Home Herbal Teas The British cup of tea needs a spoonful of sophistication

The British cup of tea needs a spoonful of sophistication

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The British are said to love little more than a cup of tea, but that affection is not shared by Unilever. Its €4.5bn sale this week of some of the world’s biggest and most historic tea brands, including Lipton, PG Tips and Brooke Bond, shows how unsentimental companies can be.

It also raises an unsettling question: is black tea, brewed in a teapot and served with milk, becoming a relic? Sir Thomas Lipton created one of the first global consumer brands by acquiring plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1890s and selling tea leaves cheaply in yellow packets. But sales have fallen in developed markets and Unilever will no longer polish its imperial jewels.

Many drinks, from aromatic tonic water to espresso coffee, have acquired premium followings in recent years. When Pret A Manger set out to lure back its customers during the pandemic, it created a monthly “coffee subscription” (tea is included, but not in the title). Tea has become treated like an elderly relative: reliable and comforting to have around, but boring.

Surely tea can do better? Green and black teas both have medicinal qualities — drinking tea regularly has been found to reduce cardiovascular disease and even type 2 diabetes. Tea is a mild stimulant, with less caffeine than coffee but enough to perk up the drinker, and there is no need to alter its taste with sugar. What is not to like?

Many drinks are now presented as tea, from herbal teas to kombucha. Twinings does a brisk business in cold infusion — herbs and fruit essences in a bag to flavour water. Unilever owns Tazo, a US brand of teas such as Dream, a “soothing blend of superstar valerian root, calming chamomile, aromatic lavender, almond and sweet hints of vanilla flavour”. Thanks, but no.

The proliferation of herbal drinks in many kitchen cupboards has transformed the simple question, “would you like a cup of tea?” into a multi-part quiz. But the thing itself — what tends to be known as English breakfast tea — has not advanced much. The last burst of excitement came when PG Tips unveiled the pyramid-shaped tea bag a quarter of a century ago.

The industrial designer Raymond Loewy pioneered the principle of “most advanced, yet acceptable” products; they should push the boundaries of convention without alienating customers. But, like some other mature packaged goods, black tea has gradually regressed into its least advanced, yet acceptable form. As for iced tea, the American variant, let’s not talk about it.

Unilever is the prime culprit, for it allowed itself to get stuck with a bunch of unpromising brands. It is a struggle to extract much taste from Lipton’s yellow label tea bags in the US, and PG Tips is the classic British “builders tea”. The latter was overtaken as the best-selling UK brand in 2019 by Twinings, which the Queen is said to drink (not made with bags, I assume).

But tea suffers from an identity problem: the stuff we drink routinely comes in a processed form called CTC (crush, tear curl) in which leaves are run through cylindrical rollers to create small pellets. This 1930s technology produces dark tea with a strong flavour that is ideal for tea bags, launched in modern form by Lipton in 1952.

Lipton standardised tea in the UK and US in the late 19th century, making the product more consistent and safer in an era when tea packed in chests was often adulterated with twigs and contaminants. Like Coca-Cola, Cadbury and other emerging brands of the time, Lipton sold reassurance.

The original blend was also superior to the contents of most Lipton tea bags today. It was orange pekoe leaf tea (a grading of leaf size and place on the branch) from his own plantations — the Victorian epitome of single origin traceability — with brewing instructions.

Tea has long been rooted in the home, unlike coffee’s history of being prepared in 17th- and 18th-century coffee houses and 1950s espresso bars. It became a staple that was drunk around the hearth, says Markman Ellis, professor at Queen Mary University of London: “It is domestic and familiar, and it needs to be wilder and more expensive.”

Starbucks beat instant and mediocre drip coffee by convincing people to pay a premium for espresso and experience. Nespresso then offered something similar in pods. But high-end tea bars struggle to get customers excited by what feels ordinary, and I find the tea at Costa Coffee, with the bag left floating in milky water, inferior to home.

A revival is possible, though. I had a nice cup of tea from a porcelain pot at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair the other day, and it was worth the money. Emilie Holmes, founder of Good & Proper Tea, a tea company in London, says that working from home helps sales: “People have a bit more time to devote to daily rituals, rather than dunk and dash.”

These are ingredients for tea that improve both on CTC bags and weird fruitiness, even if Unilever has itself lost the faith. Before Lipton’s industrial intervention, 19th-century hosts used to spoon their own leaf blends into teapots and let them infuse gently for several minutes before serving their guests. Call it mindfulness.

john.gapper@ft.com



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