The hammer came down for the last time at the London Tea Auction on 29 June after 300 years of trading - rendered redundant because of modern technology. But you can't drink tea on e-mail, and there is no doubt tea is still the most popular drink in the UK. Tea Council figures show that of the eight cups of liquid drunk on a daily basis by the average person in the UK, just over three are tea. But what exactly makes a good cup of tea?
Ralph Lutton, managing director of the Edinburgh-based tea and coffee merchants Brodie Melrose Drysdale, offers an answer. He says, apart from a quality leaf, the ingredients for good-quality tea are freshly boiled water and a preheated, clean teapot - of any shape or size. Tetley adds another element: semi-skimmed milk, as this is preferred by most customers and doesn't detract from the flavour and aroma of the tea itself.
Making a cup of tea as described by Lutton is similar to playing a musical instrument - in his words, a combination of low and high notes. When the boiling water is added to the tea leaves, high notes (aroma and colour) are given off. But if the tea is allowed to continue brewing for, on average, longer than three minutes, then low notes occur as the result of theaflavines - part of the chemical make-up of the tea - being given off. In other words, overbrewing leads to what the lay person would call stewed tea.
The Tea Council, through the use of leaflets and its Catering Tea Quality Programme, which monitors the quality of teas, is trying to ensure caterers serve a good cup of tea and to inform the public of the attempts the industry is making to achieve this.
And, in order to provoke a reappraisal of tea as an alternative after-dinner drink to coffee, the Tea Council has joined forces with the Academy of Food & Wine to develop the concept of pairing specific teas with foods, wines and liqueurs.
Just as wines bring out the flavour of different foods, so too can speciality teas be matched with foods to enhance the flavour of the food and the individual qualities of the tea.
For instance, the malty, full-bodied richness of Assam makes it an ideal partner for breakfast foods such as bacon, ham and smoked fish, as does the rich, smoked aroma and flavour of Lapsang Souchong. The latter works well with chicken and blue cheeses, too.
Darjeeling, with its subtle muscadelle flavour and aromatic floral nose (echoing its cousins, the muscatel wines), pairs well with smoked salmon, cream cheese, egg and cress sandwiches, cream desserts and apple-based desserts; while the astringent Kenya teas work well with stronger, more robust flavourings such as a rich chocolate gêteau or cheeses such as Austrian smoked.
The bergamot-scented Earl Grey, on the other hand, matches well with more refined, less overpowering cheeses such as Leicester, or with fine pâté or the delicacy of crème brûlée.
And while coffee is the traditional accompaniment to a liqueur at the end of a meal, tea is thought to be a better pairing because of its palate-cleansing qualities. Lapsang Souchong is a particularly good match for most liqueurs; the citrus element of Grand Marnier marries well with the lemon and orange flavours in Lady Grey; and the strong bergamot flavour of Earl Grey matches the richness of port.
While Earl Grey is one of the most established and famous blends of exotic tea (black tea or green tea usually flavoured with oils or spices - sometimes with herbs and fruits), Lady Grey is a market innovation introduced by Twinings over the past two years. It's a blend of teas including China Orange Pekoe, and was first launched on the retail market, but is now proving a big seller in the catering sector since being introduced in January this year.
There have also been new launches in the tea-bag sector with the introduction of unusually shaped tea-bags and the birth of Tetley's non-drip, draw-string bag.
Julia Reeves, senior brand manager at Tetley Foodservice, says one of the reasons for the invention of the non-drip bag was to let the customer, when away from home, dictate the strength of their tea as well as the colour. It was also created to stop wet, dripping tea-bags messing up caterers' tables.
One area of the tea market not reliant on any particular shape of bag is the flavoured and speciality tea sector. This sector has been growing within the catering and retail markets. Speciality teas are broken down into two sectors: teas from certain regions, such as Assam or Darjeeling; and teas with flavours added that are made from black or green leaves from the tea bush, such as Lady Grey. The mistakenly named fruit and herbal teas, however, should be termed tisanes - hot infusions of dried fruit and herbs.
What is clear is that the rise in popularity of these teas reflects a change in customer tastes. At the London-based Whittard of Chelsea tea company, spokesman Stuart Penney says customers are becoming more discerning in the type of tea they want. He concludes that speciality teas with added flavours are becoming more popular because consumers want to enjoy lighter teas that are very aromatic. He points to the fact that Whittard's mango tea, made with a blend of China and India teas, is one of its most popular products.
This point of view is supported by Twinings Foodservice marketing manager Susan Pepperell. She believes that this refining of the customer's palate has made it crucial for caterers to stock at least a small selection of speciality teas. "If they don't," she says, "they will be missing out on a golden opportunity." She recommends that caterers stock Traditional English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Assam and Darjeeling as a bare minimum.
Of course, the sale of tea presents a golden opportunity to the caterer in whatever sector of the industry they operate. According to research carried out by Tetley, the profits are there for the taking: Reeves says that on average the cost to the caterer of making just one cup of tea is2-3p. This, she adds, includes the boiling water, raw tea and cost of milk and sugar. The caterer can then sell this cup of tea for anything between 60p and £1.
This brings the debate full circle. For the caterer to sell a cup of tea, they have to be able to guarantee to customers that it is good. And from all accounts this is an ominous task. For a caterer to make a good cup of tea they have to get the right milk - and the right amount of this milk - the right tea, and the right temperature of hot water. There are so many variables it is almost easier for them to make a cup of coffee instead.