By Adeline Teoh & Me
Throughout the 19th century Australians consumed the most tea per capita in the world; today, we barely rate on a world scale. But is the consumption of specialty tea on the rise?
Australia punches well above its weight in quality when it comes to drinking coffee thanks to the Italian immigrants who arrived post-World War II, bringing the cult of the bean with them. Chinese-Australians, however, have not had the same effect on specialty tea despite having a longer history of migration to Australia—perhaps because we had already inherited so much of our tea culture from the British.
Our British inheritance is still noticeable today, says David Parnham, President of the Australasian Specialty Tea Association (AASTA). "There's still an English influence, but it's evolving. While FMCG sales are still dominated by traditional black teas, there has been a strong growth in herbal blends, and in food service chai has become more and more popular. It's a time of much-needed transformation and growth."
"Australian tea culture generally follows the English style of tea drinking and overall we are typical 'black tea with milk' drinkers," confirms Sharyn Johnston, founder of Australian Tea Masters and the Australian International Tea Expo. But this is changing as tea drinkers begin to reject paying for a teabag in a cup compared to the barista-made brews of their coffee-loving companions, she believes. "With more and more focus on the health benefits of green tea and the specialty coffee market well established, there is a need to have teas that can complement the specialty coffee menus."
While the multinationals still dominate Australia's most popular tea brands, particularly Unilever, which owns Bushell's, Lipton, Lan-Choo and T2, Sharyn sees a number of smaller brands carving a niche in the specialty sector. "There are many new players coming into the market. The larger tea brands have been affected by the niche specialty tea brands and this will continue."
“The Australian tea industry is currently thriving with more interest than ever from tea-loving consumers ready for unique and high-end specialty teas," says the proprietor of The Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar, an AASTA member. "Companies are responding and new, boutique tea blenders are popping up left, right and centre, which is really exciting to see."
Tea is cool
In addition to the burgeoning number of cottage brands and small specialty tea blenders growing the tea industry, there are also many avenues to increase tea-drinking from the consumer side. One strangely underrepresented sector is iced tea, says Corinne. "I think the climate is an interesting aspect of the Australian tea culture. We’re into iced tea, but nowhere near as much as the Americans and many avoid tea in the warmer weather."
She believes tapping into this will open up yet another segment. "Iced tea is a great opportunity for educating tea lovers on the versatility of tea as a cold beverage from your standard iced tea through to things like tea-based milkshakes, smoothies and other interesting uses of the leaf."
David says this will include the "growth of ready-to-drink beverages including tea as an ingredient". Whether your cafe buys in its cold tea beverages or makes its own, iced tea will be big and will lead to "an increase in size of tea-related beverages as share of market," he believes.
Having a strong foodie culture will also be a game-changer as more chefs become interested in tea and food pairing and using tea in their cooking, adds Sharyn.
"We’ll see tea feature in everything from sweet and savoury cooking through to cocktails and canapes," Corinne concurs. "I think we’ll see a number of tea trends including the continuing growth of the matcha craze. Cold brew and carbonated tea will also trend, as will the use of unique ingredients for blending."
Another co-development is the simultaneous rise in industry education alongside the maturing of the market. This has led to an increase in the demand for better quality specialty tea. "Where tea consumers are more educated there's a greater calling for information on provenance and a move towards sustainable and healthy alternatives. We see a greater breadth of teas being offered in food service, including more specialty teas," says David.
As a result, the hospitality industry has responded by training staff for tea service and/or introducing more refined and automated tea brewing equipment as the evolution of technology allows. "There's now a scientific approach to tea infusion used by many cafes," he notes.
Sharyn confirms that interest in training has grown. Two years ago, Australian Tea Masters received accreditation for a tea sommelier course, creating new standards for tea service within the hospitality industry. "The interest in the classes we hold at Australian Tea Masters is growing rapidly. With education, people will become more interested in experiencing new and different teas, with expectations of better tea offerings and tea service."
Tea versus coffee
An interesting side effect of tea education is an emerging competitive streak. Where coffee has benefited from having its superstar baristas compete on the world stage in coffee championships, from coffee-making performance to latte art, tea has had no such profile in Australia until recently.
In May, AASTA, as part of its international advocacy, co-sponsored the second WTC China National Specialty Tea Brewers Cup successfully in Shanghai. This World Tea Championship competition has really helped increase the profile of specialty tea to the China Youth Market, moving it away from the world of doilies and into a more serious arena. "The rise of tea competitions engages consumer interest and increases media interest," David remarks.
AASTA agrees. "These type of events will help change the culture and make people aware of how many teas there are out there in the world and help create excitement. I think we will see an increase in tea bars, tea menus will become more interesting, and we will become more aligned to coffee."