands of years.

Here’s some of what you already can see (and sip):

Variety
Think you don’t like tea? You clearly haven’t tried any lately. Not because they are so much better than before (though many are). Rather, that variety now is so overwhelming it’s hard not to find something to like.

Tea companies large and small offer overwhelming options, from sit-up-straight black teas to mellow whites and greens to fruity reds and herbals (properly called tisanes) with the fragrance and flavour of Kool-Aid.

Tea aficionados are quick to point out that herbals (such as rooibos, yerba mate and chamomile) aren’t true teas (only those made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plants qualify), but that hasn’t slowed the growth of these easy-to-enjoy drinks.

And have you checked out the beverage cooler lately? Ready-to-drink bottled teas (the fastest growing of the tea categories) come in dozens of brands and varieties.

Realizing the power of the iced tea market, many companies also have introduced tea bags specifically for iced tea.

Technology
Still using traditional tea bags? How old school.

Assuming you even still buy bagged teas, the traditional satchel is so not hip. Today’s teas come in cone- and pyramid-shaped bags, the gist of which is to provide more space to allow a freer flow of water around the tea leaves.
While some of it is marketing hype, these bags can brew better tea, says Denise Hall, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America who specializes in tea and coffee. That’s because the better the flow of water, the better the brew.

Tea sticks are another innovation. These perforated foil straws contain tea and allow for simultaneous stirring and steeping.

And of course there are all sorts of electronic gizmos, such as timers and coffee maker-like brewers, which has helped attract a younger, more tech-driven demographic.

But it’s not just the gear. Understanding of the science behind tea also has developed. Tea companies are working hard to educate consumers about the need to brew different varieties of tea at different temperatures and for different lengths of time.

White teas, for example, do best with just three to four minutes of brewing in 180 F water. Herbals and pu-erh teas (sometimes called aged black teas), on the other hand, do better with a longer steep in water at 205 F.

Provenance and  Politics
Like coffee and chocolate, tea can have serious labour and agricultural politics attached to it. As in so much of the food world, organic and fair trade are emerging issues that are expected to become substantial forces in the market.
 
“It’s probably less than five per cent of the total market, but that five percent represents a very important, or very pregnant segment… ” says Blumenthal. “You could very easily see that become 20 or 25 per cent during the next five years.”
 
Also increasingly common are single estate teas, or teas that come from one region or even one farm.

J.M. Hirsch is a food writer for The Associated Press and  author of several food-related books.