In January this year, tea growers were dismayed to read a flurry of reports announcing the demise of black tea. The source was the head of one of the world’s largest consumer goods businesses, who had – in his first year as CEO of a multinational corporation with over 400 different FMCG brands – discovered that consumers of black tea may be in danger of extinction.
“The black tea drinkers are getting older and will start to fall over, and that is the fundamental problem… younger consumers are looking for novel experiences, and the consumer of ‘builders’ tea’ was someone who was born out of habit and was not into experimentation and trying new products.”
He added emphasis to his warning: “Insanity is carrying on doing the same thing and looking for different outcomes, and for 10 years we have been trying to ignite growth into our tea business unsuccessfully, so today we are initiating a strategic review.”
Last week another freshly-minted CEO of a different multinational corporation made a similar proclamation of the impending death of black tea, adding though that the opportunity in tea lay in ‘speciality’ and herbals. That’s one perspective.
There’s another flurry in the media right now, with just days to go before a new year dawns. This one is also about tea – indirectly though – and it features scientists, marketers and experts of various hues trying to predict the future of food. There are a few threads that are common to most of these trend forecasts – healthy, plant based, calorie and sugar free, natural, artisanal, diverse food and drink will be the rage, especially amongst Gen Z.
How is that about tea? Tea is uniquely rich in natural, plant based antioxidants, and a cup of good quality tea – black, oolong or green tea – will deliver more antioxidant goodness than the more common go to health food – broccoli, vegetables or fruit. Four to five times more according to research. And that means that while leafy vegetables are good for you, tea is likely to be uniquely beneficial, protecting us from heart disease, cancers, diabetes, dementia and more.
Nature (the international journal of peer reviewed research on science and nature) last year referred to evidence that is backing up ancient wisdom about the health benefits in tea. In an article entitled ‘The science of tea’s mood-altering magic,’ the journal refers to the beneficial impact of tea on stress, and how L-Theanine could help the brain regenerate, reduce stress, increase alertness and mental health.
Importantly tea is natural. In Sri Lanka, we handpick our teas to harvest only the tender shoots, we also make our tea in an artisanal and natural process that is unchanged for centuries. It begins and ends with the leaf. There is no chemical additive or processing involved beyond the natural alchemy of wind, sunshine, rainfall, soils and very traditional rolling, fermentation, drying, eventually sifting and tasting. That means tea is not just natural, but naturally diverse in its taste, textures and flavours. The individuality of teas that are handmade in different parts of even a single estate, imbues tea with the novel experiences that one of the gentlemen predicting the end of tea suggests tea lacks. A good quality tea, demands expertise in every aspect, from tea picker to teamaker, and it elegantly echoes the natural environment in which it is grown. That is the blessing of terroir which is the foundation of yet another feature of what lies ahead for food and beverage – the story behind what you consume.
Then there are tea cocktails, mocktails, the compelling pairing that tea offers food from cheese to fish, meat and salads. Those are not simply pairings devised by marketers looking for a sale, because tea wholeheartedly embraces food – texture, flavour, fragrance – and then cleanses the palate, balancing sweetness and aiding digestion. That makes the pairing more than just tasteful, as tea has a functional synergy with food, that is the basis for its natural goodness.
Tea is made from one plant – camellia sinensis – and is yet so varied in its character that it forms near infinite variety in aroma, taste and appearance. With broader perspective a sensible person might even conclude that the terroir, plant-based, natural, artisanal diversity, the contemporary mixology and gastronomic appeal and wellness that tea offers makes it the most on trend beverage for 2021.
There is a problem with that, again one of perspective. As tea growers, we love tea, and our earnest desire is to share the pleasure, taste adventure and goodness in a cup of fine tea. We focus on quality and we take pride in producing beautiful teas for the world to enjoy. That means we cherish freshness, and strive to pack our teas garden fresh so we can protect their flavour and antioxidant goodness.
There are a plethora of alternatives – all cheaper – but love for tea is why we pack our teas at source in Sri Lanka, honouring the purity of origin in our teas in spite of the substantially cheaper, and more profitable options of mixing tea from different origins to maximise profit, using cheaper offshore production. Unfortunately that is the direction that most brands have taken to reduce cost. As any producer knows, the cheaper way is rarely the better one.
Tea is a sensitive, natural herb, which demands respect before it yields taste and goodness. It does not adapt well to the pressures of cost reduction and compromise in taste, goodness, ethics or safety are inevitable consequences of an emphasis on profit over quality.
Tea was once prized as a wonderful, healthy and exotic herb. It has not changed, and is still nature’s gift, yet from certain perspective, the herb progressively lost that allure. The change was not in tea but in the perspective – and actions – of the businesses which bought over the tea businesses that made tea great, and then changed their direction from passion to profit.
The gentlemen quoted above refer to builders’ tea and others to everyday tea, both seemingly dismissive of a prized herb about which poets have composed more accolades than eulogies. There is an ominous edge to that perception too – when the people who influence giant corporations, wielding disproportionate political and commercial power perceive tea to be a commodity, that impacts the lives of millions of producers.
Their opinion is what drives the destructive practice of half price offers, buy one get one free and a host of other inducements. The race to the bottom that one can see in every category, has an impact on the survival of producers. Discounts are not funded by retailer or brand – they are the result of compromise, in quality, sustainability or the lives of producers, usually a combination of all three. A tragic perspective on one of the world’s most natural, healthy (and affordable) beverages.
If tea were so mundane as these terms imply it would surely deserve to fade away. For someone with the right perspective though, it is anything but mundane. Tea is a herb with a heritage of 5,000 years, first a medicine and now an unmatched beverage, in reality neither builder’s tea nor everyday tea.
In this case the insanity mentioned above is in the commoditisation of a herb that is more relevant and both functionally and sensorially pleasing to our lifestyles today than ever before. For our health, to manage stress, for great taste, for purity, to dignify food and deliver inspiringly natural hospitality experiences and more.
Tea drinkers are not in danger of falling over as one CEO suggested, but they are signalling their distaste for what the corporations that are forecasting the end of black tea, have done to make it so.
Anyone who has tasted the soaring brightness in our Nuwara Eliya Pekoe, the woody intensity in our Premium Ceylon, savoured an oaky Dimbula or sampled the thousands of different terroirs that we produce on our island will probably agree. Tea is not the problem.
This article was taken from the Daily FT