Tea remains the nation's favourite drink - we consume more than 165 million cups of tea each day, compared with 70 million cups of coffee, according to Allegra's 2016 Tea Out-Of-Home report. But this is largely at home or work. While the £305m out-of-home (OOH) tea market tots up four billion cups a year, coffee culture still leads the field.
Research by Tea Fusion has suggested that 50% of consumers would drink more tea OOH if it was better value for money. As business unit controller Amanda Cooper explains: "Compared with the theatre, choice and complexity the modern coffee market offers consumers, a teabag over-brewed in a cup of boiling water doesn't seem like good value."
Nevertheless, tea culture is undergoing a renaissance. Why else would customers queue for 45 minutes for a cup of fine loose-leaf tea, hand-crafted and aromatised, served at the former Carnaby Street tea shop run by Camellia's Tea House (the supplier is currently seeking larger retail premises).
The shift has been driven by consumers' expanding knowledge about tea varieties and quality - similar to 'third wave' coffee culture - along with customers' perennial quest for new tastes and the wellness trend that favours the hydrating and health benefits of tea.
This has spurred food and beverage managers and suppliers to diversify and upgrade their tea offer, and prompted the rise of dedicated tea (or multi-skilled tea/wine) sommeliers at top-end establishments, who can advise on their teas' origins, processing, flavour profiles and food pairings.
The Jing tea trolley at 45 Park Lane
"Demand for a wide choice of tea and the trend for premiumisation offers a great opportunity to boost traditionally quiet day parts, as afternoon tea and tea parties have seen a resurgence - and not just in hotels," says Rhodri Morgan, marketing manager at PG Tips. "A wide range of operators, from cafés to pubs to workplaces, can capitalise on the trend of tea drinking as a social occasion."
"Afternoon tea is the biggest food and beverage profit generator in all the hotels we serve," observes Camellia's co-founder Ajit Madan. The occasion is attracting both guests and destination visitors from all age groups, add Newby Teas sales director Philip Price and David Latchem, managing director at Newby distributor Café du Monde.
So fierce is the competition for the five-star hotel afternoon tea dollar that Camellia's and Newby are being asked to create bespoke signature blends for their clients - which many also retail for an extra margin kick. London's Dorchester hotel has even planted its own rooftop Secret Tea Garden in partnership with the award-winning Dalreoch Estate near Perth, whose white, beech-smoked white and Garrocher grey teas joined its tea menu last year.
Tea has become a 'key differentiator' at Yummy Pubs, where sales have outstripped coffee 2:1 since the six-strong chain teamed up with Twinings to offer 70 different variants of traditional, loose-leaf, tea cocktails and iced teas (from £2.10 to £6 per cup).
According to Tetley senior brand manager OOH Isabelle Haynes, everyday black tea still accounts for 65% of all spend and Full English Breakfast and Earl Grey remain firm OOH favourites, attests Twinings shopper marketing manager Ali Goode.
But both report strong growth in green tea and infusions, with flavoured black and green teas adding a modern twist. Sales of chai - an Indian black tea simmered with milk, sugar and spices - are up 28%, says Goode, while 50% of green teas are now flavoured.
The possible taste combinations are unlimited. Novus Tea's new Secrets of the Far East combines seven green and one white tea with jasmine, mango flakes, lychee, goji berries, safflowers and rose petals. Other popular options include white pear and ginger, Pu-erh, and Persian pomegranate. Matthew Algie's newest loose-leaf Suki teas encompass pink grapefruit, oolong orange blossom and an Earl Grey with blue cornflower.
Iced teas can command a 30% price premium and make an ideal alternative to carbonated drinks in the summer, suggests Goode at Twinings, which has also teamed up with flavoured syrup supplier Monin to create 'tea shake' recipes, such as Chocolate Cookie, Banoffee and Minty Mojito, to differentiate summer menus.
Fine teas can also replace wine - ideal for teetotal guests - and one of Camellia's restaurant clients has requested a menu matching a different tea to each of its starters and main dishes. Madan is also working with hotel and bar mixologists to create tea-infused cocktails and long drinks.
And, just as super-healthy Japanese green matcha tea has become a popular flavouring and colouring for chefs, head chef and restaurateur Adam Handling is using Newby Teas' teas to flavour sauces and gravies, savoury and sweet dishes and healthy probiotic fermented kombucha drinks at the Frog in London.
Twinings and Monin have teamed up to create tea shakes
While 96% of all tea is still served in a bag, evolving teabag and appliance technology is taking the premium loose-leaf experience to the mass market. Latchem at Café du Monde's cites the development of the pyramid teabag as a key driver of speciality teas and tisanes as they accommodate larger leaf sizes (plus whole herbs and spices) and give them room to infuse properly. Pure Tisanes has even developed a line of frozen herbal tea bags, claiming snap-frozen fresh ingredients - such as juniper, sage, ginger and lemon or rosemary, star anise and lemon - retain better flavour and aroma than dried.
Push-button infusers are allowing operators to brew up a hassle-free, loose-leaf experience in just 60 to 90 seconds, with the added theatre of leaves dancing in transparent infuser chambers. We Are Tea recently launched five of its artisan whole-leaf teas into more than 100 Mitchells & Butlers Premium Country Pubs equipped with its 'simplicitea' infuser, and Tea Fusion reports that outlets trialing it have enjoyed double-digit volume and value growth in hot beverage sales.
While it is an exciting time for the tea industry, there is a caveat. Haynes at Tetley is not alone in noting that many tea serves out of home remain 'poor quality and inconsistent'. This, however, is largely because staff are unaware that different tea types require different water temperatures and brew times to preserve their taste and aroma.
While there are plenty of places to learn barista skills, tea has long been the poor cousin to coffee on this front, notes Madan at Camellia's. As the UK's first and only ITEI (International Tea Education Institute) Master Tea Sommelier, he last month launched the UK's first tea school offering the benchmark Certified ITEI Tea Steward qualification in a bid to drag tea education in hospitality to the same level as coffee and wine.
With Allegra finding that 49% of consumers are willing to pay more for a premium tea experience, the time seems ripe to invest in a varied tea menu and well-trained staff.
We Are Tea's simplicitea diffuser
The perfect cuppa
The tea leaf is only part of the equation for the perfect cuppa. Other key ingredients include:
As David Smithson, chief executive at Eau de Vie, says: "Water makes up 99% of any cup of tea." The company's range of plumbed-in water filters remove limescale and other impurities in tap water that can mar the clarity, smell, taste and appearance of beverages.
Brewing temperature and brew time
A dedicated hot boiler is 'essential' says Adam Hill, commercial product manager at Burco. The company has an auto-fill filtration range of counter-top and wall-mounted boilers that include adjustable temperature settings from 80Â°C-98Â°C to accommodate more robust black, red and herbal teas and more delicate greens and whites. Twinings suggests serving teapots and teabags in mugs with timers.
As light dries up the natural oils responsible for a tea's unique flavour, Cafe du Monde recommends a non-transparent container. Tea is hygroscopic - absorbing smells, taints, and moisture that risk bacterial infection - which is why Tetley recently launched its original and decaf teabags in resealable zip bags for caterers.
Smooth china preserves tea flavour by preventing tannins from sticking to the side, advises Tetley, while spacious glass cups allow fruit and herbal teas to swell and be visually appealing. Chash the Fine Tea Co offers a tidy string-and-tag teabag solution with a 'Teapy' transparent lid that fits over a mug to retain heat and aroma, provide a window to gauge brew strength, and keep the tag from falling into the tea. The scalloped perimeter recess for the string docks into the base of the mug when the lid is reversed to store the brewed bag.
Display your full range - loose leaf and herbal blends are visually and aromatically appealing - to encourage experimentation. And it makes sense, says Andrew Jack, head of marketing at Matthew Algie, to match quality teas with attractive teaware and trays. London's 45 Park Lane hotel serves its rare and seasonal tea menu of Jing hot teas and cold infusions on a mobile tea trolley in a modern take on the authentic tea ceremony: guests experience multiple re-infusions that alter the character and flavour of the teas.
Always ask customers "how do you like your tea?" advises Tetley, as personal preferences vary. PG Tips suggests offering alternative accompaniments such as non-dairy milk or lemon.
Cafe du Mondewww.cafedumonde.co.uk
Camellia's Tea Housewww.camelliasteahouse.com
Chash the Fine Tea Companywww.chash.co.uk
Eau de Viewww.eaudevie.com
We Are Teawww.wearetea.com