Tea is having a moment – if you can call double digit, year on year rise in sales over the last five years a moment. Forget tea bags, forget supermarket stuff and the initials PG; think single varieties, loose leaf, small producers, interesting teas. That increase in sales is what Fortnum & Mason (the grand grocers) is saying about its teas, and every other fine tea merchant is happily recording the same thing: people are buying more and better…young as well as old; Brits as well as visitors from China and India.
Mariage Frères, the historic Parisian tea house opened in London last year – a five storey building with an enormous wall of teas – and Franck Desains, its deputy managing director, is already talking about sales doubling. “Things are changing very fast”, he says. ”People are very much interested in tea…they want to be educated.”
Another man whose company sells the most expensive teas in London talks about an increase of a third in the amount they sold last year. It’s a tiny share of overall tea consumption, of course, to customers who can afford £40 or more for a 90g tin.
But it’s not unusual; last year two large tea merchants opened in London – besides Mariage Frères, there was the Singapore-based tea emporium, TWG, with a big shop in Leicester Square. Their ranges run from fun fruity blends in fashion tins to vintage puerhs and rare Darjeelings. An analysis of UK tea market trends by Jenier tea this year suggests that nearly a third of people say that they’re willing to pay more for quality tea and to make it loose leaf. As the report observes, “communication about what make the tea special and high quality is important”. And of course, there’s a huge variety of herbal tisanes besides camellia sinensis; a friend swears by Summerdown mint tea, made in Britain.
There are lots of reasons why tea is a happening beverage. The foodie culture generally: people are just more interested in food and drink, and prepared to spend more on it. Ottolie Cunningham, the Fortnum and Mason in-house tea-expert thinks that people are engaged by the stories behind the product – “there are lots of exciting stories” – like the provenance and place, the means of harvesting and production, the way it’s made, the kit for making it. She also thinks people are drinking (alcohol) less – that’s true; especially millennials – and they find that tea more interesting than most alternatives. Just like old times then: Victorian teetotallers used to salute “the Cup that Cheers but Does Not Inebriate”.
Then there’s the stimulus from abroad. There are lots of visitors – and residents – here from India, China (and Hong Kong), Japan and the Far East. “They’re very educated tea drinkers”, says Fortnum’s Ottilie Cunningham, “but of their own tea. They don’t know so much about others”. They are prepared to spend a great deal of money on the best tea – that raises the game for everyone. But interestingly. Fortnum’s and others find that when they get to London, they like to experiment. The Chinese in China drink their own tea; here they go off piste with Indian or Japanese varieties.
Franck Desain finds, like other tea merchants, that people mind about the condition of production – “it’s very important.” And the best tea retailers will usually deal directly with tea farmers and estates rather than buying at auction; that means you know far more about workers’ conditions.
Jamal Lalani, who sells rare teas to restaurants as well as individuals, says the interest in serving tea with food which goes way beyond breakfast and afternoon tea; “You couldn’t serve coffee with every course of dinner from amuse bouche to dessert; you can with tea”. (I’ve written about this before in this magazine.) The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s place, offers a tea sommelier as well as wine sommelier.
The comparisons between tea and wine are obvious. Ottolie Cunningham talks about tea in terms of terroir, estates, climate, vintage and appearance: exactly as we talk about wine. And interestingly, age comes into play too. With Puerh teas, age is a plus… I tried a 2000 vintage, and very good it is. But in general, says Ottolie, the fresher, the better; ideally tea should be no more than a year old.
We met for a tasting of the Fortnum’s 2019 First Flush Darjeeling, the tea equivalent of finding out what this year’s claret is like. And it’s very good…slightly lemony, with a lovely golden colour.
It’s a seasonal product, she says. The picking season begins in April and the pickers return to the bushes every ten days to a month…so the first flush comes out in May and June.The second flush is a little heavier and it comes on the market in July and August. The first flush costs £37.50 a box, 90g, and already it’s nearly sold out. See what I mean?
Tea is embedded in the drinking culture, but the good stuff has never been so various or so fashionable. Enjoy!