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Getting the most out of your tea

21 February 2007
Getting the most out of your tea

Tea is old-fashioned, staid and respectable or is it? A lookat the new products in the sector will show that it is nowpossible to have a lot of fun with your tea offering in a waythat will grab customers' attention, says Ian Boughton

The idea of offering tea as part of a menu-match with food to spark customers' interest has been going around for years. Twinings recently tried to add a new slant to it by inviting wine consultant Oz Clarke to suggest pairings - and he has come up with a couple of unusual ideas. One suggestion is to offer Darjeeling with cream cheese and jalapeno snacks or a salsa another is the intriguing idea that Earl Grey can be presented as a kind of Ploughman's Afternoon Tea, with iced fairy cakes, and mild crumbly English cheeses, or a Welsh rarebit served with apple and walnut chutney or Worcester sauce.

Unilever Foodsolutions acknowledges that pairing tea and food is an old idea, but adds that it can still work very profitably if done with some thought. A good principle, the company says, is that strong teas work with strong foods, and light teas with light foods. Another good rule of thumb is that the Chinese tea works well with Chinese food Japanese tea works well with Japanese food, etc. Curiously, Irish Breakfast tea, although blended from African and Indian teas, goes well with Guinness-flavoured meat pies and oysters.

However, there is room for some imaginative new ideas that will catch the customers' attention. Unilever offers the interesting dessert-based ideas of serving iced Ceylon tea beside tiramisù, and peppermint herbal tea with sorbets. And the Coffee Mill café in Lynton, Devon, just celebrating its 50th anniversary, is asking its local tea blender to create a blend to go with the kind of cake and sandwiches served in the 1950s.

However, the most attention-getting drink-and-bite pairing (and one that may be unique in Britain) is about to be launched - it is the combination of Mhaidiva teas and Love In a Box chocolates, offered through Antica Coffee of London. It presents a unique attraction for cafés, hotels or restaurants, says importer Marc-Pierre Dietrich.

"Mhaidiva tea in itself is a very good alternative to the big brands - similar price, but a much higher perceived value and flavour," Dietrich says. "Then we found a partner in the Benelux region, who has ‘Love In a Box', which is a solid eating chocolate with some innovative flavours. This led to a new idea. You will now be able to offer six solid chocolates flavoured with tea, and six flavoured with coffee, and you serve them together - an Earl Grey tea with an Earl Grey chocolate on the saucer.

"Nobody else has created anything quite like this, and it will be a great way for the restaurateur to stimulate interest. It's going to surprise the restaurant reviewers, who never take any interest in the tea or coffee."

Curiously, Dietrich says, the tea-flavoured chocolates do not work well on their own. The full effect comes only from the two together.

One of the best ways to give the customers fun with tea is to capitalize on the visual aspect. With this in mind, Drury Tea and Coffee has added "flower teas" to its range of hand-rolled white teas from China. In the case of "Pearls Over Oyster", the teas are hand-tied with silk thread to a dried chrysanthemum bud the hot water makes the bud blossom into a flower in the cup, releasing a string of plum blossoms and giving the appearance of an oyster opening to show a string of pearls.

"They should be described on the menu as ‘hand-crafted teas', and, for the full visual effect, are best served in a glass or brewed in a glass teapot or bowl," says Marco Olmi, Drury's managing director. "Bring the glass to the table and show the dried tea shape to the customer, before placing it in the glass and adding the hot water."

Dragonfly Teas of Newbury, which comes from the family that first discovered rooibos as a beverage, also has some new flowering and blossoming teas. "We're in talks with several big names at the moment who are excited by our glass teapots and cups that allow tea drinkers to watch the leaves unfurl and savour the beautiful colours," says Bruce Ginsberg, managing director at Dragonfly.

The company's Jasmine Dragon Pearls China Tea is scented with delicate blossom and hand-rolled into exquisite silver "pearls". The tea mingles with the fragrant jasmine and should be brewed in a glass cup to watch the pearls unfold.

Dragonfly believes that a new revolution in tea is starting in some hotels and cafés, and that in time the supermarkets will begin to market high-class tea with the same serious attitude they finally took to wine.

Meanwhile, a full-of-attitude approach to tea is typified by Tea Pigs, which offers its new range with the marketing message of, "sod pot-warming, cucumber sandwiches and vicars, there's a new tea company in town high-quality teas minus the snobbery or tradition".

In fact, the founders of Tea Pigs were both with a big tea company before they decided to look for the fun side of the beverage. They now sell whole-leaf tea that brews in "tea temples" - a silky bag large enough to allow whole-leaf tea to infuse properly.

"The big difference between this and a standard paper bag is that a conventional bag uses a grade of tea known as ‘dust' whole-leaf teas will always deliver a superior quality," says Nick Kilby, the company's ‘tea evangelist'. "The tea temples can be brewed either in a teapot or cup, but we think clear glass vessels give the best effect."

The Tea Pigs range includes items rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere - there's a herbal infusion with chilli and a Japanese Genmaicha known as "popcorn tea", or "sugar puffs in a cup".

The entertainment value of the tea bag is something that several other companies have worked on. One is the British arm of California's Mighty Leaf, which has invented a silken stitched tea pouch that allows for easy handling and portion control of its signature whole-leaf blends (containing fruit pieces, spices and flavours) that are too big for ordinary tea bags.

There is another new variant on the large tea bag for use with whole-leaf tea - the T-Sac from Germany. The idea is that a café buys the empty bags to allow for brewing the whole-leaf teas of its choice in a mess-free way. The T-Sacs are available in the UK from Prima Coffee and Cotswold Tea. Meanwhile, the London Teapot Company has a new collection of its Chatsford porcelain. Built-in strainers make the range very suitable for the brewing of large-leaf tea.

Some of the best fun ideas in tea have been based on flavour, and a big new one is chocolate. There are now enough products available to make it a likely addition to a tea menu. Mighty Leaf has a chocolate orange truffle tea, which blends Madagascar vanilla, chocolate cacao nibs and orange peels blended with Ceylon and China black tea leaves. The result is a full-bodied tea with dessert-like qualities.

The company's chocolate chip truffle tea is darker and more intense, and the chocolate mint version uses fresh mint and rooibos. The caffeine-free version is Masala chocolate truffle tea, with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. It is a chai-like herbal infusion.

One of the first companies to bring in chocolate tea was Newby of London. "Chocolate is one you have to be careful with," says Mark Donovan, general manager at Newby. "Prepare it in a pot, but remember that the longer you let it stand, the more the tea can overwhelm the chocolate flavour."

Now that some flavours have become established, there is a view that it is time to do just a little more with them to keep up interest. Amanda Hamilton, who invented an entirely new beverage format with her powdered Drink Me Chai and then added a few flavours that the original Indian brewers never thought of, is now guiding caterers to the iced and milkshake versions. They take very little time to make and are still probably unique in the chai sector.

An iced chai is made from Hamilton's powder in less than a minute - two powder scoops, a little warm water, cold milk, crushed ice, and blend for 30 seconds. The milkshake version is the same, with two scoops of ice-cream.

For two brands, the fun is in the equipment, not just the brew. The idea of the new Tetley Twistea is that it allows customers to brew a take-away tea the way they like it. Brand manager Allen Hunt says there are two big problems with take-away tea: first, the customer has no say over how long it brews second, they have to dispose of the tea bag. This is why take-away tea sales are far lower than take-away coffee sales. The new product has a captive tea bag locked into a plastic cup - the operator adds boiling water, and the user twists the rim when they like the look of it, which effectively stops the tea brewing any further.

Meanwhile at Lipton, the idea of the Lipton Ch'a strategy is to bring tea from back-of-house to counter-top entertainment. Unilever is using its T-Bird, the award-winning patented turbo brewing machine that makes a cup of tea in under 25 seconds, providing a convenient and mess-free brewing method while giving customers something to watch - it even has flashing lights. The machine is actually made by Fracino, the espresso machine company, and has cropped up in many chain coffee bars and the branded outlets that have begun to appear in big corporate workplaces.

There are no flashing lights with the option from Gilberts Food Equipment, but the fun aspect is in presenting one of the most eye-catching tea-brewers to be seen - the Beem, the first adaptation of a traditional Russian samovar to a modern kitchen appliance. Essentially, it is a temperature-controlled urn, with the water maintained at a constant temperature of 98.5°C for tea. The samovars are also supplied with a matching decorative teapot that can be stored above the samovar, and kept hot by steam. It is, without doubt, an eye-catcher.

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