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It’s one of the world’s oldest beverages and the most consumed drink in the world. In fact, global consumption has increased by 2.8% over the last decade, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Here in the UK, there’s no doubt the comforting drink is a huge part of British culture.
“Tea has been ingrained in our culture for generations and is much more than a drink,” says Katia Sokolskaya, founder of Nauteas Artisan Teas. “It’s a wake-up call in the morning before the day begins; it’s an opportunity to gather our thoughts before making a decision; it’s a welcome break in our busy lives. Tea is part of our social tapestry.”
Today, with a new generation of consumers driving change and arguably more variety than ever before, it’s safe to say the popularity of tea is on the rise. But what is driving this growth? How are cultural shifts impacting trends? And how can indie producers and retailers cater to demand?
Tea for ‘22
Look at any grocery retailer and you’ll notice a wide array of teas lining the shelves. Where once these brews could easily be categorised into black and green, today the variety on offer is much more colourful, with everything from white and blue, to herbal tisanes that focus on wellbeing. Amongst all of this innovation, the traditional black cuppa is arguably still going strong despite increased pressure from growing competition. But as marketing campaigns such as Tetley’s For the Love of Tea hint at, a wider variety of tea drinkers are taking up their share of the market, and they’re helping to drive the industry’s growth.
Even Pinterest is predicting tea’s rise in the ranks based on the visual discovery app’s trending searches. Eight out of 10 of Pinterest’s 2021 predictions came true, and now the platform says afternoon tea is set to become the new after-work-drinks meet-up.
According to foodtruckempire.com, around half of UK tea brands are purchased by millennials aged 24 to 35 years old. With more millennials and Gen Z consumers ditching booze for mental health reasons – according to a study by alcohol-free wine brand Eisberg – and additional drinkers reducing their alcohol consumption for other health reasons, it’s perhaps no surprise that tea is increasing in popularity. With more awareness around the health benefits it offers coupled with the increasing variety on the market, tea seems a prime candidate to become people’s beverage of choice, no matter what the occasion.
“Over the last decade or so, the drive for affordable luxuries coupled with the boom in foodie culture has seen vast changes in the tea industry,” explains Jamie Russell, director of The Wee Tea Company. “Even in supermarkets, the shelf space dedicated to big brand standard tea products has decreased, making way for a larger ‘range’ of speciality teas and infusions that offer higher quality and new experiences for discerning tea drinkers. Tea has also become cool to an extent, due to the reported health benefits and positive coverage many tea and tea related drinks receive in relation to a younger culture of health, beauty and wellbeing. The demographic of people buying tea has definitely changed, but only because the product range has changed, and the two are driving each other forward at a fast pace.”
Trend or tradition?
Innovation helps to drive growth in any industry, and that’s certainly no different when it comes to tea. So, what key trends should independents heed in the coming months?
Health and wellness are having a growing impact across the board, so we can expect to see more teas containing additivities with perceived health benefits, including mushrooms, CBD, adaptogens, spices and herbs. Gut-friendly kombucha, relaxing herbal remedies and antioxidant-rich matcha, perhaps more aimed at in-home-drinking, as well as low- or no-alcohol sparkling tea and tea-based cocktails for out-of-home drinking are also on the rise. The introduction of ready-to-drink teas, including cold brew infusions, is worth noting too, particularly given the health benefits as an alternative to fizzy drinks and sugar-laden RTD beverages.
But it’s not just health habits that are driving change. Consumers’ increasing concerns over sustainability and ethics have trickled down into the tea industry too, as Jamie explains: “Ethical, organic, and quality are definitely all in the tea drinker’s peripheral. I think current attitudes towards ‘where our food comes from’ are driving this, along with an aspiration from buyers to seek quality, artisanal products.
“Sustainability has impacted the tea industry hugely, too,” Jamie adds. “A few years back, the ‘discovery’ by the mass population that paper teabags contain plastic (it’s how they can be sealed) made massive waves in the industry. There has been a clear race by businesses to completely change away from teabags containing plastic; buyers and consumers make no secret of the fact they want to know about the environmental impact before buying.”
Keep in mind, however, that it’s not just about “jumping on the bandwagon”; it’s about those key indie traits of transparency and provenance, as Jo Colman, head of sales and marketing at Summerdown, explains: “Consumer loyalty will come from sustainability being at the core of a brand’s values. Sustainability may not be the key motivator in the buying decision (taste and price usually come first), but it will keep consumers coming back.
“A 2019 Mintel report found that consumers were willing to pay more for tea that is ethically and environmentally farmed. The noise around plastic-free teabags over the past few years has also led to consumers asking more questions about the entire tea journey: it’s not just the packaging, but also the ingredients in their tea, where they come from and how they are farmed. Furthermore, shopping local hasn’t disappeared post pandemic. Though ‘local’ may no longer mean the village/corner shop and now encompasses a sense of community and shopping small, independent and friendly.”
It’s easy to get caught up in all of the hype around the market’s growth and emerging trends. But as an independent producer or retailer, it’s important to balance catering to demand and being innovative with staying true to your brand’s values, as Jo explains: “What is apparent is that today’s tea drinkers are now actively seeking out teas with added value – whether this is ethical farming methods, unique flavours, natural health benefits or an additional usage occasion. To compete in this current market, a tea brand needs a clear point of difference. Traditional teas will need to adapt and evolve with the market to survive as consumers have become more educated around packaging, sourcing and sustainability, for example.”
Katia adds, “Although there may be many new tea brands on the market, the big trends have remained the same for years: slow decline of everyday black tea, growing appreciation of different provenance and flavour profiles, a move towards plastic-free and sustainable packaging, ethical sourcing and traceability of teas, and a growing wellness tea category. A good retailer tea selection would have a balance of classic teas mixed with more experimental brands and flavours which give the customer that magic of discovery.”
With the majority of tea consumed in the UK being imported, it’s safe to say there will be challenges that affect your supply chain. Brexit has already impacted many in the industry, as Jamie admits, but also offers a great opportunity for businesses to adapt.
“Many of our ingredients come from German brokers (Germany has been a hub of tea and coffee brokerage for many years now), and timescales for imports have almost quadrupled [since Brexit],” Jamie says. “Packaging is also becoming a headache as most boards for printing come in from mainland Europe. Our attitude is that we must continue to learn and change our buying habits. We also began a process five years ago of preparing for this, by learning new ways of blending our teas to reduce our reliance on buying from German brokers.”
While learning to be flexible could benefit your business in the long-run, it may also open up new opportunities for you, as Katia explains: “Many producers and retailers have had the Brexit and COVID double whammy experience in the last 12 months or so, ranging from delayed deliveries, material and ingredient shortages, to exponentially rising shipping costs. For us, being upfront with our customers about potential hurdles, frequent and transparent communication as well as extended delivery times made a big difference. For retailers, there is a hidden opportunity to trial new and exciting brands if the regular favourite is out of stock. Last year we managed to creatively pivot on numerous occasions, so if you are a retailer, do share your challenges with your suppliers – you never know what solutions they may come up with!”