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The scoop on buying tea

Tea, in one form or another, is a high-margin restaurant mainstay. Only about 15 percent of it is sold hot, the rest iced. Black tea is the most widely consumed type of tea in the Western world. Its fully oxidized leaves have the rich, malty flavor that goes so well with milk and sugar, and in iced form, with sugar and lemon. Green tea, however, is growing quickly in popularity, spurred by reports of its healthful attributes.

Tea, in one form or another, is a high-margin restaurant mainstay. Only about 15 percent of it is sold hot, the rest iced. Black tea is the most widely consumed type of tea in the Western world. Its fully oxidized leaves have the rich, malty flavor that goes so well with milk and sugar, and in iced form, with sugar and lemon. Green tea, however, is growing quickly in popularity, spurred by reports of its healthful attributes.

Like specialty coffee, which is growing faster than generic java, specialty teas are projected to gain further over conventional tea bags and instant teas, says the Tea Is Hot Report by Seattle-based Sage Group International. Some specialty teas: organic, flavored green, herbal infusions like mint and chamomile and chai, a spiced Indian tea.

All the tea in China—actually, all tea, period—comes from a single evergreen plant, Camellia sinensis, which flourishes in the tropics. Growing conditions and post-harvest processing are what differentiate individual teas.

A tea’s flavor can be dramatically influenced by exposure of the leaves to oxygen during processing. Black teas such as Darjeeling, Assam and English Breakfast are fully oxidized, causing chemical reactions that develop rich, full-bodied flavor. Green teas like Dragon Well, Sencha and Gunpowder are not oxidized, thus they retain their delicate, grassy nuances. Oolong teas are semi-oxidized, placing them between black and green in character.

Although green tea has been widely publicized as a health elixir, all teas include substances like polyphenols and flavonoids purported to reduce cancer risk and improve health.

Unlike coffee and cocoa, tea is sold through auctions and directly by producers rather than through a futures market, explains Shashank Goel, chairman of the Specialty Tea Institute. This means there is no single world price for tea, but rather a variety of prices that change frequently. Before tea reaches the consumer, it follows a lengthy distribution chain that extends from grower to auction broker, exporter, importer, wholesaler, co-packer, branded tea company, distributor and retailer—with each taking a markup.

“That’s how a $5-a-pound tea ends up costing $40,” says Goel.


One Hot Cup at a Time

The basic hot tea menu should represent the three major types of tea: black, green and oolong. It should also have an herbal infusion, like mint or chamomile, as a caffeine-free alternative.

Brewing hot tea at the table earns style points. However, if the idea of continual server training and managing sets of teapots and strainers is daunting, there are quicker and easier ways to brew good tea one cup at a time.

The prevailing single-serve option is the standard paper tea bag, which debuted in 1904. It still rules in many eateries, although purists may disdain it. The improved version is the “tea sachet,” a roomy fabric pouch filled with top quality leaf tea. Not only is the flavor superior, sachets look much nicer than ordinary tea bags, particularly when they are presented at the table in an attractive wooden chest.

“It’s very close to an authentic tea service,” says Sage Group president Brian Keating.

The sachet’s larger size allows the leaves to expand and fully infuse in hot water. Market examples include pyramid-shaped RealiTea tea bags and Harney & Sons’ silken tea sachets.

Another single-serve option is the Ineeka Brew-Tache, a disposable, self-straining infuser filled with pre-measured high-quality loose-leaf tea. Just place it atop the teacup and pour in the hot water.


Cold is King

R­eady-to-drink tea pushes several buttons of the thirsty: it’s convenient, seemingly healthy and available in myriad variations. These flavored and sweetened bottled “wellness beverages” amounted to nearly $1.5 billion in wholesale dollars in 2004, according to Beverage Marketing, a New York City-based research company. “They appeal to people desiring a refreshment beverage with a healthy halo,” says managing director Gary Hemphill.

Name brands include Snapple, which has Lime Green Tea, Mint Tea, and Peach Tea in its flavor stable, and AriZona, with the likes of Ginseng Tea and Mandarin Orange Green Tea. The common package in this segment is a 20-oz. glass bottle. There’s also a super-premium tier of ready-to-drink teas with greater appeal to tea lovers and more utility for restaurants that are midscale and higher. Brands like Republic of Tea, Tazo, Honest Tea and Teas’ Tea are made with high-grade leaf teas. They have little or no sweetening and lighter flavor profiles, making them good partners for food, including serious cuisine.

What’s more, these premium-priced items spare operators from pouring endless free refills of pitcher tea. Some are packaged in 16.9-oz. glass bottles that look classy on the tabletop and can be shared like a bottle of wine. The gamut includes Republic of Tea’s Republic Darjeeling, Tazo’s Organic Iced Green Tea, Honest Tea’s Assam Black and Teas’ Tea Golden Oolong.

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