Like fashion, food and wine, tea is also submissive to by consumers driven trends. Although certain traditional popular tea styles such as the milky black Hong Kong tea, Chinese and Taiwanese multi-brew oolong, Japanese matcha, and the Indian chai still appeal, the millennial youth of the interconnected world calls for a constant supply of new tea beverages. There are as many chai blends as there are branded tea shops in the world, while dried fruit dropped into “tea” in Beach Bellini blends, and hide that sugar coating the fruit morsels! As a result of the whimsy demands the millennial tea trends change. In the West, the health-spurred green tea mania of the previous decade was swallowed by the bloom of rather indulgent bubble tea take-outs. Now we love organic and fair trade tea, but there is much more that a contemporary tea drinker can get. Sweeping the world in my never ending travels, I zoomed in the current tea trends.
Tea is hip as it straddles into the street style
Tea became the new coffee. Boosted by the multimillion acquisition of Teavana by Starbucks in the US, tea hit the mainstream on the Western streets reserved until now for coffee shops. Asia, with millennia of tea heritage is a world ahead, but that is a story to be told in its fullness separately. In the Eastern tea trends zone I am offering just some observational hints. In Australia, the Americas and Europe post-posh afternoon tea and grungy tearoom hangouts, we swallow flavoured teas in plastic or paper take-out cups daily during our urban journeys to and from work. This wasteful habit crept into our sustainability-conscious tea sipping experience by the lazy appeal of convenience and the hip street style. This is changing, at least in the eco meccas such as Colorado, where recycling is taken seriously, but also with the packaging of many up and coming tea brands, where recycled or easily biodegradable materials are used for tea bags. Tea rooms like Samovar in San Francisco serve their iced matcha in reusable glass jars, Plentea also uses glass bottles for their iced teas, while the drinks bar at Wholefoods uses at large recycled paper cups.
Still, it’s cool to slurp an iced tea through a plastic straw or hoover over a take-away matcha latte (Chalait on Manhattan pictured above whips matcha well) while chatting with a friend on a city bench. You can find the Japan-born “twist & shake” plastic bottled matcha drink at many trendy grocers, although sugar-free sencha in a can was the more recent buzz. But, this unsustainable tea trend is burning off. After all, like with wine sipped from a glass, a great tea from a proper ceramic, earthenware or a glass cup tastes much better.
New tea add ons
With the increased competition many tea brands try hard to set themselves apart either by introducing original fragranced tea blends or selling a lesser known, quirky tea to the curious and demanding customers. Popcorn tea anyone? Essentially, the idea spurred from the Japanese genmaicha, popped rice mixed with tea.
Now, most casual cafeterias offer tea next to their assortment of coffee. It started with matcha, then chai and now having just one tea option is almost embarrassing even for the hip coffee shop in Brooklyn or East London. Tea has infiltrated the daily urban pick-up of our caffeinated world. Tea espresso anyone? In Beverly Hills, have a matcha shot at the American Tea Room or enjoy yogurt teas at the Basanti tea room. I am not betting on the yogurt blend becoming a huge trend though.
In the health realm the raw superfood cocktails at Tanya’s Raw in London take care of green caffeine boost and vitamin supply. The omega rich chia seeds are not just added to plant-based yogurts, but they swim in your iced oolong at Plentea in San Francisco. Is chia the new bubble tea? Some of the chewy pearls are made from natural tapioca, while most have artificial additives that ripped scandals in its home country – Taiwan. So beware and seek quality control grades. From Asia came many other optional add ons such as grass jelly, aloe vera cubes, milk pudding, and other crazy edibles, that somehow appeal.
Merging with another food trend – the pure, high quality chocolate – cocoa bean is a popular blend in or brew it alone addition to the infused beverage world. The cocoa shells were the Easter highlight of the Paris-based tea merchant Betjeman & Barton. Their Chocola-tea teas were either blended with the cocoa shells or naturally the chocolate aromas were present in some tea leafs.
Inspired by Asia: tea as cool, not a stuffy affair
To brew the hip street trend that spilled out from Asia, the bubble tea (boba, pearl tea), mediocre tea quality was typically used. Plus, reconstituted powdered milk or at some higher quality tea spots a real cream accompany the chewy iced tea experience. As I wrote in my bubble tea post, the boba appeals to the young, particularly Asian consumers globally. Yet, outside the China towns in London and San Francisco, the cool Urth Cafe in Beverly Hills, fashionable shopping malls in Prague or a major thoroughfare in Nice, the bubble tea vendors mushroomed in the West. In Taiwan, Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok and Tokyo, the street boba has been a firm asset of the daily urban commute, and its casualness has inspired the West. Here, this delayed tea trend – as a liquid and casual dessert – is catching up. Stuck with the matcha trend that swoop most of the developed world, now the Starbucks and Teavana goers alongside the indigenous tea lovers, crave change. Chai, the Indian spice blend with black tea, entered the paper cupped take-away tea force. But that was before we got into oolongs. The semi-fermented, fragrant oolongs simmered in the consumers minds until the boiling temperatures of the late 2016 sizzled them out of their specialist tea rooms. Oolongs are served now at high-end gastronomic restaurants, but also equalise their consumer friendly status at street vendors.
Tea as food: desserts and creative plates
Tea infuses pastry, but also like coffee it became a liquid caloric bomb ready to detonate your belly. Ice cream or sugary syrup in your tea, whipped cream and a crumble topping on your matcha latte? Countering the detox tea blends that transferred from health stores to the pretty boxes of the major tea brands such as Kusmi, now came the wave of tea indulgence. After a long wait, get a naughty version of tea lattes at Bibble & Sip in New York, and OMG! the most decadent cream puffs with matcha or Earl Grey flavours. It is always packed. The matcha dessert beverages in Japan (read more in my bubble tea special) are more like puddings, yet this Japanese infatuation with powdered matcha and roasted houjicha splashed these tea trends beyond the islands’ borders. We also adore the tea-based cookies, cakes, creams, gelato – there is no limit to creativity. In Monaco and Paris, the “master artisan glacier” Pierre Geronimi crafts matcha ice cream, but also a flower tea sorbet. Tea desserts became the obsession of Western pâtissiers as much as they were already popular in Japan. Now smokey, floral and other tea fragrances entered into the pastry world. Matcha crème brulèe or madeleines, houjicha chiffon cake, Earl Grey cream puffs, … Tea has also entered packaged nut milks and savoury recipes. Smokey tones of oolong can enhance duck meat, Chinese long jing has been traditionally used to cook lake fish in, and Western chefs now also embrace tea in their creative plates.
The scales of quality are shifting with the new tea trends
Even the bubble tea lovers now get real tea, not just flavoured powder in their plastic cup. Boba Guys in San Francisco, in Singapore Koi, in Taipei Chun Shui Tang (春水堂), where bubble tea originated, they all generously use high quality natural ingredients in all of their tea creations. San Francisco is a whole level up in the Western tea creativity. Samovar brews tea-to-teller’s luxurious libations leading the tea trends wave in America. Aside of these notable exceptions, artificially flavoured teas are more America than Europe or Australia style. Tea drinkers want the real stuff, not the artificial pastry camouflaged as tea.
We are moving to the more sophisticated oolong era. Tie Guan Yin also known as the Iron Goddess pleases with its roasted, smoky while refreshing peachy flavours in its traditional dark roast style. Directly sourced from the farmers, coming from a made-up grand cru tea plantation, organic if possible and with an engaging story to market it well, these are the emerging tea trends attracting the sophisticated customer. To personally assess the quality of tea read my recent post.
In the age of health-conscious restaurant goers, tea at fine dining establishments has become the wine for lunch. Business lunches now are booze-free, while the sophistication of tea pairing with your meal impresses as much as a bottle of great Burgundy Chardonnay. Fera in London spun the tea pairing experience with their own touch on the brewing or infusing process, charging an appropriate sum for such a time-consuming creative effort. A glass of wine could come cheaper. Walk-in the new affluent Chinese consumers, the tea carpets are rolled out!
Tea rooms reborn as concept stores and tea bars
The birth of the concept tea room brought the hipsters in from the coffee parlours. No more the dungy, dark, incense fumed underground tea rooms that I frequented during my teenage years in Brno and Prague. Now the tea rooms are bright, designed to please the contemporary, pared down minimalism. Miansai, a men’s accessories brand in New York’s SoHo shakes matcha energisers and probiotic kombucha on tap for the pre-Soul Cycle pick me up. Design jewellery brand selling also tea of choice, why not? Umami Matcha Café in Paris offers matcha desserts and casual brunch, but also Japanese groceries to take home.
The best tea rooms employ knowledge-hungry staff feeding your brain with their exotic journeys seeking the best, honest, and the most unusual tea there is. Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco is the nicest design tea room outside Japan I have visited so far. Tea trends also travel from Tokyo where the visual masterpiece Sakurai Tea Experience (also known as Souen), is the newest child of the design-savvy tea and wagashi sweets loving founder of the Higashiya tea room in Ginza, Shinya Sakurai. Jugetsudo‘s more contemporary transplant of their basic Tsukiji market tea shop to Paris, hosts art and ceramics exhibitions in its St Germain basement. Tea rooms now inspire not just the Insta-addicts, but they are also becoming the social hubs for the like-minded. Le Teashop in Monaco offers classes not just with the spotlight on tea but also chocolate pairing, raw juice health benefits or knitting.
Some like Tea Drunk in NYC and Twinnings in London bet on a long tea bar. Old tea brands have modernised. Wang de Chuan Fine Chinese Tea in business since 1862 in Taiwan opened a trendy store in Shanghai. In London, Postcard Teas set a long table in the middle of its tiny tea room nested in the posh Mayfair. In Tokyo, a tea sommelier serves you sencha as you never had it with a healthy bento lunch at Cha Cha No Ma, while in Hong Kong Teavers rejuvenates a residential apartment block with its bright glass-windowed tea room.
Sophisticated, yet time constrained customer in the online shopping age
As tea is becoming more mainstream in the West, the customers are developing a more discerned mindset about the beverage. As a result, our options have never been as wide, which makes the choice a bit more complicated. In the ocean of tea brands something similar to a wine club has emerged. In France La Thé Box offers subscription to a monthly changing delivery of teas, tisanes, sweets and something to read or to enjoy intellectually or visually (watercolour paintings, …) all in one pretty box. Such adventurous concept tea experience delivered to your home rather you coming physically into a store is practical for any busy person. Working with leading tea purveyors and confectioners, the preselected tea box makes a nice gift for any tea connoisseur.
Tea friends: healthy plant-based beverages
Yogi tea was perhaps the first lifestyle or mood suggesting best-selling tea blend. Now the feel-good, wellness herbal tisanes spurred the creative blending zeal at many savvy tea brands. My Cup of Tea in London uses premium directly sourced flowers, leafs, stems and roots in their tasty brews. New York’s Naturopathica, next to its organic cosmetics, spa and meditation rooms brews warm or cold elixirs and tonics with herbs, tea, mushrooms and spices at the Vitality Bar in Chelsea. Tea lattes made with in-house soaked and strained nut mylks (cashew, coconut), Jasmine kombucha on tap and smoothies with tea or herbs holistically complement the well-being business. Neal’s Yard Remedies in London has a similar concept of combining herbal blends to drink and beauty products, yet their own herbal bar is still to be materialised. In Japan the toasted rice genmaicha is blended with locally grown olive leafs in a superb blend from Nagasaki, while Kagae cosmetics sells fragrant beauty tea bags. The Greek mountain tea blended with saffron is now sold abroad by Krokus Kozanis. Tea ideas have no boundaries.
Kombucha brewed with tea is the healthier version of soda. The name is deceptive, since kombu-cha is a very different brew in Japan than the slightly fermented, sugar into vinegar and CO2 bubbles forming kombucha mother eating up a sweetened tea. Kombucha making sets are sold at Wholefoods and other upscale grocers (I’ve been making my own with breaks for about a year now), and kombucha hotels now guard and feed your SCOBY while traveling. Most of the bottled kombucha is “made with love“, and stuffed with vegan “probiotics“. Entering the golden gate of tea trends, there are thousands of kombucha brands nowadays, and with them creative blends as weird as blue algae, Bangkok Detox or cayenne pepper are invented every day.
A growing bunch of restaurants (Korean herbal blends at Rouge Tomate NYC, from Postcard Teas sourced and own garden picks at Fera in London) next to the new tea brands mix the highest quality plants into delectable medicinal potions. In the same package with acai, moringa, guarana and other super-powders you can buy quite expensive tea powders for homemade super-shakes. We will all become supplemented superman and superwomen!
Future tea trends
And what about the years to come? Which tea trends will sway the tea rooms soon?
I predict that aged oolongs and pu-er [pu-erh; pu’er], despite its earthy, intense humus-like black tea aroma, will fascinate the world. Beyond the savvy Chinese investors, who pay millions for a well aged pu’er tea cake, like with wine, the world will start to invest in these age-worthy, fermented teas that like great cheese gain complexity over time. As a limited commodity, and one of the rare teas that get better with age, pu-er will be increasingly cellared like wine in the coming years.
A pun at the finale. Recently, I was amused at the fancy cum cool department store the ABC in New York (my favourite conscious shopping on Manhattan) selling a white pu’er. This contradictory name confuses anyone without a wise distance of an expert. The owner of Tea Drunk told me with a wicked smile: “Ha, that is a bullshit!” Well, I bought the hairy white buds of the ancient tea trees from Yunnan and enjoyed their resinous flowery gentleness, so distant from the typical earthy, mushroomy tones of the typical pu’er tea. Still, it should be called White bud tea. Pu’er is certainly becoming a golden marketing opportunity, so watch out!
Social tea clubs may also become more desirable. If you are interested in improving the quality of your lifestyle with tea, then READ my musing on this theme.