Go on, go on, go on! That cuppa tea is good for you
As a nation of tea drinkers, we are becoming more aware of the wide selection of teas available on the market and the myriad of health benefits offered by the humble cuppa
International trends may show coffee as a front runner in the hot beverages sector, but here in Ireland we're still a nation of tea drinkers.
In fact, we're the second biggest consumer of the comforting cuppa in the world, with the average Irish person drinking nearly 5lbs of tea annually, right behind Turkey (which clocks in at just under 7lbs per person), while Britain trails behind at around 4lbs.
So, it should come as no surprise that Ireland has been chosen to host the prestigious World Barista Championships in 2016 - or that next month sees the launch of the inaugural Dublin Coffee & Tea Festival 2014.
The event, which takes place from September 12-14 in the RDS, will celebrate every aspect of coffee and tea with a huge variety of activities.
Why do we love tea so much? Well, first there's a psychological aspect to it, according to research carried out by Bord Bia. We see tea, it seems, as "very much a security blanket" reveals Orla Donohoe of Bord Bia's Consumer Division.
"Tea is synonymous with the home, comfort and warmth in a way that perhaps no other food or beverage category is. Tea consumption - at home - is about a mood," she explains.
"It is slow, reflective, contemplative, warm, friendly, relaxed and comforting."
In monetary terms at any rate, it amounts to a heck of a lot of comfort - the value of the all-Ireland tea market is expected to reach an estimated value of €93.2 million this year.
Tea, however, is also experiencing changing market demands, mirroring the seismic changes in the coffee market in Ireland, which in recent decades underwent a transformation, from the homely jar of instant in the cupboard to an eye-watering array of choices ranging from Americano and latte to the more exotic, frappucinos, macchiatos and mochas.
It's no longer just a case of reaching for the traditional cup of black tea to tickle the taste-buds - green tea, rooibos tea, the new energising matcha tea, cha tea and a dazzling array of herbal infusions sold by Irish companies, such as Hancock & Abberton are just some of the products to join the market in recent years.
On top of that there are the funky teas being produced by the quirky Mrs Doyle's Tea, named after Ireland's best-known tea-lady and set up five years ago, in the heart of the recession.
On top of its Decent Irish Breakfast Tea, Mrs Doyle's also produces a Happy Tea - made with ingredients such as hibiscus flower, rose hip and rose petals - a Chill Out Tea with mint, and a Hangover Tea, which counts everything from ginger to milk thistle and even chilli seeds among its ingredients.
To the modern Irish drinker, a cup of tea may well be about comfort and security, but increasingly, it's also about the perceived health benefits.
"Tea drinkers want to know what their tea will do for them, while coffee drinkers tend to be interested in taste," says Anne Abberton of Hancock & Abberton, which produces a range of black tea, green tea and herbal infusions.
"For tea customers, it's very much about health and lifestyle. Consumers are very aware of the antioxidant properties of black and green tea, and the growth area in tea is very much on the green tea sector.
"It's being drunk with different natural flavours such as lemon, mint and berry," she explains.
In our grandparents' day, such a choice was unheard of, but today it's the norm.
The roots of the modern tea-craze lie some 4,000 years ago in the discovery of the stimulating and detoxifying properties of tea by Chinese ruler Shen Nong - and ever since, people have been interested in tea's reputed medicinal properties. Green tea, for example, is said to help with everything from fatigue to digestion and high blood pressure. It's believed to benefit the skin and the immune system, can enhance concentration levels and even help reduce cholesterol.
"Tea also contains a compound called theophylline, which reacts with caffeine and targets not just the brain and the muscles, but also the heart, the kidneys and the respiratory system.
"Coffee is good for your muscles, its caffeine is a stimulant which goes straight to the brain and the muscles," adds Abberton.
Coffee too is full of antioxidants and research has shown that not only can it boost athletic performance and help the liver regulate itself, but can result in a lowered risk of Alzheimer's and dementia. However, for those who don't want caffeine, herbal tea infusions offer a healthy alternative - and they're good for the digestion too, says Abberton.
Meanwhile, traditional black tea also has lots going for it, she says - it contains several antioxidants such as flavonoids, which are good for lowering cholesterol, along with manganese, which has a possibly beneficial effect on cardiac function.
People are increasingly open to the potential health benefits of tea, says Áine Nic an Ríogh, brand director and Number One 'Lovely Girl' with the quirky Mrs Doyle's Tea company. "The cafe culture in Ireland has expanded greatly and there are different teas out there for people to try.
"People now have the opportunity to explore different tastes and they are becoming more aware of the health benefits and of the different varieties of tea that are available."
Between 2009 and 2014 the value of the Irish tea market is estimated to have increased by 16.4pc, driven, say the experts, by strong growth in the non-black tea sector.
Standard black teabags still account for a hefty 71pc of the market, but fruit and herbal teabags are the next largest segment with a 9pc share of the market and a value of around €8.1m in 2013.
Take the Mrs Doyle's Tea Company which, in line with this trend, is currently planning to add the latest entrant to the market, matcha tea, to its range. This tea reportedly gives the drinker an energy boost for several hours after drinking and the health benefits are said to exceed those of green tea, as the drinker ingests some of the leaves.
"The whole health and lifestyle aspect of tea is really coming to the fore," says Nic an Ríogh. "The idea of tea as a healthy drink has rapidly gained popularity in the last few years.
"Twenty years ago, coffee and tea were generally restricted to a very standard range, but now you have a wide variety and people have a chance to try them out," she adds, pointing out that some diners are now choosing teas during dinner instead of wine because they believe the tea complements the food better.
"We've seen a huge rise in the popularity of specialty teas," says Oscar Woolley, MD of the Suki Tea Company which stocks 16 types of herbal tea from an overall range of 40 teas.
"Consumers are much more aware of what they're buying. A few years ago only 6pc of the population were buying these teas. This has grown to around 10pc and is continuing to rise.
"We know people are choosing teas for health purposes, be it for digestion or relaxation, and if they're going to go for a tea, then why not choose the best-tasting tea!
The Dublin Coffee & Tea Festival (Sept 12-14, RDS) offers the opportunity to not only taste the finest teas and coffees in the world, but to check out the latest equipment, meet coffee farmers, talk to over 20 Irish roasters, learn how to brew the perfect cup, and watch the countries best baristas in action.
Some of the competitions scheduled to take place include The National Brewers Cup, the semi-finals of the much-lauded Irish Barista Championship and the National Latte Art Championship.
For more information, log on to www.dublincoffeefestival.com
Health & Living