Tea blends: healthy, creative and in hot demand

Wholesome brews with creative flavour blends are all the rage among tea drinkers

Matcha fine powdered green tea (iStockphoto.com) *** Local Caption ***  al23fe-matcha-main.jpg

Jasmine Dragon Pearls, Forest Formosa, Lemon Verbena, Honey Jade and Banana Bee all sound like elaborate hand soaps, but are in fact the names of blends by speciality tea companies such as Roqberry, Newby and Golden Tea Leaf. Tea is said to have been discovered by Chinese emperor and herbalist Shen Nung in 2737 BC, and introduced to Europe in the 15th century, when the Portuguese exported it from China, along with silk and ceramics. And it appears our love affair with the aromatic leaves of the evergreen Camellia sinensis shrub is not going to end any time soon, with tea now being the second most consumed drink in the world after water.

In 2018, the global consumption of tea amounted to 273 billion litres, according to Statista, and it’s forecast that we’ll be consuming 297 billion litres annually by 2021. What’s more, many seem to be ditching their daily coffee fix in favour of health-boosting brews, such as green tea and other herbal, fruity and flowering blends akin to the ones mentioned above.

Why are people turning to tea?

Tea sommelier Kim Havelaar, who is the founder and managing director of Roqberry teas, puts our renewed love for the drink down to changing consumer needs and a generation that is much more focused on wellness, by way of nutritious food and drink, and low sugar intake. “Restaurants and bars are now seeing a significant and increasing demand for ­alcohol-free drinks, so the general demand for tea is increasing in line with health concerns,” she says.

For Havelaar, a cup of tea is a good option for these modern, millennial consumers who want minimal calories and natural ingredients, with health-conscious purchasers switching from coffee and alcohol to tea for the benefits it brings to their bodies.

“More and more restaurants now offer a tea and food pairing alongside their wine-pairing menu,” she notes.

Benefits of tea

So what are some of the benefits of tea? Even an ordinary breakfast brew contains a beneficial variety of antioxidants, and because the beverage can be cooled after brewing, it can be consumed in both hot and cold climes.

Taking away water, a cup of green tea contains about 44 per cent antioxidants, and standard black tea has about 48.5 per cent. Havelaar recommends drinking three to four cups of tea per day (in any colour). She adds that green tea is seeing the highest spike in consumption across the tea family, owing to an antioxidant called EGCG (Epigallocatechin-3-gallate), which is particularly potent.

United Arab Emirates - Dubai - May 13th, 2009:  Newby green tea.  (Galen Clarke/The National) for story by tahira *** Local Caption ***  GC01_13052009_Tea.jpgGC01_13052009_Tea.jpg

Although many tea variations have caffeine, they also contain a rare source of an amino acid called L-theanine, which is proven to reduce stress, and relax the body and mind. "This amino acid also helps to mitigate any negative impacts of caffeine, which is why tea doesn't cause caffeine 'jitters'," Havelaar explains. So for those who want a morning wake-up sans the nervous shakes that coffee can sometimes bring on, tea is proving to be a softer route to that all-important caffeine hit. Meanwhile, naturally caffeine-free herbal infusions are also on the rise.

Tea blends to know

If you’re wondering which blend is best for you and your body, the world is your tea plantation. There are hundreds of varieties grown in more than 60 countries; the biggest tea-producing countries are Kenya, China, Sri Lanka and India, which together account for 75 per cent of the world’s tea production.

Tea is usually described as falling under categories – think black, oolong, green, white, yellow, dark and matcha – with each variety’s point of difference lying in the manufacturing process. “The most significant step is the level of oxidation allowed in the leaf,” explains Havelaar. In green tea, for example, oxidation is prevented entirely, whereas in black tea the leaves are left to fully oxidise. Matcha is different, in that the leaf is ground into a powder rather than rolled or cut.

The concept of tea doesn’t stop at the leaves any more, either. Herbal and spice infusions are now considered part of the tea family, and are being adopted by daily drinkers. Turmeric, for example, is widely known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Our body’s ability to absorb the body-boosting condiment increases from 10 per cent to 50 per cent when it’s consumed with black pepper – indicative of the power of a cleverly paired cocktail of herbs. A turmeric chai latte spliced through with cinnamon and cardamom, therefore, is far more than just a tasty alternative to your standard cuppa.

Ahmed Al Bawrdi at Farm and desert at Sweihan, chai karak. Courtesy Martin Nicholas Kunz; Heike Fademrecht

In the Middle East, teas are often infused with ingredients such as saffron and cardamom, and karak chai has also become a beverage that's considered cool, with concepts like Emirati home-grown cafe Karak House specialising in the popular drink.

Tea pairing is now a thing

Our penchant for a good blend means that tea sommeliers such as Havelaar have carved out a new niche, and they are able to guide individuals and restaurants to curate complementary blends and infusions that best showcase the flavours of different dishes. "I am not exaggerating if I say that tea is as complex as wine; the make-up of the plant, the environment it grows in – the weather, the elevation – how well it's looked after, and the way it is handled after picking, all impact the flavour of the tea in your cup," says Havelaar.

I am not exaggerating if I say that tea is as complex as wine; the make-up of the plant, the environment it grows in – the weather, the elevation – how well it's looked after, and the way it is handled after picking, all impact the flavour of the tea in your cup.

Take your tea smarts up a level by combining food with a new herbal blend. Having tea before or during your meal slows down the rapid sugar release that you might otherwise experience. It also cleanses the palate as well as your mouth, and it contains antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, which work to counter bad breath.

Havelaar’s favourite pairings include peppermint cream – a milk oolong with peppermint and cacao served aside a caramelised pan-fried Dover sole and pea tartare. “The creaminess of the milk oolong is in perfect balance with the creaminess of the white fish, while the peppermint in the tea alongside the pea in the tartare add that extra flavour dimension,” she explains. Or try raspberry fondant – a Sri Lankan black tea with cacao and freeze-dried raspberry – with confit duck and blackberry puree. “The bold black tea is in perfect balance with the richness of the confit duck, while the raspberry in the tea alongside the blackberry in the puree complement and bring an element of freshness to the dish,” she says. Time to put the kettle on?