Drinking a cup of freshly brewed tea while sitting on your sofa, in your pyjamas, may be a daily ritual for some, but the trendy way to consume tea these days is sipping a unique blend in an establishment that specialises in the beverage.
Tea-drinking norms have deviated dramatically from their old-school, aristocratic roots. And while the drink still carries luxurious connotations, the vibe at up-and-coming, New Age tea hotspots is laid-back and lighthearted.
Charlie Cain, who goes by the Twitter name Tea Evangelist, predicted the decline of traditional, Victorian-themed tea rooms in 2011, and hypothesised that urban cafes appealing to younger consumers would soon thrive. "While there will always be a place for well-run Victorian tea rooms, tea is no longer the exclusive choice of the Red Hat Society and those with the flu. Tea is young, hip, and healthy. Tea is cool," he wrote in a blog post for Chicago-based tea retail business Adagio.
Indeed, in its list of industry trends for 2016, the World Tea Directory noted a 10 per cent yearly growth in speciality teas, noting that millennials were showing an increased interest in the hot drink. This shift is also reflected in a 2016 report on the tea industry in North America, compiled by Chris Monk of market research company Nielsen. "Millennials are your growth cohort – go after them," he advises tea brands in his report. He also states: "Don't be afraid to be edgy to breathe life back into tea consumption. Be memorable and evoke conversation."
Tea has a fascinating past – one that’s somewhat at odds with our current relaxed approach to drinking it. There were rules, regulations and societal expectations surrounding the process of drinking of tea, Nirmal Sethia, founder and owner of Newby Teas, tells me. “You didn’t drink tea, you sipped tea. That’s part of the tea culture,” he says. Sethia founded his luxury tea brand in London in 2000 and, today, it is available at high-end hotels around the world. The brand has won numerous awards for its ethics and quality teas and, in the UAE, has established an e-commerce site.
To say that Sethia is passionate about the heritage of tea would be an understatement. When I visit his stately office in Dubai, he gives me an hour-long history lesson. Tea is believed to have been invented by Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC, and introduced to Europe in the 15th century, when the Portuguese exported it from China, along with silk and bone china. When it was eventually brought to Britain, it was reserved for the ultra-elite. "Tea was only for the royals; it wasn't for the common people," says Sethia.
He goes on to explain that tea leaves must be preserved and protected in order to retain their characteristic fine taste – and at Newby Teas, this happens at the brand's production facility in Kolkata, India. He also reveals that when it was first exported from China, less than 1 per cent of tea was technically suitable for consumption, and this small portion would all go to Chinese emperors and European royals and aristocrats.
But demand grew. "As the world population was increasing, the consumption of tea was also increasing," says Sethia. "A new culture started, picking up 99 per cent of the poor tea. They started packaging it beautifully, and not preserving the tea, so that by the time the tea went into the package, it had lost its entire character." While the first teas introduced to British nobles may have been of ultra-fine quality, tea soon became a drink for the masses, packaged in teabags and often tasting too bitter, causing many to add milk and sugar to it – a disgrace to the very nature of tea, Sethia claims. "The culture started declining, and the tea culture was 100 per cent destroyed by the year 2000," he says.
But while the tea culture of the past may be lost on modern-day consumers, in its place, a new league of tea-drinking destinations has sprung up. These have developed cult followings for their unique blends, appealing atmospheres and social-media-worthy decor. In 2016, Alfred Tea Room opened in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, and quickly became a hotspot for celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian and Larsa Pippen. Founder Joshua Zad saw a gap in the market between fast-food-style tea and coffee joints, and traditional high-end tea rooms where the hours-long experience involved being taught about the ingredients in each tea by a skilled tea master. His resulting concept was minimalist, yet customers were quickly captivated by the pink-tiled walls decorated with cheeky phrases spelt out in neon lights above the bar. Black, green, white, fermented and caffeine-free teas are all on offer at Alfred Tea Room, and come in simple takeaway cups decorated with cactus illustrations on pink backgrounds.
Instagrammable disposable cups are a hallmark of the new tea-room trend; a far cry from the fancy crockery previously considered essential. According to Sethia, prior to the 19th century, a person’s status could be determined by his or her tea set. “If it was silver, it had to be beautifully chiselled and very ornate, and if it was porcelain, the teacups had to be beautifully painted,” he says.
Elaborate table settings boasting such tea sets are typical of afternoon tea – a tradition introduced in England in 1840 by the Duchess of Bedford. These lavish afternoon teas, as well as high teas, are offered in the UAE at fancy cafes like Fortnum & Mason, and at five-star hotels across the country. But while luxury locations may have traditionally attracted UAE residents, tea drinkers are increasingly opting for outlets that are more accessible.
Still, fans of the beverage don't visit tea rooms for a run-of-the-mill black tea that they can make at home. Located in The Dubai Mall, the TWG Tea Salon offers a glimpse into the glorious world of tea in a location that couldn't be more convenient for the city's residents. Yellow artisanal tea cans containing loose tea leaves are on display in large, glass windows bordered by rich, wood-panelled walls. More than 200 different teas are listed on the menu – including a 24K gold-infused tea called Gold Yin Zhen, which costs Dh998 for a single pot.
"We've noticed a growing trend of discerning customers who are increasingly demanding in their request for fine harvest teas as their palates develop," says Maranda Barnes, co-founder of TWG Tea. Amanda Herhold, TWG Tea's business manager at Al Futtaim in Dubai, explains that a tea salon provides customers with a full-on experience, from the vast selection of teas available, even within single categories like Earl Grey, to the accompanying snacks. The macarons and desserts at TWG are also tea-infused.
While these new tea rooms are more like cafes, since they tend to serve a selection of snacks, pastries or even light meals, Sethia admonishes the coupling of tea with edibles, and says that traditional tea rooms in China and Japan dedicate themselves solely to the preparing, presentation and etiquette of sipping tea. “The pairing of tea with food is the falsification and destruction of the tea culture,” he believes. “Good teas never have to be paired with food.”
Sanjeev Dutta, director of commodities and the tea centre at the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), insists that the world of tea is becoming ever more diverse. "Though tea is one of the world's oldest traded commodities, there still exists plenty of room for innovation," he says. "There is no 'one cup fits all'; rather, drinkers of all ages can explore new flavour combinations customised to their own palate." Last year, the DMCC launched a luxury tea brand of its own, called Shai Dubai, featuring blends such as pistachio, cocoa, nutmeg, sweet dates and herbal tea.
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 homegrown cafe Karak House, specialising in the popular drink. After all, it is tea, not coffee, that ranks as the second most consumed drink, after water, among UAE residents.
Dutta says that Dubai is the largest re-exporter of tea in the world. "In 2016, the DMCC Tea Centre handled more than 41.6 million kilograms of tea," he says. Euromonitor International has estimated that the UAE's tea market will be worth US$70m (Dh257m) by 2018. And, according to the DMCC, the country as a whole consumes about 7m kilograms of tea per year, and more than 19,000kg daily.
Not only do many of the country’s expats hail from tea-drinking cultures, such as India, Pakistan, Turkey, Japan, China and United Kingdom, but UAE residents are also increasingly concerned with health and well-being, and this could be a reason why younger residents are turning to tea.
"I do think tea has been revived because people are so health-conscious," says Herhold, who emphasises that it can be a detoxifying drink as long as you avoid adding sugar. "Recent studies of younger drinkers have indicated that more than a third are willing to pay more for blends that offer added health benefits, such as antioxidant properties, anti-inflammation, or energy boosters," Dutta adds.