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Tea Leaves' Good Fortune

Leah Black / March 2006

After years of treating tea as a second-class citizen, restaurants are recognizing its crowd pleasing and profit potential.

Finally, serious tea drinkers have something to look forward to at the end of their meal. Vanishing are the days when restaurants presented diners with a paltry selection of ordinary tea bags.

Hand-sewn tea shaped like blossoms that unfurl in hot water; flavors like peppermint, licorice, chocolate, and white rose; and tea leaves infused with real fruit essence instead of artificial products are bubbling up on menus across the country.

The tea of the 21st century is loose-leaf, organic, and innovative. And whether it's the much publicized health benefits, the popularity of Asian cuisine, or simply the next logical step in America's food revolution, tea is making its presence known at restaurants and hotels across the country.

"Restaurateurs and chefs are asking, ‘Why shouldn't the tea drinker have just as good an experience as a coffee drinker?'" explains Barbara Graves, minister of commerce at The Republic of Tea. (Their titles, like the company, are Zen-like in nature.) It's a trend, she says, that has taken off in the past two years and continues to grow.

For restaurants considering the leap to loose-leaf, the good news is they don't have to go it alone. Many tea companies offer complimentary training programs to educate restaurant staff about the basics of tea service, including the different types of tea, how to brew and serve them, and advice about pairing tea with food.

Quality tea service isn't easy to pull off. Sure, all tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis). But that's where the similarities end. White tea is picked, withered (to remove moisture), and air-dried. Green tea is steamed, withered, and then steamed again. Oolong tea is withered, tossed into a basket (to bruise the leaves' edges and expose the enzymes to initiate oxidation), and then pan-toasted. And black tea? It's roll-broken after withering and later finished with forced hot air.

Each of these different teas requires a different brewing method. That's where proper training is key. Staff needs to learn that, in general, green tea and white tea should be steeped for 30 seconds to one to three minutes, respectively, in water that's hot but not boiling; oolong tea requires three to five minutes in just boiling water; black tea, three to five minutes in boiling water. Tisanes (herbal infusions) require about five minutes in boiling water. Brewed incorrectly, even the finest tea can produce an end-of-the-meal disaster.

"It's the last taste you leave with when you go out to a restaurant to eat," remarks Reem Rahim, co-owner of Numi Tea in San Francisco, along with her brother Ahmed Rahim. The most notable of their selection of organic loose-leaf, bagged, and artisanal teas are hand-sewn in Asia. Each is a miniature work of art; among the choices are green chrysanthemum, jade ring, and flower pearl, which mesmerizingly blossom in hot water. Along with a training program, Numi offers restaurateurs a beautiful wooden display chest if they order at least eight different teas. Sporting a glass top, it holds eight black velvet–lined boxes for storage and display.

"Interacting with the leaves is important," says Sebastian Beckwith, co-owner with Alexander Scott and Frank Kwei of the Brooklyn-based company In Pursuit of Tea. Ideally, tea should be served at the table rather than poured in the kitchen, so customers can fully experience the brewing process--watching the tea leaves unfurl while breathing their fragrance. Beckwith travels the globe to find the very best, visiting small farms in China, Taiwan, and India, among other locales. In Pursuit of Tea offers teas ranging in price from $40 to $100 per pound, though some cost as much as $400 per pound. "The most expensive are the small lots or those that have aged a lot, like oolong from 1994," he says. It costs $280 per pound.

John Harney of Harney & Sons says his company does on-site training with new customers and then visits once a year thereafter. Training videos are also provided. He notes that there are seven basic steps to success when preparing foodservice tea: 1. Buy great teas. 2. Store tea correctly. ("Tea is like a blotter; it picks up off-flavors.") 3. Make sure your water tastes good. 4. Make sure the brewing vessels are used exclusively for tea. 5. The water temperature must be correct for each tea. 6. Use the correct amount of tea. ("If you use a two-cup pot, two teaspoons of loose tea or a sachet will be fine. If you serve a six-ounce cup, one tea bag is sufficient.") 7. Steep the tea for the correct length of time.

Harney predicts that in the next 10 years everybody will switch to loose-leaf tea, because "there's no comparison to the taste." However, in the meantime he sees silk sachets as a transition. "We put the same loose-leaf tea that we serve in hotels in silken sachets," he says, noting that the resulting beverage tastes better than that made from tea in paper bags, although he sells those as well. His company has also just launched bottled ice teas that can be served on restaurant tables, though he believes freshly brewed iced tea tastes better.

Even though quality tea can be expensive (up to $60 or $70 a pound for assam golden tip, compared with $12 to $14 for the average tea, and a pound makes about 200 cups), it's very profitable for restaurants. Harney says, "They can sell pots of tea for $6 or $7 that probably cost them 30 or 40 cents to make. And iced tea that costs a nickel a glass can be sold for $3 or $3.50."

Many tea enthusiasts readily compare fine tea to fine wine. In fact, that's what inspired The Republic of Tea to roll out its bottled teas. Packaged in slick glass bottles and available in nine different flavors, they are marketed to restaurants and come in such flavors as Honeydew White Tea, Raspberry Quince, and Ginger Peach Decaf. The company encourages the cold tea to be served just like a bottle of wine, left at table and poured every so often.

And not to overlook possibilities beyond the dining room, the Mighty Leaf Tea Company, which has been instrumental in promoting the use of brewed tea at the bar in cocktails and mocktails, is now branching out to the spa segment of the industry with the introduction of two spa products filled with whole-leaf tea, the Oasia Esprit de Provence TeaFusion Bath Spa Pouch and the Matcha Clay Masque, a facial treatment combining green tea and natural organic clay. A spokesman points out that green tea is believed to contain antioxidants that reduce skin inflammation.

It's the range of flavors that also makes today's tea so superior. SerendipiTea, a boutique operation based in Long Island City, New York, is known for its original recipes, including Fiji Papaya, Wild Pineapple & Green Tea, and the chocolate flavored Chocola Tea. "It's like a little lab here," says co-founder/owner Linda Villano, who together with her staff constantly experiments with new flavor combinations.

SerendipiTea takes its creative process one step further by working with individual restaurants to develop special blends for pairings with entrées and desserts. From curried chicken, lasagna, and Brie to pumpkin pie and crème brûlée, every food works best when paired with a particular tea. SerendipiTea offers about 120 different ones, ranging from $10 to $27 per pound. In addition, it offers a training program that lasts as long as it takes for a restaurant staff to become comfortable with its tea service. Also, it sells a presentation tea box for $25.

Like many other companies, SerendipiTea has seen a surge in business. "The first five years were really tough," says Villano. "But we were really convinced. We were not going to do tea bags. We wanted this." In the past four years business has improved dramatically. "People get it," she says. "They want it, and they're looking for it."

And now, they can have it. All they have to do is ask for the menu.