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The Latest in Tea Innovations

Scott Ball of BUNN Corporation looks at the recent tea developments in the consumer market.

Tea is continuing to expand, in all of its forms, in grocery stores, convenience stores and on your favorite restaurant’s menu. And, consumers are embracing camellia sinensis for its health benefits as well as its delicious taste. In addition to increased availability of a wide variety of teas, improved brewing methods and equipment have changed the way people perceive tea.

From fresh brewed to convenience-packaged tea, constant innovations are making this ancient beverage more popular than ever. Several new developments lead the way, including specialty tea, bubble tea, cold brew tea, concentrate tea, infusion brewers and pyramid tea bags - the list goes on and on. Let’s take a closer look at these and other trends and innovations that are taking the U.S. tea market by storm.

Specialty Tea Variations Increase
In the past few years we’ve seen an increase in the number of tea variations and beverages - new flavors, chai, and specialty hot tea and iced teas. For instance, green tea, once difficult to find in the traditional supermarket, is now readily available. One reason for its popularity is the added health benefits that have caused the medical community to take note.

Green tea’s anti-aging properties and antioxidants are beneficial to your body. Medical research has found that green and black teas are rich in flavenoids and polyphenols. This means that drinking several cups per day is beneficial to your health. From lowering cholesterol to fighting cancer, tea has properties that are believed to prevent illness and promote physical well being.

Coffee drinkers, too, are noticing the increased popularity in tea when visiting coffeehouses. Chai, a blend of tea, spices and milk has become a mainstay on many coffee shop menus. Served warm, this highly aromatic beverage got its start in India where drinking chai is a morning ritual.

Americans are Discovering Bubble Tea
One of the newest phenomena in the U.S. is bubble tea. Also known as boba tea, pearl tea drink and boba iced tea, bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, according to Joe Simrany, president of the Specialty Tea Institute. Bubble tea outlets are rapidly making their way into the American landscape. In major metropolitan areas, this cold, unusual beverage is becoming more and more popular. So, what is bubble tea?

In Taiwan, tea is a common offering, so to compete for business one concessionaire decided to add flavoring to her tea. Children loved the taste and soon this became a popular after-school drink. In order for the tea to have a balanced taste, it had to be shaken which caused bubbles to form in the drink, therefore making it known as “bubble tea.”

Time passed and the bubble tea concept evolved so that it became common practice to add tapioca pearls into the now popular drink. The tapioca pearls are placed in the bottom of a clear cup and the flavor infused tea is then poured over the top. Some bubbles float in the tea while others settle to the bottom. A special straw (with an especially wide circumference) is used to drink the tea and accommodate the marble-sized tapioca pearls. The bubbles have a texture similar to that of gummy bears, a consistency unique to bubble tea.

As bubble tea makes its way to the United States, it appears that this is a growing trend in the tea industry, and one that Simrany believes is likely to stay around for some time.

Convenient Cold - Brew Tea
Companies, such as Lipton, have developed a cold-brew tea bag that gives people a quick and convenient option when making iced tea. It works like this: after placing water in the refrigerator to chill, you pour the water over the tea bag, and in three minutes you’ll enjoy a glass of iced tea. By adding sugar, honey or mint, you can easily create variations that suit your individual taste.

The TeaBag as Tea Infuser
Traditionally, the teabag is a nearly opaque, square paper filter sachet filled with crushed tea leaves. A cotton string is stapled to it and a paper tag attached for ease in handling. Now, innovative new materials and the demand for better tea have resulted in the conception of a new form of tea bag, the pyramid, or see-through tea bag. Generally made from a silken nylon material, it is formed to be a sturdy pyramid shape. Inside is whole-leaf tea that’s often blended with combinations of flowers and herbs. The see-through material allows you to watch the tea leaves interacting with the water, creating an experience you can’t find with traditional tea bags.

Ready-to-Drink Tea is Ready When You Are
When we think about tea, many people envision the time-intensive method of properly steeping tea or brewing tea with special infusion equipment. Within the past several years, the tea industry has partnered with many soft drink companies to offer ready-to-drink (RTD) tea in 16 oz. glass bottles for a fresh brewed taste. And, more recently, RTDs can be found in 20-oz. non-returnable plastic bottles.

This offering has given way to expanded flavors. Consumers can now choose from a long list of bottled teas that are sure to delight the palate, including:

  • Fruit flavors
  • Black and green teas
  • Regular, caffeine-free and decaffeinated teas
  • Teas with spices, honey, ginseng, mint and jasmine
  • Chai
For people on the go, another new innovation in tea has made its way onto store shelves. For example, Iced Tea To Go from Lipton is an easy, convenient packet that requires only a 16.9 to 20-ounce bottle of water. To prepare the beverage, you simply add the pre-measured tea to the bottle of water, shake it and go. It’s as simple as that!

Bottled tea offers much-needed hydration just as water does, but with added health benefits and flavor, Simrany said.

Tea from Concentrate - A Growing Trend
In my opinion, the biggest trend right now is tea concentrates. Used within the foodservice industry as well as the home, tea concentrates are coming into their own. One important innovation is the development of a commercial, non-electrical tea concentrate dispenser that accepts gallon jugs or bag-in-box product. The tea concentrate is pulled through to a mixing valve where it mixes with water. The tea is made on-demand, therefore maintaining a longer shelf life than fresh brewed tea.

In the past, instant tea was generally made from powder and water, and it frequently had an unpleasant after-taste. But now, through a process similar to that, which is used for brewing fresh tea, concentrate has become a great tasting and convenient alternative. And, many concentrates are preservative free, with a very pleasant aftertaste.

Tea Infusion - The Preferred Way to Brew

Tea infusion, the slow, continuous introduction of water with tea leaves, is the preferred way to brew the best tasting tea, both hot and cold. Many tea brewers use advanced technology to properly infuse tea leaves for maximum flavor extraction, creating an exceptional flavor.

Beverage equipment manufacturers have noted the increased popularity of fresh-brewed tea. Since the first fresh-brewed iced tea brewer was introduced 1979, equipment manufacturers have created significantly more advanced systems with innovative features, including the ability to accommodate varied flavor and brew-strength preferences.

Tea at Home
If you would like to enjoy the same quality of tea at home that you’ve come to expect from the commercial brewers, you can achieve this now for the first time through recent advances in home brewing technology.

Auto infuser teapots, some which aremade of glass, are entering the retail market, according to Simrany. These glass pots allow people to brew a pot or, in some instances, a cup at a time. Whole leaf tea, often with added flowers or herbs, is placed in the infuser then hot water is pored over the leaves. The clear glass teapot makes for dramatic presentation so that you can actually see the tea infusing with the water to create a wonderfully flavorful beverage.

Pod brewers are another step toward brewing a great cup of tea at home. Although the majority of pod brewers brew only coffee, a few models can also brew one outstanding serving of tea. Traditionally, if you wanted a single cup, you selected a tea bag of your choice and boiled a cup of hot water for steeping. Then you would have to wait for the tea to steep and dispose of the bag.

However, pod brewers allow all the modern conveniences of a brewer with little effort or clean up. Pods are in essence, round tea (and/or coffee) “bags” that are placed in a tray and slid into a small brewer. Pressurized water is pushed through the pod or bag to extract the final product in about 30 to 45 seconds.

The advantage of this increasingly popular new technology is that there is minimal waiting and no messy leaves or strainers.

Tea, hot or iced, continues to grow as a drink in vogue.
Prepared the old fashioned way or more quickly for added convenience, tea is gaining in popularity. No doubt consumer demand for great tasting tea beverages, while dining out and at home is here to stay.

Scott Ball is vice president of national accounts at Bunn Corporation.

Tea & Coffee - July/August, 2005


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