Fruity, herbal, spiced or even mixed with gin, alternative teas are causing a sensation in hotels and cafés with their calming or health-giving properties. Ian Boughton reports on some of the best.
The big paradox in tea remains whether the good old British cuppa or the unusual and ‘creative' choices are more popular. While the trade's biggest-seller is always black tea, all brands continue to shout about their new and imaginative blends and infusions – and there were some real curiosities among these in the last Great Taste awards.
The big question is – do such teas actually perform in the catering market? All trade researchers agree that sales of herbal, fruit and spice teas are increasing.
"Seven million consumers like to try new or different hot beverages out of home, so variety is vital," says Michelle Jee, brand manager at Tetley. "One in five consumers bought green, herbal or fruit tea on their last café visit. Over the past 18 months, consumers' preferences have shifted towards healthier blends with health and wellbeing benefits.
"This has been reflected in a significant increase in sales of the Tetley fruit and herbal – our variety pack is becoming increasingly popular in foodservice and saw growth of 167% in the last three months compared to last year. Zingy lemon and ginger is now a must-stock for operators, as are green tea blends which are particularly popular in January."
Health aside, novel and creative blends are succeeding, says Dilhan Fernando, chief executive of Dilmah Teas. He has been working to encourage this further with a series of international tea creativity contests for hotels and restaurants.
"We have focused on innovation and different experiences in tea, and we have had some very good results, including our t-Lounge collaboration with the Hilton Glasgow. This experience spawned such initiatives as the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, which sought to redefine afternoon tea, and the Christmas Challenge, which asked caterers to ‘present Christmas in a cup'.
"There is a clear long-tail effect – we challenged chefs to understand the limitless possibilities in tea gastronomy and tea mixology, and we are now experiencing taste adventure like never before, expressed in tea pairings with food and tea-inspired cocktails and mocktails. This is being supported by a new generation of tea drinker, and we are seeing consumers insisting on natural ingredients, which is pushing food and beverage buyers towards higher quality.
"We are seeing a welcome enthusiasm for combinations like our Ceylon pekoe with rose and vanilla, and Ceylon single-estate green tea with lychee and ginger."
The way for tea to evolve is to offer drinks that compete more closely with coffee, cold drinks and ice-blended fruit drinks, says Aidan Ledger, head of new business at Twinings Foodservice. "It's crucial that we launch new blends that allow operators to create bold and innovative drinks they can ultimately charge more for.
"One of the key factors for our launch of large-leaf pyramids was to create a range that was exclusive to foodservice, and designed to perform. Flavoured green teas and fruit teas with vitamins are starting to take centre stage, and Twinings' strawberry green tea and Revive raspberry and vitamin C are capturing both sales and attention. The flavours are intense, and as cold drinks they look appealing when served in a glass with a garnish."
"The novel tea market is booming in catering as venues reopen," agrees Adam Perry, Clipper Teas Controller at Ecotone UK: "During the pandemic, in-home consumption flourished, and functional teas became more popular, for either digestive health properties or soothing benefits offering a ‘hug in a mug'. As tea drinkers have said their out-of-home consumption choices often match their in-home, caterers now benefit from mirroring those categories that have performed in supermarkets.
"Infusions have increased in popularity, particularly in dining environments where customers look for teas to complement the end of a meal. We see strong growth in mint as a pleasant palate-cleanser and an aid for digestion, and our peppermint and lemon and ginger teas remain our best selling infusions."
At Good Earth, marketing manager Liliana Jaurequi sees the same: "The feedback we're getting from operators is that as out-of-home finds its feet, it's a twist on the familiar that they know appeals to customers. We have an exciting new range for foodservice of eight stunning flavours of biodegradable string and tag teabags. It is the ginger, turmeric and lemon and the Moroccan mint that are proving really popular."
Certain functional blends are more suitable at different times of the year, says Teapigs founder Louise Cheadle. "At the start of the year, our functional Feel Good range and matcha green tea are our best sellers; this summer, our cold brews have been extremely popular as a low-sugar alternative to soft drinks. In another month or so, most of our clients will have at least one of our limited-edition winter teas on their menu.
"Our winter blends of gluhwein, spiced pear, sweet spearmint and gingerbread all sold out last year – this highlights that updating your menu will show a vibrancy in your offering and improve your tea sales."
Our winter blends of gluhwein, spiced pear, sweet spearmint and gingerbread all sold out last year
Some have evolved into all-year sellers, notes Karen Green, trade marketing manager for Aimia Foods, who distributes Drink Me Chai. "With its fragrant yet gently spicy flavour, a comforting cup of chai is so popular that chai lattes have become an all-year on-trend addition to any tea menu. Over two-thirds of customers say they drink it throughout the year, whatever the weather."
Tea from the Manor reports that creative blends have shown success in service settings, where ‘wellness' or ‘spa' teas have succeeded at the Carden Park in Cheshire.
"We identified tea as something that would play an integral role in the spa journey of our guests," explains Carden Park's food and beverage controller Mark Roberts. "We pictured guests being in a relaxed and reflective mood in our spa restaurant, so for Tea From the Manor we developed a bespoke blend to feature a cleansing and calming attribute. From the success we have seen with this in the spa, we will now offer these teas in our new luxury lounge."
That's the spirit
At the Cheshire House Bar and Grill in Knutsford, deputy general manager Nathan McDonough says that creative infusions by Tea From the Manor now play a useful part in his cocktail menu – he has created gin drinks with both red berry and blood orange infusions, and has combined vodka with a passion fruit, mango and guava tea infusion.
"The number-one seller is our Red Berries Ginfusion, which actually really surprised me as to how tasty it is. The reason these work so well is that I can control how intense the flavour is; each infusion takes a minimum of 48 hours, so we make them in big Kilner jars and store in a cool place while the magic happens.
"People love speciality gins that can't be found anywhere else, and will go for these over a fruit-flavoured, name-branded gin."
The appeal of gin also inspired a blend by Eteaket: "Our herbal and fruit infusions now feature on the menus of fine-dining restaurants and big-name hotels," reports founder Erica Moore. "Our clients tell us their customers are always delighted to find new and exciting flavours to try.
"Our Isle of Harris gin tea is a tea blend like no other. It was created in collaboration with the distillers and features the same botanicals used in their gin: juniper, coriander, angelica root, orange peel, liquorice root, cassia bark… and sugar kelp, which is hand-harvested by a local diver from the underwater forests of the Outer Hebrides. The prominent flavours are the juniper and orange, but it's the addition of the kelp which is the key. A lot of our clients serve it hot, but we have had venues create tea cocktails and mocktails with it."
An unusual tea is Tea from the Manor's Equali-tea: a herbal blend of hibiscus, rosehip, apple pieces and orange peel blended with cornflower and jasmine petals, blended to honour an LGBTQ event. It is already on the menu at the Richmond Tea Rooms in Manchester.
"We have chosen the iced-tea route for this. We brew hot and leave to cool, and serve in a hurricane glass with a fruit garnish of rose petals, blackberries and strawberries. It makes for a refreshing drink and now we have an Equali-tea poster at our check-in desk."
Another unique tea which has succeeded in foodservice is Grandad Peelies, created by Stokes of Lincoln 50 years ago for their own local cafe. This is "a combination of sweet and sour, with notes of apricot in a fruity twist which tingles the palate," says marketing manager Nikki Bawn.
"We have a variety of cafés and hotels serving it by the pot or cup, served with or without milk – a little like Earl Grey. Farm shops sell it as a retail product, and those that promote the story do see a correlation with sales figures."
Pudding in a glass
A typically unusual Great Taste winner was Crème Brewlée from Twist Teas. The judges said this rooibos-based blend with dessicated coconut, turmeric and ginger was "an imaginative blend of creamy, woody and earthy, smooth with the gentle heat of ginger, a pleasing infusion."
It does perform in hospitality, reports brand founder Claire Ayres. "Crème Brewlée is part of our Puds Without Sin range, and sells at large volumes across all our cafés, restaurants and hotels. Customers are buying on average 10% more ‘functional' blends, which is why we combined health benefits with something evocative of a pudding, and now the market for this new category is increasing by an extra 5% above that."
- Aimia/Drink Me Chai 01942 408 6000 www.aimiafoods.com
- Clipper 01276 609000 www.ecotone.bio/ecotone-uk
- Dilmah/Henley Bridge 01273 476721 www.hbingredients.co.uk
- Eteaket 0131 226 1292 www.eteaket.co.uk
- Good Earth 0800 387227 www.goodearth.co.uk
- Stokes 01522 523548 www.stokescoffee.com
- Tea From the Manor 0161 337 3126 www.teafromthemanor.co.uk
- Teapigs 020 3141 8495 www.teapigs.co.uk
- Tetley 0800 028 3728 www.tetleyfoodservice.co.uk
- Twinings 01264 313444 www.twinings.co.uk/food-service
- Twist Teas 07498 448348 www.twist-teas.co.uk
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