It’s an exciting new world for the tea industry, never before has the world’s most popular beverage been more popular.
Not only that, it is premium teas (organic and otherwise) that consumers are increasingly imbibing.
What’s behind the surge in tea’s popularity? Primarily (for North American consumers at least) it is perceived health benefits, or at least the desire for something healthier than coffee. Of course even in that regard not all teas are created equal.
Many great things have been attributed to green tea. Some say imbibing green tea will prevent cancer cells from growing, or that it will help you lose weight and myriad other claims to it being some sort of wonder elixir.
There is of course no scientific evidence for any of the above, but drinking green tea certainly isn’t unhealthy. And there are health benefits in consuming it, such as proven antioxidants that defend the body against disease, it may also reduce blood pressure and help fight cardiovascular disease.
What makes green tea so healthy is catechins, the aforementioned antioxidants, which are present in abundance in green tea due to the under- processing of the tea leaves.
Green tea originated in China, but is now grown over most of Asia and the Subcontinent. Some of the most sought after varieties are found in Sri Lanka and Japan, although most tea growing countries have their own version of a premium green tea. And according to Scott Boyd manager of the Granville Island Tea Company in Vancouver, Chinese green tea varietals are still some of the best in premium green tea.
“Dragon Well, or Longjing tea is generally considered one of the best green teas, of course it’s all somewhat subjective and depends who you ask. In the tea world there are always some who will claim their tea is best, or their preferred tea is best. But tastes vary, Dragon Well is smooth, light, a slight mineral flavour and has a little sweetness to it,” says Boyd.
Dragon Well is listed as one of the China Famous Teas, a ranking of best teas originating in China, all with long historical roots, some, like Dragon Well, verging on legendary.
“Chinese teas are still among the world’s best, there’s a very strong tradition there and they produce some very, very nice teas.”
Usually a superior blend is sold loose, with some teas at U.S tea chain Teavana or Canada’s David Tea’s are upwards of $20 per 100 grams (USD).
“We go to tea expos and through wholesalers discover some great teas, but some just cost too much, so we can only keep a limited amount in stock for certain customers. The upper echelon of tea a cionados who really pursue the best quality teas and value them,” says Boyd. Granville Island Tea Co. usually sells loose tea in bags of 50 – 400 grams. But does quality tea have to be sold loose?
“Well as they say, if you put bad tea in a tea bag you get bad tea, if you put good tea in a tea bag you get good tea. Really it comes down to infusion. Teas in tea bags use smaller leaves and actually require less tea, say 1 gr per cup as opposed to 4 grams loose.” But he cautions when it comes to tea bags that often times consumers may be paying for the packaging rather than the quality of the tea itself.
“With loose tea, you know you are only paying for the quality of the tea.”
Tom James, founder and co-owner of Urban Tea Merchants (also based in Vancouver) is very excited about the growing North American market for premium teas.
“Tea is the number one consumed beverage in the world (after water) but it’s taken time to change North American habits,” says James. “In China, Japan, India tea isn’t just a drink, it’s an experience. There’s a great deal of tradition and history that makes up their tea culture, for them it’s a daily ritual.”
James says the North American habit of consuming a quick coffee is changing.
“We see that it is the Asian communities in North America who have really championed premium tea here, and had an appreciation of its traditions. They were also our primary market, and there was an automatic acceptance of our products in that market. But we’re seeing a change of habits in the wider market,” says James. “Now it’s a younger market, and a huge, huge potential for growth.”
He’s not sure if the rise in North American tea drinkers is actually based on potential health benefits. But he is sure most tea drinkers are looking for quality, and they are quite sophisticated and knowledgeable when it comes to their beverage of choice.
“Green tea? Well like any tea it’s a question of taste,” says James when asked about the popularity of green teas.
“As with most teas it’s grown in different countries, and all countries use different processes, which results in a different taste. It’s like buying a bottle of wine, grapes produced into wine will be different in Australia, France or California.”
There is also a very distinct type of green tea that has been introduced to North America in recent years, so distinct it is a flavour unto itself, Matcha green tea.
For those unfamiliar with Matcha, Scott Boyd explains.
“Matcha tea uses only select green teas, only certain grades work as Matcha,” says Boyd. “The Japanese style of Matcha uses the highest quality green tea that is then stone ground into a very fine powder. Matcha, of any style, is the only tea you blend in water, rather than steep and infuse. It’s whisked into water and you actually drink the leaf, and gain a lot more health benefits from it. Although it is very high in caffeine, almost as much as a cup of coffee, but it’s a slow release so you don’t get the peak and crash like coffee, so more of a sustained energy, which is obviously a benefit.”
Blends are also growing in popularity as tea drinkers become more exposed to an ever growing number of varietals.
Different blends of green teas can be created, different blends of blacks teas, and yes, green and black tea, as well as white, can be blended.
“Tea is not cut and dried (pun not intended) there are so many variables. We have to educate our sta since it is a very broad subject and can be somewhat mystifying at first,” says Boyd. “Plus there is a lot of misinformation out there, for example people think green tea doesn’t have caffeine.”
Urban Tea Merchants actually employ a tea sommelier to help guide customers through the myriad tea offering from around the world that they sell.
And soon Urban Tea Merchants will partner with TWG Tea of Singapore, which sells premium high quality tea around the globe, offering over 800 single estate teas.
Founded in 1837, TWG Tea represents perhaps the pinnacle of fine tea merchants. But coffee giant Starbucks have certainly woken up to the potential of the North American tea market, acquiring Teavana for $620 million USD in 2012.
Teavana sells loose leaf tea and packaged tea, but for the most part, not of the same quality as TWG Tea or Granville Island Tea Co., Urban Tea Merchants or the many more fine tea retailers across North America and beyond.
However, as we saw with Starbucks’ coffee empire, they didn’t have to sell the best quality coffee, just coffee that was better than what most North Americans were used to.
It remains to be seen however if Starbucks’ subsidiary can compete with the history and tradition of tea that smaller retailers embrace, and pass on to their customers.
As Boyd and James agree, and as the continued success of venerable TWG Tea demonstrate, tea is more than a drink, it is a tradition.