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Tea: Get the basics right

16 May 2007
Tea: Get the basics right

In recent years there has been huge growth in speciality blends to addinterest and variety to beverage menus, but choosing the right basic blendsthat form the backbone of a tea offering is crucial. Ian Boughton reports

For all the fancy varieties now appearing on the tea scene, there's still one massive catering tea sector that needs to be properly addressed - the market for the ordinary "nice cup of tea".

"Speciality teas have seen a movement from niche to everyday consumption thanks to consumers' increasingly sophisticated palates," says Susan Gregory, category marketing director at Unilever Foodsolutions, whose brands include PG Tips, Lipton and Scottish Blend. "However, despite recent trends, black ‘ordinary' teas still account for 89% of the total tea market and it's the bread and butter of every operator's tea offering."

Marco Olmi, managing director of the Drury Tea & Coffee Company, says its English breakfast tea has fuelled London cafés since before the last war, although Brian Writer from Drury's tea blender Reginald Ames, says the nice cup of tea of the 1930s is very different from the one of today.

Nationalisation

"It would have been a blend of Assam and Ceylon," says Writer. "At the time Kenya wasn't producing much tea, until nationalisation in Ceylon meant that its tea culture dropped and Kenya took the chance to win a share. And Kenyan tea has a lively brightness, whereas Ceylon is mellower. So today's English breakfast, which is probably perhaps 60% Assam, a little Kenya and a little Ceylon, is not the same as the English breakfast of 50 years ago. The skill of the tea blender and the caterer is to make the consumer believe that it's what they always liked."

But with so many English breakfast blends on the market how does the caterer choose which one to serve? The answer, says Writer, is the 10-minute test. "Make a pot of tea and let it stand for 10 minutes, then taste it - black. A good quality tea will probably have gone slightly bitter but will still have the taste and character of tea. A poor quality tea will look and taste like ink."

At Twinings the belief is that no-frills tea is what the nation wants, hence the launch of its Everyday brand.

Black teas, including an English breakfast blend, are the focus of an imminent launch from Typhoo, which says it's important for caterers to realise that consumer tastes for a traditional cuppa are becoming more refined.

At First Choice Coffee, whose Down To Earth tea range was winner of the hot beverages category at the 2006 Caterer Group Excellence in Food and Drink Awards, managing director Elaine Higginson suggests that consumer expectations have gone beyond just taste, with ethical sourcing and organic status becoming increasingly important factors. "Tastes and expectations have grown to demand much more than what we once knew as tea," she says.

Synthetic flavours

Popular belief is that the second favourite "nice cup of tea" in the UK is Earl Grey, with 152 brands offering one. Earl Grey is a blend of black tea and oil of bergamot, a small citrus fruit from Italy. Writer warns caterers to look for tea blended with a pure natural oil of bergamot, not a synthetic. "There are a lot of these synthetic flavours on the market and yet synthetics don't hold their flavour well," he says. "It's also important not to be heavy-handed with the bergamot - it's an extremely strong oil."

To bear this out, the newest Earl Grey on the market is from Teadirect, the tea partner of Cafédirect, which says it was prompted by customer demand for a Fairtrade Earl Grey, and the fact that too many blends on the market are overpowered by the bergamot.

The black tea base is from a new plantation in Sri Lanka - not the traditional origin, but Teadirect has an interesting justification: if Darjeeling and China teas are used to produce a small-leaf tea suitable for teabags, their flavour becomes harsh and astringent, overpowering the bergamot. Ceylon tea is relatively mild in its small-leaf form, so is a better base.

However, Peter Haigh, brand development manager at Tetley, says it's wrong to think that Earl Grey is the second-biggest seller in supermarkets and thus the nation's second favourite.

In fact, he says, the second most popular tea in the UK is decaffeinated, which he claims sells twice as much in tonnage as Earl Grey, a big clue for caterers as to what the nation really wants.

Earl Grey has moved from niche to everyday consumptionBelow: First Choice Coffee's Down To Earth tea range won the hot beverages category at the 2006 Caterer Group Excellence in Food and Drink Awards

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