Tea brews up a makeover as youthful and romantic,

The cuppa turns to the future with fresh marketing to get health-conscious youth to put aside their cappuccinos, and the Dubai Tea Trading Centre aims to be a part of this rebranding storm in a teacup.

Rajah Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari Tea Estate, tastes various types of teas at the Makaibari Tea estate, in Darjeeling, India, on Friday, March 13, 2009. Tea shipments from India, the world's largest producer, declined 25 percent in January after output was little changed and a global recession cut demand for the beverage, the state-owned Tea Board of India said. Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg News

Sipping tea has long been an integral part of everyday life from Asia to the UK and beyond. The refreshing beverage has become so popular that it is now second only to the most essential of drinks - water. The English think they have a long relationship with tea because they have been drinking it at all hours of the day for 350 years. But their association with the drink pales next to China, where tea has been brewed up since at least 2737BC, according to legend. The story goes that Emperor Shen Nun was sitting beneath a tree when some leaves blew into the water his servant was boiling. The emperor tried the accidental concoction and liked it. Perhaps because of this long history, tea has an image of a traditional brew, one for the older generation, while younger consumers look to energy drinks and soda. While this image has served tea well for centuries, producers are now looking to revamp its image and corner a fresh market. "That is what tea has been in the past. And that is the position that tea has taken because we all grew up seeing tea as belonging to the old category," says Sicily Kariuki, the managing director of the Tea Board of Kenya, during a visit to the latest Dubai Tea Forum. "We are now pushing tea as a youthful, romantic, available drink." After watching the makeover for its sister beverage, coffee, from a simple brew to a drink blended and frothed into fancy macchiatos and lattes, and pulling in Dh20 (US$5.45) or more a serving, tea is looking to get into the game. To spark this, tea has been increasingly marketed as a health drink, from green tea providing antioxidants to camomile for its healing properties, to blends with specific health benefits such as easing digestion, says Judith Ganes-Chase, the president of J Ganes consulting based in New York. Trendy tea houses have also started popping up in North America and Europe, mimicking the success of coffee houses in Seattle, such as Starbucks. These premium categories of tea helped drive growth in consumption up to the end of 2008, but this slowed last year, the research firm Euromonitor says. The consumption of tea last year grew between a modest 2 per cent and 2.5 per cent to about 3.7 million tonnes, says Manuja Peiris, the chief executive of the International Tea Committee, which is based in the UK. But the growth does not come from the lucrative markets in the West, he says during a visit to Dubai. "There is no growth in Europe, the real growth is in Asia and Africa where tea is concerned." And in the Middle East. Residents of the Middle East consume more tea per capita each year than anywhere else in the world, says Mr Peiris. Last year, the average tea drinker in the region drank 1.33kg, compared with the worldwide average of 530 grams, he says. The second-biggest consuming region is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which includes Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, he says. In the UAE, total sales of tea were 4,472 tonnes last year, up by 9 per cent from the previous year, according to Euromonitor. Perhaps this is why Dubai is aiming to be a hub of the tea trade. The Dubai Multi Commodities Centre established the Dubai Tea Trading Centre (DTTC) in Jebel Ali, which aspires to serve up tea to the roughly 1.5 billion people across these regions. "Geographically, it has got the best location," says Mr Peiris. "It has worked very well. If you take the Middle East and the CIS, which are two of the biggest tea consuming regions in the world, then it is obvious why it has become a hub." The trading volume of the centre, whose biggest trading partners are Sri Lanka, India and Kenya, rose 26.5 per cent last year to a record 7.5 million kg. Total tea trade through the emirate, however, fell 24 per cent last year to 112.3 million kg, from 148.6 million kg in 2008. The drop stemmed from a global shortage of tea due to lacklustre weather in the big producing countries, says Sanjay Sethi, the director of the DTTC. "The reason for the reduction is primarily because of the shortage in crop in Sri Lanka and India," he says. Tea stocks were lowest during the first eight months of last year, but producers made up for it in the last few months, he says. The lag in production pushed some tea trades into this year, he says. "By the time the tea flowed into Dubai, [the trade] will probably fall into this year." The weather patterns so far this year are pointing to healthier crops, producers say. And the DTTC is adding facilities, such as a Dh13 million envelope-and-tag printing facility for tea, aiming to draw more trade, Mr Sethi says. However, the tea industry will have to make a joint push to change the perception of the beverage to get more consumers drinking. Ms Ganes-Chase says tea is facing steep competition from other drinks. Water has gone well beyond just the standard Evian or Arwa, to being infused with flavours and vitamins, such as Masafi's water with a hint of jasmine. Energy drinks, from Red Bull to Power Horse, are also flooding the scene, she adds. Red Bull, in particular, is attracting young consumers with its savvy marketing, such as sponsoring the recent Red Bull Air Race on the Abu Dhabi Corniche. "Speciality teas are evolving in a very similar manner," she says. "But it is probably not quite as organised as the speciality coffee trends that we have on a global basis." Tea producers are also hoping that technology will help to make their brews quicker, so consumers can grab their cup of tea and go, rather than something to be made leisurely. "There needs to be investment in technology to help tea to be more available than it is now," says Mrs Kariuki. "You haven't seen vending machines, like you have for coffee, you haven't seen a lot of tea being taken out of the home. Tea is seen as a traditional home drink." aligaya@thenational.ae