Tuesday 16 January 2018

Good news for Mrs Doyle -- tea looks like being the new coffee!

David Robbins turns over a new leaf and reports on the boom in speciality teas -- now an €80m industry

David Robbins

The Irish love affair with tea has been a long and passionate one. Even before Mrs Doyle was pressing the beverage on all and sundry in Father Ted, we needed little persuasion to sit down and have a cuppa. Ah go on. OK, we will.

Recently, however, the blissful simplicity of our relationship with tea has become a little more complicated.

Now, if you order a cup of tea in a café or restaurant, you are likely to be asked: "What kind of tea?" And once you start to ponder the answer to that, you're done for.

Speciality teas are making a strong bid for our affections and, as Camille O'Flanagan of Barry's Tea confirms, they're doing well.

"The market for everyday tea is healthy, but static, but there is growth in the speciality tea market," she says.

This development is leading some in the tea trade to ask a question that would send Mrs Doyle into a fit: is tea the new coffee?

Some tea merchants and blenders believe that 'posh' tea -- Earl Grey, Pu-erh, Darjeeling, Assam and the like -- is about to enter a boom just the way coffee did 10 years ago.

Back then, instant coffee was the norm, but as consumers became more educated, ground coffee took off, and speciality coffee shops opened up on every street corner.

The growth of speciality tea "is very like the early days of coffee," says Bobby Kerr, owner of the Insomnia chain of coffee shops, and panel member on Dragon's Den TV show.

"This is exactly what happened with coffee 10 years ago -- people started with instant coffee and then got more education and progressed onto ground coffee," says Jorg Muller of award-winning speciality tea company Solaris.

"Speciality, herbal and fruit teas are the rising stars of the Irish tea market," says Bewley's master tea blender Paul O'Toole.

Understanding the Irish tea market requires a strong mental and physical constitution, and a smattering of Mandarin. Basically, black tea is graded according to the size of the leaf.

The tea used for everyday teabags comes from the lowest grades, called fannings and dust.

This may sound alarming, but it refers to size rather than quality.

Whole-leaf teas are at the top of the grade system, with Super Fine Tippy Golden Flower Orange Pekoe One the head honcho.

Green teas are graded differently, with Young Hyson at the top.

Black tea is fermented, rolled, dried and graded, whereas green tea is unfermented.

Oolong, Pu-erh and white teas undergo variations of this process.

The connoisseur can, much like his wine counterpart, then become interested in single-estate teas or hand-picked leaves.

And that's just the tea that comes from, well, the tea plant.

Rooibos tea (Afrikaans for "red bush" and made from a shrub that turns red after five years and dies), herbal teas (mint, camomile, nettle) and fruit teas are all part of the growing speciality tea market.

"Tea is in a healthy position," says Camille O'Flanagan.

The market for everyday tea -- she baulks slightly when I call it "builders' tea" -- is stable at about €78m a year. The market for speciality tea is worth approximately €7m a year, and has more than doubled in the last five years.

Irish people are second in the league of world tea drinkers behind Japan, and research by Barry's shows that we drink on average five cups per day.

So for speciality teas to take over this market is a big ask. Camille O'Flanagan can't see it happening.

"People are definitely looking for something different. They've travelled, they're more health conscious, maybe they want to cut down on caffeine, so they're trying speciality teas.

"But everyday black tea still accounts for 91pc or 92pc of the market."

Insomnia's Bobby Kerr agrees, even though he has seen an increase in the sales of speciality teas like chai lattes in his shops.

"Speciality teas have come a long way, even in the past 24 months," he says.

"It will keep growing, but I think it will remain a minority taste."

Martin Mehner, who runs the House of Tea in the CHQ centre in Dublin's IFSC, is also sceptical.

"Yes, there is a boom in speciality teas, but basically we're just catching up with what's happened in other countries."

In Germany, for instance, 80pc of tea sales is in the speciality area, while 20pc goes to everyday tea in teabags.

Martin, who served me a beautiful, hand-sewn flowering jasmine tea when I visited, is gradually converting Irish people to "proper" tea.

"Ninety per cent of people are not familiar with speciality teas, but once they have the information, they are happy to buy them and try them at home," he says.

Paul O'Toole of Bewley's agrees.

"With coffee, it started with the café culture, when people were getting better coffee in cafés than they had at home.

"Irish people already drink top quality tea at home, so I can't see the same thing happening.

"From our figures, the total tea market is about €82m, and 86pc of that is black tea, and 14pc is speciality teas. Speciality tea is growing all the time, but it won't take over from black tea."

The Irish love affair with tea is set to continue, but with an exotic twist. Mrs Doyle take note.

Irish Independent

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