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Tea Time

Sophisticated Palates, New Uses Put The Spotlight On Tea

While the craft coffee craze is still going strong, it seems that the buzz has quieted a bit as the segment found its sweet spot amongst the Millennial consumer. But now, it seems that tea is taking over the sipping spotlight as drinkers are discovering plenty of ways to use the beverage. New flavors, entertaining opportunities and elevated use — like in cocktails, for example — are pushing the category forward.

“Consumers seem to be very aware of all things tea. The tea category, as a whole, is gaining speed and is starting to catch up with coffee sales. It is now cool to drink tea, whereas a few years ago, tea was underappreciated,” said Becky Moore, store manager of Stillwater, OK-based Murphy’s Department Store.

Sarah Nicholas, owner of Ladles and Linens, which has stores in Roanoke, Lexington and Richmond, VA, also said that her consumer base is becoming more educated about different flavors and uses of the beverage.

“Tea drinkers are getting more and more sophisticated. They ask many questions and know what they are looking for. We re-order all year long, it’s not a seasonal thing for us,” she said.

To that end, Nicholas explained that while some of her tea-loving customers stick to traditional flavors, like tumeric, blackberry sage, classic British breakfast, ginger peach and Earl Grey, there are a few more globally-inspired blends that have been trending lately.

“Loose leaf is becoming more and more popular and a big trend this season has been Matcha. We started carrying Matcha whisks as well, which are very popular. Also, anything seasonal is selling well,” she said.

Moore, too, has seen the growth of loose leaf teas among her customer base, which has helped to boost sales of infusers, she said. She noted that tea infusers — especially those of the novelty variety — along with hot water pots are a must when it comes to completing the tea experience at home.

“Whimsical tea infusers really put a smile on people’s faces. It helps — especially in the morning — to get to watch a hippopotamus floating in your cup or a brightly colored flower while you wait for your loose leaf tea to steep. You can’t help but be happy or humored,” Moore said.

Historically, tea is a beverage built on slow sipping and the enjoyment of flavors. And now, that trend is coming back. Home entertaining around tea has become top-of-mind with consumers, as the traditional afternoon tea services that have been trending in the hospitality segment are finding their sweet spot as weekend afternoon get-togethers. Not only have these tea parties spiked sales of tea leaves but, added Nicholas, sales of accessories as well.

“Tea [parties]definitely help drive sales of the tea accessories and equipment. Tea kettles, mugs and pots fly out of here, and mugs with an infuser are trending for us, too,” she said.

And while tea service is a more relaxed way to enjoy the beverage in a social setting, tea infused cocktails are making their way from the hands of mixologists to the hands of consumers looking to up the ante on their at-home cocktail game, whether used as a signature cocktail for an in-home party or simply as an apéritif or digestif after a long day.

“I see our customers in the Midwest experimenting with tea in cocktails and fizzy beverages. Not only does this process ensure an individualized beverage, but also allows a vehicle to become the entertainment factor of any gathering, much like its predecessor, pour over coffees and French press coffees. Customers are also adding extravagant toppings and decoration,” explained Moore.

And, she said, French presses and pour overs are also finding their way into the tea segment as people are using the goods to create their preferred tasting cocktail infusions, as well as to showcase their skills in front of their gathered guests.

Nicholas, too, said that her customers have been serious about tea cocktails lately, especially in the Richmond location, which is a little more urban than the other two.

“Richmond is all about craft cocktails. This area became interested last year in a lot of cold brew coffee cocktails and tea is getting some questions this year. We sell alcohol kits that people can use with tea and Hot Toddy’s are always popular,” she said.

Nicholas explained that the interest in tea has grown so much, she and her staff are looking for other ways to draw in the beverage-loving customers. One of her plans, she said, is to host a tea class similar to one she did for coffee.

“We have not delved into tea classes, but it’s something I’d love to add to our repertoire. I did a coffee class last year featuring Chemex, Aeropress and a few others and it was very popular,” she said.

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