Turning over a new leaf: the rise of quality tea in the UK

by Great British Chefs 5 October 2015

Following the rise of craft beer, gin and coffee it is now the turn of quality tea to capture the nation's attention, with tea pairing becoming increasingly popular in the world of fine dining. From sourcing to serving, discover more about the future of premium tea in the UK.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

A faithful constant of British society since the 18th century, tea seemed until recently to be something we took for granted. It fuels the British workforce, soothes stress and – perhaps most importantly – facilitates the eating of cake, but for so long so many were content with a bog standard brew. With the craft beer and gin movements celebrated with festivals and themed pubs, and the cost of quality coffee creeping up with every slow-dripped cup, happily it is now the turn of high quality and rare teas to enjoy a renaissance.

From dedicated tea houses to artists such as Lars Holdhus incorporating rare teas into their practice, there is an undeniable surge of interest in high-quality blends and teas of unusual origin. Restaurants and premium hotels are increasingly offering a separate menu devoted to tea, and in-house tea experts – known, fittingly, as tea sommeliers – are growing in numbers in restaurants across Europe and America.

This increased awareness and demand for premium tea suggests that tea pairing and flights could become more common in the world of fine dining. Yauatcha, for example, is admired for its selection of unusual Chinese teas, and the restaurant offers pairing suggestions for its dual specialities of tea and dim sum – think Silver Needle with king crab dumplings, or Tian Hong black tea with their Jasmine smoked pork ribs. While the practice of drinking tea throughout a meal is, of course, an ingrained part of the culture in China, Japan and other parts of Asia, this is an exciting development in the UK where most of us would only think to pair our tea with dunkable biscuits or a bacon sandwich.

This movement is in part driven by specialist producers and suppliers, who open up both industry and domestic kitchens to the dizzying range of teas available around the world. One such supplier is Newby of London, a company who initially set out to improve the quality of tea within the premium hospitality industry and have now branched into retail – a clear sign that the market for rare teas is growing in the UK.

Newby Teas chairman Nirmal Sethia, who has the enviable job of tasting and approving every single tea
A Newby Teas tea tasting: each region produces tea with its own distinctive flavour, ranging from light, floral blends to the deeper, smoky varieties

What makes these teas so special? Provenance, that darling of the fine dining world, is no less important within the tea industry. Newby have their own specialist tea masters to select varieties from all over the world. These tea masters, experts with years of experience and knowledge, are able to recognise the nuances of a tea variety from the taste and even appearance of a plant. There is a great deal of diversity within tea crops and stark variations can occur not just from country to country, but between estates within a region. The tea masters pick the very best of fine blends from India, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka alongside less well-known producers in Nepal and Taiwan; Taiwan in particular is known for cultivating oolong crops, a semi-oxidised ‘blue’ tea with a flavour profile ranging from light and floral to strong, smoky and dark.

As with many artisanal products, quality tea is generally picked by hand, a process which enables a greater degree of selectivity and care. For the discerning tea buyer, it’s the bud and top two leaves of the tea plant which are of interest, and these buds or ‘tips’ will often be noticeable in a good quality tea – look out for the golden buds of Assam or the silvery tips in Darjeeling. Together with the first two leaves, they form the basis of what’s known as ‘fine plucking’.

In the world of quality tea a lot of work goes into sourcing blends with superior characteristics, but equal attention is also given to the preservation process. As with any fresh produce, flavour fades over time and therefore tea must be preserved as quickly as possible to protect the quality of the product. Tea drinking itself might be an ancient tradition, but Newby Teas look to the future for their methods with a state of the art, climatically controlled production centre designed to preserve and protect both flavour and character. Their selected teas go through a rigorous multi-stage process where various batches are assessed, evaluated and tasted by experts – no bog standard brews in their office kitchen – before they are given final approval by Nirmal Sethia, the company’s chairman.

It’s reassuring, then, to know that as much care and attention goes into sourcing the quality tea for a restaurant’s menu as it does the fresh ingredients and artisanal produce. As consumers, we are also becoming increasingly discerning, with the retail market beginning to catch up to the world of fine dining. While there will still be occasions where few things could top a strong cup of builder's tea, the future of quality tea in the UK is an exciting one.

All images are courtesy of Newby Teas.