The fastest-growing sector of the afternoon tea market may sound like a novelty, and often contains no tea, but it means business, says Ian Boughton.
Strictly speaking, an infusion is not always a tea - in that it often has no tea in it. At its purest, it can be a blend of real fruits, berries and flowers. However, infusions are given a place on the best tea menus and popularity really is growing.
"Go to afternoon tea at Claridge's, the Ritz or any tea hot spot and you'll be presented with a list that's as long as a restaurant menu," observes Elaine Higginson, managing director at First Choice Coffee.
"We all know the demand is there - the Tea Council says speciality teas will boost tea sales this year by as much as 25%.
"Flavours that used to be exotic, like peppermint, and lemon and ginger, have become standard menu items. More exotic varieties like our white ginger pear and vanilla orchid can be marketed with tea tastings and menu boards. Once you've got a customer hooked on a flavour they can't get elsewhere, you have loyalty."
There is a huge range of infusions, agrees Marco Olmi at Drury Tea and Coffee. He says: "The problem is, which does the caterer pick? We have eight or nine. The caterer's choice is probably no more than three and, depending on your business, one may be enough.
"A fruit tea is an entirely different sensation from a black tea with milk and, although the taste may be subtle, it is certainly not ‘neutral'. This means it is not the natural partner of afternoon tea sandwiches - you can take one sandwich with black tea and get one taste, and then take it with a fruit tea and you're into an entirely different story, so you have to be a little circumspect with your menu planning."
This should be seen as an opportunity, according to Gill Hesketh, marketing director at Clipper Teas.
"We have found that restaurants and hotels have become the ideal platform for consumers to experiment - they are trying new varieties of tea that they wouldn't usually have in the home," she says.
At Twinings, trade marketing manager Andrea Stopher says that health issues are behind the growth of fruit infusions.
"Health remains the big consumer driver and this shows no sign of diminishing. People are looking for more natural products with added health benefits and more and more consumers, especially the female market, are turning to infusions or fruit teas in a bid to reduce their caffeine intake.
"The fact that so many people refer to infusions as tea is a clear indication of how they have established themselves as mainstream beverages.
"If a caterer were to have just one, we would recommend Pure Peppermint. It's a lively and refreshing infusion and is reputed to aid digestion, which makes it a good alternative to after-dinner coffees," she adds.
Peppermint is a surprising best seller, agrees David Latchem, managing director at Café du Monde, which distributes Newby teas.
"English Breakfast and Earl Grey are still number one and two, but the clear next choice is peppermint. This herbal tea is favoured in bedrooms, but more than that it is increasingly being requested at table to aid digestion following a good meal. It is caffeine-free, so has strong health connotations. Next behind peppermint in popularity is chamomile, which is reputed to aid restful sleep, and this is followed by berry teas."
Tetley's business development manager, Peter Haigh, says that his Summer Berry Merry has opened up new menu combinations.
"Fruit and herbals allow for the caterer to serve tea in a different way because they look fantastic in a tall glass. Not only does the consumer see the full colours of the blends, it also brings the caterer a meal deal opportunity using complementary flavours - try offering a cheesecake with Summer Berry Merry. Why not hold a tasting with your staff and think up some ideas."
Café du Monde
Clipper 01308 863344
Drury Tea and Coffee Company 020 7740 1100
First Choice Coffee
0845 606 6328
Twinings 01264 348181
UK Tea Council
020 7371 7787