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Beverages: Kettle's On – US Food Trends

30 April 2009
Beverages: Kettle's On – US Food Trends

Operators unfurl potential in specialty teas.

This article first appeared in the 1 May 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

Blame it on lingering effects from the Boston Tea Party. Other than quaffing it iced, Americans don't always embraced tea with enthusiasm.

But interest in the age-old beverage is gaining traction. The New York City-based Tea Association of the USA reports that away-from-home tea consumption has grown 10% annually over the past decade. Yet tea sales still have room to grow. For most operators in R&I's 2008 Beverage Census study, sales were flat, comprising 12% of the nonalcoholic beverage sales compared with 21% for coffee.

Even so, tea is beginning to establish itself as a specialty beverage offering, and consumers expect that their favorite restaurants and cafes will offer more and better teas. These days, a mundane tea bag placed next to a cup of tepid water only steeps disappointment.

A shifting preference toward higher-quality specialty teas echoes a similar trend in the coffee market. As consumers have became more discriminating with their coffee selections, they have also grown more conscious of the teas they drink. For American tea drinkers, it's no longer just a question of iced or hot; it's green or black, white or oolong, flavored or plain?

In menuing tea, there are a couple of key taste trends to keep in mind. "If you're a tea person, you're into the classics-the Darjeelings, Assams, Ceylons," says David De Candia, tea buyer and master tea blender for Los Angeles-based The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. "If you know tea is good for you but you don't like the taste, you might rather have a flavored tea or a beverage that contains tea."

De Candia keeps traditional teas on hand to satisfy his core tea-drinking audience, but he has noticed more significant growth in sales of the cafe chain's contemporary offerings, especially its flavored green teas and tea lattes.

In Chicago, Atwood Cafe Executive Chef Heather Terhune says classic blends such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey are consistently popular during breakfast and afternoon tea at the restaurant, located in the Hotel Burnham. So are flavored blends such as a rose-petal white tea and a tropical-scented green tea. Along with simple herbal teas, "We have something for everyone," she says.

Earthier green teas have been less successful, Terhune says. Because of lack of demand, she discontinued grassy-tasting sencha (a Japanese tea) and a green tea with hand-tied leaves that bloomed into a flower when placed in water.

Many specialty teas are available only in loose-leaf form-leading some operators to shy away to from offering them. Serving loose-leaf teas doesn't have to be a complicated affair, though. At Remedy Tea Bar in Philadelphia, customers have 55 loose-leaf selections from which to choose. For each order, co-owner Courtney Kammerer scoops 2 teaspoons of tea into a convenient and easily transportable unbleached paper filter bag.

Improvements in tea-bag manufacturing offer operators an even easier option. At The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf locations, prepackaged pyramid-shaped tea bags have replaced hand-packed filter bags as the choice for serving dine-in guests.

Though still a novelty, tea drinks such as lattes are beginning to catch on, particularly with those who are new to tea drinking. For his tea lattes, De Candia packs high-quality tea into a clean and coffee-free espresso machine portafilter and brews a shot of tea. Then he steams milk, occasionally adding flavors such as vanilla.

De Candia uses a variety of teas for lattes, among them English Breakfast and vanilla-flavored Ceylon; Kammerer at Remedy Tea offers four seasonal tea lattes, including milk-and-cookies latte made with strong black tea, vanilla, cinnamon, almonds and steamed milk.

"A good, strong tea can withstand the addition of milk," De Candia says.

IN HOT WATER

Just as important as the quality of the tea itself is monitoring the water temperature used to brew it. Too hot and the tea will be bitter; too cold and it won't release its full flavor.

David De Candia steers clear of the hot-water spout on the coffee machine. "It's usually 200F, about 15 to 20 degrees too hot for tea."

At Atwood Cafe, all loose-leaf teas are steeped with water from a hot-water tower designed for volume tea service. The tower is also more convenient for servers. "It holds a ton of water; you never have to wait for it," says Chef Heather Terhune.

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