Britain's Tea Revolution
By Rachel Walker
The exercise of taking afternoon tea has, until recently, conjured up two different, but equally-enduring British scenes.
There's the formal afternoon tea found at Fortnum & Masons and The Savoy: perfectly-cut finger sandwiches, elaborate tarts, individual cakes, matching china and loose leaf tea. Then there's the less-formal afternoon tea found in northern tea rooms and Cornish cafes: crustless sandwiches, still-warm scones, a cake to share, mismatched china and loose leaf tea.
There are distinct similarities between the two styles of tea, most of all their resistance to change in content or form over the past few hundred years. But as Britain entered the twenty-first century, America's coffee culture swept upon our shores and threatened the tranquillity of teatime. Coffee chains pitched up on high streets up and down the country and the 'frappuccino' slipped into everyday language. Yet the tradition of taking tea remained the same. For years the tea industry refused to borrow from its Transatlantic cousin. It simply ran alongside the coffee industry, unwavering, unchanging.
Recently though, there is a new movement bubbling away. A new generation of tea-takers who are borrowing prompts from the coffee industry, and forging a new future for this British institution. The new tea bars popping up in the capital copy the same industrial aesthetic of exposed brick and wrought-iron seen in modern coffee chains. Long lists of loose leaves and blends chalked on the walls detail origin and harvest, and invite connoisseurship. The new-wave tea shops borrow coffee's language too, with 'tearistas' (instead of baristas) taking customers' orders from the bar.
Companies like Henrietta Lovell's Rare Tea Company and Lalani & Co spearheaded the movement. They have helped people rethink the classic pot of Earl Grey with events like 'tea pairing dinners' and tastings using Riedel 0 glasses. Over the past few years though, the movement has broadened in all sorts of different areas. Barmen have been experimenting more and more with tea as an ingredient. Whittard have mimicked the cold brew coffee trend with the launch of their cold brew Tea-Jay, and global players like Australian brand T2 have successfully brought their modern and eclectic ranges of tea accoutrements to London.
As I finish writing it's a sunny afternoon, and I'm sipping on a Roobios Tisane at new East London tea shop, Tiosk. As in a coffee shop, customers can help themselves to sweeteners and milk at the end of the bar (or soy milk, almond milk, lemon slices and makuna honey). My 'afternoon tea' is a low-key event. No pomp and ceremony, not a military finger sandwich in sight, but Ottolenghi-style sponges topped with figs, almonds, compote or yoghurt. A new generation are enjoying afternoon tea. It strikes me that there is a third option, and it's already here.
Photo credits: http://www.lalaniandco.com_LalaniCo_Contact