Topline Trends Tuesday: Is tea cooling down?


Curious about what’s happening with the tea trend? So am I. So, I asked tea aficionado and graphic design expert Adrian Doran to attend a tea event in Toronto and report back to us.

His findings are interesting. While reports show that consumers are as curious as ever about the health benefits of tea, it seems that food service professionals still haven’t realized how to incorporate tea successfully into their commercial concepts:

Tea Report 2009


By Adrian Doran

Ever consulted a wine sommelier at your favourite restaurant? What about their tea sommelier? Do they even have one? More importantly, ever wondered why a meal of exceptional quality and service ends with a tea bag?

At the recent launch of Jeff Fuchs book The Ancient Tea Horse Road, Bill Kamula, instructor at George Brown College Chef School and Louise Roberge, President of the Tea Association of Canada, spoke about the traditions of tea and it’s future – the first batch of graduates from the College’s Tea Sommelier course.

“Tea is where wine was 20 years ago” said Roberge. “Then it was, red or white? Now, we’re aware of region, vintage, so on.” She believes the course will produce the generation of food service professionals that will lead the education of the public.

The tea industry seems to be waiting for a breakthrough. Tea consumption has grown hugely but it’s coming from far behind. A tea-equivalent of Starbucks isn’t even on the horizon and attempts to promote new tea drinks and introduce new customers to classic varieties can feel gimmicky – milk-infused oolong, anyone? There’s even some resistance from the foodservice industry – wine sommeliers seem curious enough about tea to expand their knowledge but not enough to fully commit to a 44 week course.

Kamula admits that the first dozen graduates included few foodservice professionals. “Some are from the distribution side, some are buyers. We had one lady who plans to open a bed-and-breakfast, with afternoon tea, even some Starbucks middle-management but few who plan to go into the restaurant industry.” So, if the market isn’t knowledgeable enough to drive the decisions about tea, it’s going to take a while.

At the end of an exceptional restaurant meal, do you even want to decide between early and late harvest oolongs or are you happy with a bag of Tetley’s?


19 Responses to Topline Trends Tuesday: Is tea cooling down?

  1. danamccauley says:

    Adrian, I thought about this issue a lot since I first read the rough copy that you sent to me and I think that part of the issue is that unlike with wine, restaurants have trouble charging more than $2 for a pot of tea. Consumers expect to spend a lot on good wine so it can be a profitable item that provides budget to send staff to sommelier programs. Tea, on the other hand, can be very expensive if it is very good but most people expect it to be an inexpensive addition to their dining bill.

  2. Amy Snider says:

    My family loves their ‘cuppa-tea’ after any meal but they stick mostly to the very basic (Red Rose). I on the other hand, love to sip an herbal tea before bedtime to relax. Perhaps creating more tea-based after dinner cocktails would be a way to bridge the gap between the cost of fancy teas and those who skip it for a more expensive espresso beverage or glass of port?
    Great post!

  3. Sabrina says:

    I think that a tea sommelier is a wonderful idea. I don’t drink much tea personally but many of my friends do and I sympathize with their frustrations when we go out for dinner and there are so few tea options.

    I think that if fine dining restaurants were to employ tea sommeliers people would be thrilled and those who appreciate good tea and an educated advisor wouldn’t mind paying a bit extra. If this were to become common practice in fine dining restaurants, it might trickle down to many places like franchise restaurants, Starbucks, Tim Horton’s etc. and tea options and knowledge would increase just about everywhere.

  4. I no longer order tea in lovely restaurants — unless I’m going for high tea — because the damned pots dribble all over the place and makes a mess. This is not the way I want to end a meal.

    In most places, tea seems like an after-thought. Servers don’t know what teas are on the menu or the difference between herbal teas and flavoured black teas.

    I find most restaurants struggle to serve decent coffee, so I’m not sure a tea sommelier is going to go over big in restaurants. But a tea house? I’ve been to a few and just love them. Wish there were more.

    • adrian says:

      I’m surprised that we haven’t seen some a North American version of the classic Chinese tea bars. They look cool – the long counter, with the swarm of waiters topping up the cups. I hear there’s one in SF, but that’s it, as far as I know.

  5. Nora Gubins says:

    Thx for even noticing that the concept of tea sommelier is starting to flap its fledgling wings….as one of the first graduates, I can tell you that we do a lot explaining !
    Though the analogy to wine stewards helps people grasp the concept, I’m working towards showing how tea is part of our world culture and how it links people, products, places. Not to mention the amazing tea tales…
    The grads are also developing a guild and I’m pleased to be a founding member. Keep your radar up for tea and don’t expect it in the usual places….
    PS Dana – awesome website

  6. Diva says:

    I am never happy with a bag of Tetley’s. Admittedly, I’m picky, and especially picky about tea. Unfortunately, tea does tend to be an afterthought in most restaurants, but more and more I’m seeing larger, more impressive selections on offer. I’ve not yet come across an actual tea sommelier – but I would be delighted to be offered such a service.

    It may well be a cost issue as you’ve said, Dana, because there probably is a limit to what most consumers will spend on tea. I will happily fork over for a wonderful blend to end the meal, but I may well be in the minority.

    Just this weekend I ordered some “fresh mint tea” to close an amazing dinner at Zahav in Philadelphia. When the tea arrived, the glass contained a bunch of fresh mint and what I assumed to be a mint tea bag … I turned the tag over and the label said Lipton! I was not amused. Every other aspect of the meal was extraordinary … the tea was not.

    • adrian says:

      I’m afraid I’ve had that experience more often than not. Have you ever asked for tea, then had the waiter walk away without even offering any options? I love that: not even an offer of black, green, herbal, decaf – just an assumption that you want Red Rose. (And this was after a terrific meal, in a very good restaurant, too.)

  7. I love tea, and when I order it at the end of a meal it’s just as much for the experience of prolonging the meal as it is for the flavor of what’s in the cup. I often opt for the mint, because I’m not a chamomile fan and those are often the only two herbal options.

    I was so impressed when I was in Victoria, BC a few years ago and spent time at Silk Road:

    I wish my town had a place like that.

  8. Renée says:

    I think it’s interesting and puzzling that tea is being packaged as a semi-new concept, if you wish to call it that. Some have already recognized this deficiency: I don’t doubt small steps are needed to educate the public before any restaurant can make a huge leap like introducing an in house tea sommelier. Until diners feel it’s as important a part of the meal as any course, and that’s not reserved solely for breakfast or afternoon tea, we might not see anyone venturing past the bag or low grade (flavoured) tea blends. I’ve had the fortune of trying some very rare vintages in the home environment; however I can only imagine how much better it would be capping a delicious meal with it when dining out. Tea is an important part of many cultures and it can also help aid digestion. I don’t see that chocolate cake having the same effect.

    Re: restaurants charging a fair margin on the cuppa.
    At the end of the day, it’s really up to the consumer to consider their willingness to go the extra mile. It’s all about the demand. Call me a tea snob if you will, but going to a restaurant just to have a Tetley’s or a mediocre loose leaf blend, is not attractive. I’d rather go without (often times, I do). Now and then I might entertain the Mighty Leaf, but that’s just because it’s the lesser of the evils. I’ve seen some restaurants embrace the tea menu (low and mid-range fare in Toronto; even restaurant centered on the tea concept – think TenRen TeaTime) to offer rare or vintage teas (sadly, not in the city). Recently I came across this in Chicago. At L20 I had a cup of Emperor’s Private Reserve Gyokuro for $15. That might seem steep but it was the mid-priced option vs. i.e. the 1990 vintage reserve Silver Needle Yin Zen Pu-Erh for $32/cup. Again, that’s nothing compared to the 1981 vintage private reserve Masterpiece Aged Pu-Erh for $150 that I spotted on the tea menu at Blackbird the next day for lunch. Unfortunately that was too rich for me (it was in USD! LOL) and I went with a very achievable RTC Sencha for $6. 😛 So again, it begs the question, what are you willing to pay?

    • adrian says:

      You’re correct, options in Toronto are pretty limited – there’s a Ten Ren Tea House in Richmond Hill (7, just east of Bayview) but you should try Pangaea (Bay and Bloor). Full disclosure – Dana’s husband is the chef/owner and a friend of mine, but the range of teas is superb and Martin has really embraced fine tea as part of the menu.

      • Renée says:

        Hi Adrian,
        Thanks for the reply. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken to say that Ten Ren Tea Time is the place for fine tea, as many of them are still low grade items, but it does offer twists on traditional leaves (juice does a good job covering up for low grade leaves). In regards to your other suggestion, yes I’ve been to Pangaea a number of times and am familiar with their tea menu (I do end most meals with a cup of tea, particularly if there’s a loose leaf option). It’s a nice little selection which I imagine pairs fine with the restaurant’s fare, however it’s still conservative. Like I said, you can call me a tea snob… 😉

      • adrian says:

        Ten Ren is quite overpriced. I’m actually having one of their Oolongs right now, and it’s lovely, but twice the price of the equivalent at the Tea Emporium. And whaddup with the pre-packed loose-leaf teas?! It’s going to take me ages to work through this huge, over-packaged box!

  9. Jason Witt says:

    No. Fine dining should include fine tea. Whether it’s coming or not I don’t know and really don’t care. Because to me, that’s not about great tea but about pairing it with food. I know I need to get acquainted with my favorite teas at home, and I don’t expect them to go with all kinds of fancy food.

  10. Jennifer says:

    In the New England area, we have Tealuxe cafes, which are devoted to selling quality loose leaf teas both for on-premise enjoyment and take away. They are a treat for any tea enthusiast. Although I grew up drinking Red Rose, since I started writing a food/drink blog, I’ve explored many tea purveyors and greatly appreciate when a restaurant has a tea menu boasting pots of tasty loose leaf selections. I often decide where to brunch based on whether or not I may enjoy tea with my meal. Oftentimes, the few extra dollars are worth the moments spent sipping—adds to the leisure, I suppose.

  11. Jo says:

    I echo the other posters: I’d rather skip tea at the restaurant than suffer through drippy teapots containing Tetley/Red Rose bags, which likely were made with tepid water from an urn. I don’t have a really sensitive palate, preferring hearty black teas to more delicate Oolong or white teas, but nevertheless, I appreciate the real thing. And you can’t find it in most Toronto restaurants.

  12. adrian says:

    Dana: my sister Katrina has a style/fashion/food blog based in Belfast and she just posted about a new afternoon tea in a local hotel. Check it out:
    “Traditional Irish scones baked from Odlum’s Irish flour were served with homemade Wexford strawberry and rhubarb jam, preserves of Armagh damson and Ballycastle pear and pine nut. Indulgent sweets included citrus drizzle cake, chocolate fudge cake and County Tyrone berry tartlet, all accompanied by a glass of perfectly chilled Louis Roederer NV champagne…”
    Sounds good, right? They’ve made a great effort with the sweets (which is very Belfast) but what’s our tea selection? “…and a selection of teas such as Japan Classic Green Tea, Ceylon and Lemon Verbena.” A green, a ceylon and a herbal! There’s as much selection in the jams!

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