Monday, 29 June 2009

Did tea become lazy?

I once again find myself apologising for the lackadaisical manner in which I tend to my blog. On this occasion however, I do have a valid excuse: I recently got married. Anyway, enough of that and back to the subject of tea.

When my wife and I set up Tea, we didn't do so becasue we thought tea was going to be the next big thing or, as I've heard many food and beverage experts profess, that tea was going to be hot. We actually set up Tea firstly because we both love tea, secondly because we could not get a decent cup on the go while working in the City of London and thirdly because we didn't think we were alone in this thinking. So Tea was effectively born out of frustration at the lack of tea-focused alternatives to the living, breathing coffee shops which were multiplying at unprecendented levels in London at the time. Coffee seemed to be having it all of its own way and tea was becoming a second-class citizen. In Britain? Surely not!

This got me thinking about how coffee had gone from thick, bitter, black stuff served in polystyrene cups to an aspirational consumer product that was being feted by city slickers and celebrities alike. My conclusion: coffee, or rather the coffee industry, made itself sexy. They also quite cleverly invented coffee-related words and expressions that made the wildly naive consumer think that what they were buying into was something more than coffee: a lifestyle. Furthermore, the coffee-based beverages that they were purchasing had such sophisticated names and required such complicated equipment (indeed a dedicated barista) that they could under no circumstance be made by the average consumer in the comfort of their own home.

So as coffee was going through the mother of all makeovers, busy wooing the fashionistas and opinion-formers alike, what was tea doing? Tea basically sat back and watched as if blissfully unaware to the fact that consumers were deserting tea in their droves for skinny lattes, cappucinos and mochas. So did tea become lazy? Let's face it, tea could be forgiven for resting on its laurels. It has been around in some shape or form for millennia and consumed in its current form in the UK for more than 350 years. Certainly there was talk of speciality teas, antioxidants, a British institution etc but there was no cohesive strategy to enable tea to compete on a level with its old foe.

To be honest, there is still no real cohesive strategy although there are an increasing number of innovative tea companies attempting to redress the balance with new flavours, brewing techniques and equipment which are all helping to connect with a new generation of tea drinkers. Of course, there is still room for vintage afternoon-tea parties, paper doylies, bunting, and chintz and there always will be but there also needs to be innovation. I would love to see more tearooms offering a superior tea experience with slick service in great surroundings for the discerning commuter and I truly believe that this will be the case. I would also love to see the more innovative tea brands truly compete with the large household names that account for 99.99999% of all tea sold. To be fair, I am seeing a number of the large tea companies develop new and innovative advertising campaigns although the products advertised appear very familiar. Come on guys, you can do it!

In the meanwhile, we can only hope that the tea innovators continue to innovate and we do not lose an entire generation to coffee.