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Tea comes to a boil

Tea doesn’t seem to command the same devotion and geekdom that coffee does here in the U.S. While coffee houses boast Rube Goldberg contraptions for brewing java, many operators still throw a tea bag in a cup of hot water—which doesn’t cut it for tea lovers. On the plus side, coffee shops are now paying more attention to brewing tea.

The health benefits of regular tea consumption are well known; it is chock full of antioxidants. Of brewed tea, green is considered the real superfood; it is the top variety consumed in the U.S., according to Mintel Group Ltd. Nearly half of tea drinkers consume herbal teas; and a significant 10 percent drink microbial-fermented teas such as pu-erh and kombucha. Now more widely available in refrigerated bottled form, kombucha is also on draft at some trendy restaurants.

Significantly, 54 percent of tea drinkers prefer their brew cut with fruit flavors or juice, according to Mintel. That’s a real opportunity for restaurant operators to create their own signature fruity tea drinks.

A profusion of infusions

Infusion Coffee & Tea Gallery in the trendy Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia takes a serious yet playful approach to tea. On the serious side, Infusion only stocks high-end, fair trade teas, sustainably sourced and organic—prominently noted on the menu. “That’s important to our customers,” insists Infusion manager Allison Cooper. “We have regulars who come here specifically because we have such a large assortment of loose-leaf teas.” On the playful side, Infusion offers a number of flavored tea drinks, both hot and cold.

A pot of hot tea, expertly brewed from loose leaves, is available in black, oolong, white and green, as well as herbal infusions such as rooibos and chamomile. Green teas and herbals are the most popular, notes Cooper. “People are trying to stay away from caffeine,” she explains.

Accordingly, Infusion offers a number of green teas from India, Sri Lanka, Japan and China. Among the more interesting are Genmaiche, a Japanese green tea with toasted brown rice, which lends a unique nutty flavor; and Gunpowder, whole leaves rolled into tiny pellets resembling grains of gunpowder. Rooibos, also known as red tea, is an herbal infusion with a high antioxidant content. Another exotic herbal tea growing in popularity is yerba mate, an infusion of the dried leaves of a South American plant, reputed to be high in anti-carcinogenics.

Although purists take their tea straight, many of Infusion’s customers enjoy the flavor of Tea Cambrics, loose-leaf tea infused with steamed milk and honey. A favorite is the Roasted Vanilla Infusion, made with organic vanilla rooibos and roasted mate, infused with vanilla and steamed milk. The Mate Latte gets similar treatment as does hot Chai, the traditional Indian spiced tea. Specialty Cambrics are also offered, with flavored syrups standing in for the honey.

Many of Infusion’s offerings change with the seasons. Summer naturally brings more tall cool drinks, but hot drinks still sell. “People will drink hot tea all year round, just like they drink hot coffee,” notes Cooper. “We don’t really lose that business, we just gain more iced tea sales, especially in the afternoons.”

There is an entire section of Iced Teas and Iced Herbals, featuring selections like Keemun Black, Jasmine Green, Moroccan Mint Green and Orange Ginger Mint. “Freshly brewed Chai tea served over ice with milk and honey is a best seller,” says Cooper. Pearl Tea, aka bubble tea, is also a summer seasonal, and comes in a number of incarnations; currently it’s green iced tea with coconut syrup and chewy tapioca pearls. And a cool blend of mate, rooibos, lemongrass and citrus proved so popular, it’s now a staple, adds Cooper.

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