Tea is enjoying fresh interest in virtually every country. Even in traditionally coffee dominated territories, it is becoming a part of the beverage choice, writes Jane Ram.

A new generation is embracing tea with great gusto, driving the speciality segment. “They are discerning, they demand quality and authenticity along with genuine commitment to ethics and provenance,” says Dilhan Fernando, CEO of Dilmah, a Sri Lankan family business of which his father is Chairman and his brother Malik a Director. “The mainstream segment continues to dominate the global tea category although growth in the niche, speciality area is significant.”

As retailers in particular try to force commoditisation on tea by insisting on heavy discounting, Fernando is convinced that the new generation will fuel further growth in speciality tea based on their understanding of its relevance to 21st-century lifestyles.  “Tea has no equivalent in its therapeutic and protective benefits and the variety in taste and other desirable characteristics that artisanal tea offers.  These attributes are engaging a new generation in tea and will define the tea category in the next decade.

“Tea was first discovered as a medicine and its appeal has always been unique and relevant whilst the commoditisation of the retail tea industry created a situation where tea is sold more on price than on quality.  The changing consumer and eventually the enlightened retailer mind-set will likely unleash that potential for tea. “

Quality rules

“Consumers increasingly desire and appreciate superior quality,” agrees Catherine Archer, recently appointed Managing Director of London-based JING tea. “We have never pinned our hat on bold medicinal claims, but insist that the best tea for you is the one that you enjoy and savour the most. Tea is a great source of antioxidants, and also a drink that delivers an amazing level of complexity and variety that can be explored by the average tea drinker and connoisseur alike. Beyond the ‘British Cuppa’ there’s a whole world to explore, discover and enjoy. Origins will be increasingly important as people understand the impact the terroir can have on taste.”

Both Malik and Archer agree on the need for more transparency in the tea industry. “Across the market, the need to demonstrate how the tea they are selling is protecting and enhancing the lives of those working within the industry will become increasing critical. Consumers are highly conscious of the impact that their purchasing habits have,” says Archer.

Andrew Lau is the fourth generation of his family to run Hong Kong-based Wah Fong Tea Company, founded by his great grandfather. A high-flying international pharmaceutical executive for 30 years, Lau took over as Wah Fong’s President in 2003 on what he describes as his “retirement”. He turned the manufacturing and marketing expertise gained during his first career to good use as he revolutionised the packaging of tea. Traditional tea bags are made of paper and filled with chopped tea leaves or tea dust, but real tea drinkers appreciate fine aroma and taste, says Lau. He developed special mesh sachets or pouches of Japanese PET in flexible sizes. “They have revolutionised the way five-star hotels and high-end restaurants, even Cathay Pacific flights serve tea in large pots,” says Lau. “The sachets are convenient and elegant and they save 2 minutes of labour per pot, which translates into an annual saving of millions of dollars.”

Reinventing the beverage

Unlike most tea companies who are traders, Wah Kwong is unique as the SAR’s only herbal tea manufacturer. “Tea is currently trying to reinvent itself to appeal to the younger generation,” says Lau. “Tea appreciation is becoming trendy. Ways of enjoying tea have greatly extended in recent years, like hibiscus iced tea, tea smoothie, tea ice-cream or even tea cocktails. Selection of a tea blend is becoming an important element of brand building, therefore, hotels are willing to dig into tea blends to provide better service. There’s great scope for education.”

As with all of our teas, we recognise how influential the terroir or individual origin is in the delivery of taste, says Archer. “After a long search, we found the perfect tea garden in Kagoshima, Japan, one that’s in conversion to organic status (a process that can take up to 3-years) and where the tea bushes are cultivated without pesticides and fertilisers. This new Matcha is exceptionally creamy, sweet and without that hint of bitterness or soapiness that can be experienced in lower grades.

”To ensure the superior flavour profile of this special tea reaches our end consumers, we source small batch quantities and the high quality tencha base leaves are kept in cold store and transported to Uji – home to traditional Japanese mikage stone mills – where they are finely milled to order.”

Another tea of which Archer is proud is JING’s unique Red Dragon black tea, from a cultivar traditionally used in oolong teas from the region of Yunnan, known for its black teas. “Skilled tea masters have processed the leaf in a way that renders a deeply complex and fruity black tea, with a syrupy finish. The artisanal producers are a true inspiration – marrying the history and heritage of this category which has inspired the world for thousands of years with their detailed knowledge and skill to produce teas with outstanding and unique flavour profiles.”

Tea is enjoying fresh interest in virtually every country. Even in traditionally coffee dominated territories, it is becoming a part of the beverage choices of consumers, says Fernando. In 2013 Dilmah launched a new concept, t-Lounge by Dilmah. The idea has proved popular in Tehran, Dubai, Brunei and in Andorra (the first venture into Europe). “The t-Lounges operate according to Dilmah’s uncompromising commitment to quality, authenticity, freshness, purity of origin and the philosophy of making business a matter of human service,” says Fernando. “They provide guests with a unique and engaging tea experience around a selection of authentic, ethically made and pure origin teas, tea-inspired beverages and tea-inspired and tea-paired foods.

“We do not have huge commercial aspirations since the perfect tea experience demands attention to detail in relation to everything from water quality to brewing method, presentation and explanation of the teas.  However our t-Lounges are growing internationally and represent our proposition to the increasingly tea-inspired centennial and millennial generations.”