9 unusual types of tea to sell now

10 April 2024, 15:00 PM
  • From rooibos and hibiscus tea to bubble tea and matcha, discover the more unusual types of tea to take your customers beyond their ordinary English breakfast
9 unusual types of tea to sell now

There’s no question about how much Brits love their tea, but how often do they reach for a cup that isn’t their typical builder’s brew?

Even teas that have become more commonplace on the shelves of shops and cafes, like different varieties of green tea, herbal tea or floral hibiscus tea are, to many traditionalists, still quite unusual.

But perhaps not for long. The world ingredients seller Sous Chef notes strengthening demand for more unusual teas and infusions, or syrups. “Our tea category has really grown, and we now have a range that includes bubble tea, hibiscus tea, matcha, sencha and jasmine,” says Sous Chef food editor Holly Thomson. 

While traditional black tea sales have declined year-on-year since 2013, according to Tropical Sun Foods, sales of fruit and herbal teas have increased by 24% and green tea by 41% in the past five years, with year-on-year growth of 8%. 

At Sous Chef, matcha sales alone have rocketed 63% so far this year. 

“Herbal tea is becoming more sought after as people realise they aren’t just boring chamomile only teas anymore, with far more variety and breadth of flavours available,” says Krisi Smith, co-founder and chief mixologist at Bird & Blend Tea Co. “Herbal teas can have great taste along with health benefits too now.”

What’s more, consumers appear to be making an occasion of their tea break, with Sous Chef’s tea set sales up 21% in 2024 compared to the previous year. “Customers are broadening their tea rituals beyond PG Tips and a digestive biscuit,” Holly says. 

The working from home trend has certainly increased this. “Lots of us working from home are taking time to brew something really special,” Holly adds. “While we don’t have the moment to chat with colleagues over the boiling kettle, we’re making the working tea break special with something really premium.”

Given the growing demand for alternative teas and brewing equipment, unusual tea varieties offer fine food retailers a new avenue for tea sales.

Why consumers are choosing unusual types of tea

For many consumers, a cup of tea offers more than a morning pick-me-up – and experts believe the factors driving them to different types of tea are only increasing.

Holly cites growing demand for decaffeinated drinks driving interest beyond the typical black tea and towards more gentle blends, such as hibiscus and jasmine teas, and Urvashi Agarwal, founder of JP’s Originals, has also seen a “spike in decaf options as consumers want to limit caffeine jitters and find ways to ensure a restful night’s sleep”.

The wellness angle is also big for tea drinkers. “There has definitely been a surge in teas and infusions which possess health benefits,” Urvashi tells Speciality Food. “Consuming beverages which can almost ‘add value’ has become a huge factor when consumers make purchasing decisions.”

Customers are also seeking sustainable options, she adds, so it’s important for retailers to identify plastic-free, biodegradable and compostable brands, as well as those who source sustainably. “Consumers are more aware than ever about our impact on the planet, says Alex Snowdon, head of marketing at Birchall Tea, which produces tea from a fully solar-powered tea factory in Wiltshire. “Consumers expect high quality, but not at the expense of the environment.”

With all this in mind, Urvashi believes the category has plenty of room for more growth. “There is definitely more scope within this sector, with consumers extremely open-minded and willing to try anything that promotes overall wellness.” 

“The wonderful world of tea is ever changing,” Alex adds, “which is what makes it so exciting.”

What are the different types of tea?

Speciality Food dives into the types of tea that are trending in the UK below.

Matcha tea

Matcha tea is, as Urvashi says, “a turbo-charged take on green tea”. Traditionally, this powdered green tea was used in Japanese tea ceremonies, says Candice Mason of Mother Cuppa Tea. “It is made from finely ground, shade-grown tea leaves, resulting in a vibrant green powder.” 

However, the flavour can be divisive. “Matcha has a distinct grassy flavour with a hint of sweetness and a creamy texture,” Candice says. “The key with matcha is to brew is correctly to avoid bitterness. I suggest brewing this tea at 80 degrees as boiling water can scold the plant and make it taste bitter.”

Indeed, making matcha at home “requires a little bit of instruction as the method is different to preparing tea from tea leaves,” Krisi says. Using a bowl and whisk, you’ll add cold water first and then freshly boiled water, and whisk in a ‘W’ motion, Krisi says.

While matcha is not one for the caffeine-free, as it does contain a moderate amount of caffeine, it’s enjoyed for its “calming yet energising effects”. Yureeka Yasuda, CEO and founder of tea brand SAYURI, says matcha’s growing popularity in the UK is down to a few different factors, including its perception as a superfood, the growth of cafe culture where it has become a staple in lattes and smoothies, its appeal alongside the rise of interest in Japanese culture, and its culinary versatility in both sweet and savoury recipes.

Yureeka outlines matcha’s unique qualities and potential health benefits: “Matcha contains high levels of antioxidants, particularly catechins, which may help protect against cell damage and lower the risk of chronic diseases,” she says. It also is said to enhance calm and focus. “Matcha contains L-theanine, an amino acid known for promoting relaxation and mental alertness, which can provide a calm yet focused state of mind.” Some studies also suggest matcha may help increase metabolism, and it is rich in vitamins and minerals too.

“It’s important to note that multiple grades of matcha exist,” adds Aneta Aslakhanova, global marketing director at Newby Teas. For example, “at Newby, we prioritise ceremonial grade Uji Matcha sourced from Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, and Mie prefectures. Cultivars include Kyoken283, Okumidori, and Ujimidori.” 

“Matcha could basically be the energy charge without the crash or jitters – since the caffeine is released slowing into the bloodstream compared to coffee or energy drinks,” Yureeka summarises. “Matcha, of course, is sugar-free and toxin-free with no artificial colours or preservatives, so it’s really the cleanest energy drink out there.”

Rooibos tea

Rooibos tea, also known as red bush tea, hails from South Africa. “It is made from the leaves of the Aspalathus linearis plant and is naturally caffeine-free,” Candice says. “Rooibos tea has a smooth, slightly sweet flavour with hints of nuttiness and earthiness.”

With consumers craving decaf options, Urvashi has found infusions like rooibos have become particularly popular. Not only does it have antioxidants, but, she says, it is “most similar to tea in its ability to be brewed and consumed with or without milk but being entirely herbal.”

With the wellness and decaf angles colliding, she adds that this is the “sweet spot” for introducing options like rooibos, “giving customers what they want but with an added benefit”. 

It pairs well with desserts like chocolate or citrus-flavoured treats, according to Candice.

Bubble tea (boba tea)

Bubble tea, also known as boba tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, Candice tells Speciality Food, and unlike most teas it is served cold as a ready-to-drink (RTD) tea option. It’s known for its distinctive ‘bubbles’, or chewy pearls made from tapioca. The drink consists of a tea base, often black or green tea, mixed with milk or fruit flavours and shaken with tapioca pearls or toppings like fruit jelly.

“The flavour can vary greatly depending on the tea and additional ingredients used, ranging from fruity and sweet to creamy and indulgent. Bubble tea has gained popularity worldwide for its unique combination of flavours and textures. It’s often enjoyed as a refreshing drink or dessert-like treat,” Candice says.

Hibiscus tea

Made from the dried calyxes of the hibiscus flower, hibiscus tea originated in Africa and Southeast Asia, but it has recently gained popularity in the UK due to its vibrant colour and health benefits.

“It has a tart and tangy flavour profile, often likened to cranberry juice, and creates the most amazing red colour tea,” Candice says. 

Despite its zero-caffeine content, Candice uses hibiscus tea in her Energise tea blend as it can support in maintaining sustained energy levels throughout the day. Potential health benefits include high levels of antioxidants and a reputed ability to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. “It’s also known to flush toxins from the livers which can slow the body down,” Candice says.

Customers can enjoy it hot or cold, and Candice also suggests trying hibiscus tea as a mocktail.

Yerba mate

Yerba mate is a traditional South American beverage made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant and known for its “huge caffeine kick, which is proven to sharpen mental focus and boost physical performance,” says Dean Harper, chef and director at Harper Fine Dining. “It has a distinctive herbal flavour with grassy and earthy notes, often described as similar to green tea but with a more robust and slightly bitter taste,” Candice adds.

While yerba mate is caffeinated, it also contains various antioxidants, as well as nutrients like vitamins and minerals. “It’s commonly consumed for its stimulating effects and is often enjoyed socially, particularly in countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, where it is traditionally served in a gourd and sipped through a metal straw called a bombilla,” Candice says. 

JP’s Original’s Power Up wellness blend has gained a committed following due to its yerba mate content, Urvashi says, with many using it in place of coffee because while it is rich in caffeine, it “provides a boost without a crash – which promotes focussed energy,” she says.

If customers are unsure of the flavour, Candice suggests pairing it with citrus flavours or sweetening with honey or sugar. 

Pu-erh tea

This fermented tea originates from the Yunnan province of China, and, Candice says, it undergoes a “unique aging process, which can range from a few years to several decades”. 

Aneta notes that Newby Teas has seen an uptick in demand for this unusual classic tea which can be “aged like a fine wine” in order to develop more complex flavours. “Pu-erh tea presents an unusual taste profile as it undergoes fermentation.” It is traditionally served compressed into cakes or bricks or in loose leaf form.

Candice describes its flavour profiles as “earthy, rich… with notes of mustiness and a smooth, mellow finish”. She adds, “Pu-erh tea is prized for its potential health benefits, including aiding in digestion and metabolism.”

Oolong tea

Oolong tea is a traditional Chinese tea made from a partially oxidised leaf that, Candice says, “undergoes partial fermentation, resulting in a complex flavour profile that can vary widely depending on the specific type of oolong and its processing method.” 

It “strikes a balance between the perks of black and green teas and offers a wide range of fruity flavours,” Dean adds.

Oolong teas can range from floral and fruity to toasty and nutty, with a smooth and often slightly sweet finish. “They typically contain moderate levels of caffeine and are prized for their potential health benefits, including aiding in weight management and promoting heart health,” Candice says.

Because of oolong tea’s nuanced flavours, she recommends enjoying it on its own, but for those who enjoy their tea with a meal or a snack, she says they can also complement a variety of foods, from seafood and poultry to pastries and light desserts.

Cold brew tea

Another RTD tea to know is cold brew tea. Much like the newly popular cold brew coffee, cold brewing tea extracts flavours more slowly than hot brewing, resulting in a smoother, less bitter taste that many find appealing, Yureeka says.

“Increased demand for cold brew tea reflects consumers’ growing interest in healthier beverage options, particularly those with natural ingredients and lower sugar content,” she adds.

What’s more, this type of tea has gained popularity because it is easy to prepare, involving steeping tea leaves in cold water overnight. “Like hot tea, cold brew tea can offer health benefits such as antioxidants and hydration, making it a refreshing and nutritious alternative to sugary beverages,” Yuzu says. “Cold brew tea can be enjoyed plain, mixed with fruits or herbs for added flavour, or used as a base for cocktails and mocktails. 

Sparkling tea

Another cold alternative to know is sparkling tea, a possible non-alcoholic substitute for sparkling wine. Charlie Winkworth Smith, co-founder of sparkling tea brand Saicho, says demand for his product is “growing rapidly as more people look for sophisticated non-alcoholic options and new flavour experiences”. 

The tea is made similar to cold brew tea by steeping the tea leaves at a low temperature for 24 hours. This will “extract the delicate aromatics without over-extracting the bitter and astringent compounds, to produce a clean, crisp and complex flavour profile,” Charlie says. “We add a little grape juice and acidity to provide balance, and the drinks are then delicately sparkled to enhance the natural aromatics of the tea.”

Using single-origin teas allows the specific flavours of the tea’s region to shine through, highlighting the history and provenance. “Much like wine, the highest quality tea can provide a sense of place, or terroir. This is influenced by factors such as soil, altitude and climate. For example, Darjeeling’s loamy soil, high altitude and humid climate creates teas with a distinctive muscatel flavour,” Charlie says.

Other unusual teas

Moringa tea – boasting nutritional properties like antioxidants and potentially reducing inflammation and cholesterol, as well as numerous vitamins and minerals and zero caffeine. It is derived from the leaves of the moringa tree, also referred to as the ‘Miracle tree’.

Buckwheat tea – a caffeine-free blend cultivated from a high altitude of the Lingshan mountains in China offering an intense aroma reminiscent of freshly baked bread.

Jasmine tea – research has found that jasmine tea, an aromatic drink derived from jasmine flowers, may reduce mild stress and depression, through the brain- gut-microbiome axis.

Ashwagandha – while not a traditional tea, this adaptogenic herb is added to many blends for its properties that help the body adapt to stressors and maintain balance.

Schisandra berries – these small, red berries are native to China and Russia and have been called the ‘five-flavour fruit’ for their unique flavour profile that is simultaneously sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and pungent. They are used in traditional Chinese medicine and consumed as a herbal infusion.

Butterfly Pea Flower tea – this tea, made from the blue flowers of the Clitoria ternatea plant, native to Southeast Asia, is known for its striking blue colour that changes to purple when lemon juice or other acidic ingredients are added. 

Yellow tea – a rare and delicate tea variety that is primarily produced in China and known for its smooth, sweet taste with subtle floral notes and a mellow finish. 

Genmaicha – also known as ‘popcorn tea,’ this Japanese green tea is blended with roasted brown rice to produce a unique, nutty flavour with a hint of toastiness, and it is popular during colder weather.

Tips for selling unusual teas

When selling unusual teas to consumers who are more accustomed to traditional British varieties, experts say it is important to educate. “Provide information about the unique characteristics, flavours, and health benefits of the unusual teas you offer,” Yureeka says. “Offer workshops, masterclasses, pop-ups – educating consumers can help them understand and appreciate the value of trying something new.” 

It’s important, adds Aneta, to highlight the unique properties of each herbal tea and how they can improve wellbeing while also sharing the story of tea-making history, explaining the process from picking in tea gardens to packing. This includes sharing transparency about the brands you sell and highlighting sustainable credentials.

Yureeka agrees that storytelling is essential. “Share the stories behind the teas, including their origins, production methods, and cultural significance,” she says. “Engaging narratives can create an emotional connection and make the teas more intriguing to customers.”

And sampling, she adds, can “pique curiosity and encourage experimentation,” so offer a taste and recommend a pairing suggestion to help to highlight how these teas can “enhance culinary experiences can make them more appealing to consumers.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing