The real or perceived health benefits of tea have boosted the popularity of some of the more unusual blends in recent months. Some companies are cautious about making exaggerated claims, while others are less inhibited. Either way, the publicity can help sales, as Ian Boughton reports
One of the biggest boosts to sales of tea this year is its reported health benefits. But there are snags - on the one hand, the general media is full of reports of how a store in Madrid advised Victoria Beckham to "drink pu-erh tea and watch the pounds drop off", and yet the Tea Council has been in trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority for recommending that four cups a day is the right contribution to a healthy diet.
The Tea Council has vigorously defended its industry - and suppliers are agreed that caterers can sell on tea's healthy benefits so long as they don't go over the top. The now-fashionable pu-erh is an unusual Chinese tea, in that it's processed as either green or black, and in its rarest form can command astonishingly high prices. As a result, there are fakes on the market. "After the Beckham stories, we had many questions about pu-erh being a calorie-reducing, cholesterol-burning tea," reports Oscar Woolley, managing director of Suki Tea, which recently took two Great Taste awards.
"We took a side step - we're not doctors. Tea is good for you in terms of antioxidants and daily liquid intake, and it reduces stress. But tea is not a miracle cure."
Suki is a surprise entrant in the new catalogue from Espresso Warehouse. "Caterers want to get more than £1.20 or £1.40 for tea, so the target is to charge the same price as for a latte - we've started from the viewpoint of tea as a £2 drink," says general manager Gary McGann. "You have to make it look as if it's worth it, so we've sourced a new pot, which is ceramic, and stackable - storing teapots is a huge space issue in kitchens. We've also sourced a special wooden tray with an indent to take the pot and room for the milk jug, saucer and spoon. It's a means of presentation to make a pot of tea more profitable. Get your staff making the right presentation, and you'll be moving towards that extra 60p on a serving."
Despite Suki's reluctance to make too much of health claims, the company does agree that its peppermint tea is reckoned to be good for the digestion and that its citrus rooibos is tastily caffeine-free. "Most peppermint teas are very earthy, because they're badly crushed and have a lot of stalk left. We found a good whole-leaf one with little stalk. We decided on a citrus variant for rooibos because plain rooibos isn't that popular - ours is semi-roasted, which apparently gives more health benefits and is slightly sweeter that the usual, which we think will help the person who has had a bad rooibos experience." But for the really unusual healthy tea on a menu, says Suki, try stinging nettle tea - it has a nutty, earthy taste and is very high in iron content.
It's perfectly reasonable to put pu-erh tea on a fashionable tea menu, agrees Solaris, whose teas also figure in the Great Taste awards. "In Chinese medicine, pu-erh was never considered a weight-loss tea - its value was a digestive tonic, helping to break down and flush out toxins," says herbalist Joerg Mueller. "All teas are diuretics and stimulate the kidneys to get rid of additional fluid in the body.
"Pu-erh is one of the better and safer health fads, considering there are weight-loss products out there that work by overstimulating the metabolism. If taken in moderation, up to three cups daily with plenty of water intake, and not considered as the magic bullet, we don't see a problem."
Tea can be sold on health benefits, argue Mueller and Karin Wieland, the Solaris partners. "As herbalists, we know of the healing powers of plants. Green tea is unfermented, so retains high amounts of antioxidants. This is an ideal uplifting and energising beverage, and the sensuous, uplifting aroma of our freshly crushed green cardamom dominates the top note, while the star anise, long associated with longevity and as a digestive aid, lends this tea a sweet, liquorice-like aroma," the pair claim. "The vanilla-tinged scent of whole cloves and the zesty notes of lemon and orange peel lift the spirit and stimulate body and mind."
Solaris's most unusual tea is its herbal blend for children. This contains sweet chamomile, rose and lime, with green oatstraw for mineral content and fennel for digestion. It was blended at first for the couple's young son, and then put into general production - and is now an award-winner.
One of the newest high-end arrivals in the market has no hesitation in promoting health benefits. "In China, tea has always been known as a medicinal thing," says Melissa Choi, managing director of Choi Time. "My Chinese grandmother always told me that jasmine tea would ward off any illnesses and keep me young, beautiful and always slim."
Choi Time's teas are hand-woven flowering teas - the base is a white-needle green tea, scented with jasmine flowers in the drying process. The bulbs are hand-tied and sink to the bottom of the cup, opening out with the heat of the water.
The most irreverent new company in the market, Teapigs, says health benefits can increase sales, but must be backed up with facts. "We've seen significant increases in sales for our green, white, oolong and yerba mate teas due to press coverage about their potential healthy properties," confirms Nick Kilby, who holds the intriguing job title of tea evangelist. "However, if a product doesn't taste good it doesn't matter how healthy it is, people won't keep buying it.
"Food lovers are increasingly seeking out real taste. Our peppermint leaf tea is pure whole-leaf peppermint leaves, fresher and finer than any tea-bag mint you may have tasted before. Peppermint is caffeine-free, and drunk worldwide as an aid to digestion. Our chamomile tea is made from only whole flowers, with no chopping, no crushing, and no stalks. It has a sweet, surprisingly juicy flavour, is caffeine-free, and often drunk at bedtime as an aid to sleeping."
Growth of decaffeinated
Even the big brands now talk of the health properties of tea. Peter Haigh, brand development manager at Tetley, says this is behind the remarkable growth of decaffeinated tea, now said to account for more British sales than Earl Grey. He quotes research that says 65% of customers have complained at not being able to find decaffeinated tea in cafés, and says the demand for such a product shouldn't be underestimated.
At Typhoo, customer marketing manager Sue Jones-Smithson cites research saying that decaffeinated tea has grown by more than 42% over the past five years as consumers become more aware of the negative effects of caffeine. She puts annual growth at 8.6% and agrees with the view at Tetley about the difficulty of finding a decaffeinated tea in the out-of-home sector. Typhoo claims its decaffeinated product has had the caffeine "gently removed without compromising the quality and flavour of the tea".
At Twinings, customer marketing manager Andrea Stopher reckons this is the right time to capitalise on the modern media image of tea. "London's ‘in crowd' have favoured afternoon tea over cocktails, making tea the drink of the moment," she says.
"It's now fashionable to drink tea, and media reports of associated health benefits have captured the attention of consumers. Teas such as green tea and herbal and fruit infusions, which were once seen as speciality and somewhat unusual, are now moving across and firmly establishing themselves as a mainstream choice."
As a result, Twinings has launched Benefit Blends, designed to cleanse, aid digestion, recharge, recover, calm or detox.
There's a new, youthful clientele who expect a range of innovative and exciting teas, agrees Angus McKenzie, sales director at Metropolitan Coffee Company. "We should also be encouraging people to ditch the milk and sugar and start experimenting with a wider variety of teas such as herbal, fruit teas. Clearly less dairy and sugar is a good thing."
Metropolitan is distributing the Just T range, which also features an innovative "cuff" on the tea bag. It straddles the edge of the cup, allowing for ease of removal when the tea has brewed.
Caterers must know how to tap into the trend for teas that are a little out of the ordinary, says Martin Morrell, business development director of First Choice Coffee. "Our Down to Earth tea is a range of real leaf teas, and all are unsweetened and free from artificial flavours, additives and preservatives. Operators must communicate the benefits in a clear and accurate way so customers can be confident that your claims are factually correct.
"We provide a Down to Earth tea information panel to go alongside their menus. It lists the health benefits of tea in a clear and concise way, showing that it's rich in vitamins and minerals, is calorie-free and can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and lower blood sugar. That's what really appeals to the modern consumer."
- Choi Time 0845 053 3269 www.choitime.com
- Espresso Warehouse (Suki) 0141-420 2422 www.suki-tea.com
- First Choice Coffee (Down To Earth Tea) 01908 275520 www.firstchoicecoffee.com
- Metropolitan Coffee Company 020 8743 8959 www.metropolitancoffee.co.uk
- Solaris 00 353 91 586443
- Teapigs 020 8566 4594 www.teapigs.co.uk
- Tetley 0845 606 6328 www.teaexperts.co.uk
- Twinings 01264 348181 www.twiningsfs.co.uk
- Typhoo 0151-522 4000 www.typhoo.com