The British penchant for tea is a national institution, but in a world now dominated by big coffee chains and increasingly complex coffee concoctions our devotion to the humble cuppa is seemingly in decline.
Or is it? There has been unprecedented growth in ‘speciality’ tea over the last decade, but what does ‘speciality’ actually mean? A hundred years ago there was nothing particularly special about loose, whole leaf tea. In many ways we are in fact going back to basics!
The Market Place
Despite the UK Tea Council reporting that 165 million cups of tea are drunk each day in the UK, consumer analysts Mintel reported last year that sales of ‘bog-standard’ black teabags had fallen by more than six percent over the past five years.
However, their report highlighted that sales of speciality tea – ‘loose-leaf, more premium tea’ – are on the up. This growth encompasses not only ‘proper tea’ but also herbal and fruit infusions as consumers seek out something a little more fulfilling than a dusty black tea bag.
Tea was not always the dusty tea bag fare that adorns the majority of kitchen cupboards today. Indeed, it was the invention of the tea bag itself, in 1920s America, that gave rise to a need for smaller tea particles which led to the creation of the CTC (cut, tear, curl) machine. The CTC process creates both substantial granules of tea and very dusty particles for teabags that quickly ensure rich colour and strong flavour.
This production method institutionalised the British taste for strong, less complex black tea to which milk is added and tea plantations were soon developed in East Africa (where they are not affected by seasonality) to match the demand for this type of tea.
A Tradition Revisited
What we are seeing today is in part a return to traditional, more complex flavours with an emphasis on whole leaf tea from Asia.
All ‘proper’ tea (i.e. not fruit or herbal infusions) comes from one variety of plant, the 'Camellia Sinensis'. The tea plant first grew in the Himalayan corridor and continues to flourish there. This is unsurprising given the environmental conditions needed for its two key variations to thrive.
The Chinese have been drinking tea for around 5000 years and far from the British being the first Europeans to bring tea to our continent from Asia, it was in fact the Portuguese and the Dutch in 1610! It was then exported to England by these nations with the first reference to tea being sold in London in 1658.
Tea really took off in the UK with the marriage of King Charles II to Portuguese princess, and tea-obsessed Catherine of Braganza in the 1660s and it was not until 1669 that the East India Company started to order tea directly from China.
It was during the worsening of relations with China in the 1830s, due to the ongoing opium trade, that the East India Company decided to try and grow tea in India themselves. The first shipment of British grown black Assam tea was sold in the London auctions in January 1839.
The increased demand for better tea over the last decade has been driven by a number of factors. These include more health conscious consumers, wider product choice and more interesting flavours, improved manufacture, distribution and retail networks, and tea’s ability to offer a simple, relatively low cost pleasure.
US medical research has promoted the health-enhancing properties of tea, especially green tea, oolong tea and some herbal infusions.
All teas contain high levels of varying antioxidants and an amino acid called L-Theanine which is thought to have the potential ability to reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition and boost mood in harmony with caffeine. Green tea, particularly when grown in shaded conditions, as is often the case in Japan, has particularly high levels of this amino acid.
A bit like wine, the different properties and flavours of the final tea product are determined by the various regions in which tea is grown and the way in which it is processed – from plucking to drying. Indeed, it is the processing that ultimately leads to the various classifications of tea; black, green, oolong and white. Improved manufacture and distribution has enabled access to more interesting flavours once again.
Moreover, the addition of fruit, herbs and spices to tea – which Indians have been practicing since tea was first cultivated in India by the British in the form of Chai – or just on their own as herbal and fruit infusions, also adds a new dimension of flavour to our simple enjoyment of a cuppa.