How tea dropped its cosy reputation
Tea is hot right now with suppliers competing to provide exotic blends.
Is tea the new cappuccino? It is if one of my neighbours is to believed; he absolutely has to hit the Starbucks next door to his office every day… for a cuppa!
Not builders' tea, you understand, but a fine cup of something green, which is allegedly a little healthier than the black stuff. Though even black tea is a lot healthier than you might expect - researchers from King's College London have found drinking three to four cups a day can cut the risk of a heart attack. "Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water," claims public health nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton, who led the 2006 research.
Whether black, green or caffeine-free and herbal, it seems what we really want now is a cup of the good stuff. Leaves which give at least a nod to the plant they were plucked from. Tea manufacturers deny rumours that sweepings from the factory floor go into tea bags, but Louise Allen, a former Tetley taster who launched speciality tea firm Teapigs four years ago, says: "What we're drinking now in tea bags is a lot worse than what Brits were drinking in pots years ago."
Teapigs, which packages its wares in "tea temples" - big, beautiful bags which contain proper leaves - for sale in Harvey Nichols as well as online, has seen its turnover double in the past year. And Waitrose reports an astonishing 40 per cent annual rise in the loose-leaf variety, the more exotic the better: "We've noticed a real surge in speciality teas," says buyer John Stokes.
You won't find Ed Eisler's fine leaf tea in Waitrose or Harvey Nichols. To taste his Jasmine Pearls, Dragon Well or Earl Grey sparkling with blue cornflower petals, you will have to join the customers in Israel and dozens of other countries who have helped make him an online tea millionaire.
Not that the Czech-Jewish Eislers could have imagined when fleeing the Nazis in 1938 that their family fortunes would be boosted by a descendant who intended to practise Chinese medicine, but instead lost his heart to the tea plantations he visited while at university.
"It was actually about Paris," explains the dynamic young head of Jing, which has become a £3 million company in its few years of trading. In that time, Eisler has managed to get Jing into the restaurants of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, as well as top hotels.
But back to Paris, where the young medical student first suspected his future lay not in Chinese herbs, or the acupuncture he was planning to practise, but China tea: "It was around 2000 when I noticed all these tea bars there serving really good tea with a reverence I had never seen in Britain."
In 2006, Jing's turnover was just £100,000. Since then it has grown thirtyfold, and the only problem now for Ed is finding enough days in the year to oversee his busy London office. "I travel to the tea gardens mostly from late March to mid-May to taste the new harvest," he explains, "though it's June for Darjeeling, July for Jasmine and October for Winter Oolong."
Although he remains sniffy on the subject of British tea bars - "there are none I'd drink in myself" - the fact is, they are springing up everywhere. And not just in London, where the likes of Bou Tea in Covent Garden, TeaSmith in Shoreditch and the Tea Box in Richmond are providing a chic environment in which to slurp and dunk.
In Manchester, the Parched Tea Co. serves up 60 varieties in the Arndale Centre, and in Liverpool Leaf Tea holds tasting masterclasses. Leaf, which puzzlingly describes itself as a "punk" teashop, adds wine, wi-fi and late-night DJ sets to the mix to hammer home the point that tea is now cool - or should that be hot?