Once upon a time, in the 19th century, Australians drank the most tea in the world per capita; today we hardly trouble the statisticians. But is there a storm in a teacup brewing?

I live in a quiet, village-like suburb of Sydney wedged between a neighbourhood known for its Italian heritage, full of excellent gelato and coffee, and one some people (people who have never been to China, it seems) call ‘little Shanghai’, rich with dumpling and noodle joints and an homage to Mei Quong Tart, the Sydney mandarin who opened Australia’s first tea rooms.

My local supermarket sells ready-to-drink vegan organic kombucha and has not one but two sections dedicated to tea: one aisle with boxes of the usual teabag brands and another shelf in its hipster section displaying specialty loose-leaf. In the village itself there are numerous cafes selling quality coffee, but only one place I would go for a cup of tea, though I don’t because I have all the tea on its menu at home and I prefer to spend my money on the skill of the barista.

It’s a tale I hear at events I run for the Sydney Tea Tastings Meetup group, a loose-knit collective of tea-lovers. Unless we head to a tea-specific venue, most of us would rather drink tea at home because the options out there are limited. Plenty don’t even trust venue staff to make a basic English Breakfast tea to our liking.

“People have for a long time accepted a ‘tea bag in a cup’ at the same time their coffee-drinking companions have a choice of two or three single origins or blends from around the world,” says Sharyn Johnston, founder of Australian Tea Masters and the Australian International Tea Expo. “Tea drinkers are beginning to unite and are starting to demand a better quality tea range and higher standards for presenting tea. I think we will see an increase in tea bars, tea menus will become more interesting, and we will become more aligned to coffee.”

Special tea

There have always been small cottage industry tea brands but only recently have new players started to gain traction in the market, says Johnston. “The larger tea brands have been affected by the niche specialty tea brands and this will continue as more come into the market.”

One Australian success story is T2, which grew out of a love of—funnily enough—homewares. Seeing too much competition in the homewares space, Maryanne Shearer and her business partner at the time decided to sell tea and teaware. Since 1996, T2 has been defined by its strong branding and funky merchandising, and is still Australia’s best known specialty tea brand, although Shearer sold it to multinational Unilever in 2013.

The growing interest in specialty tea prompted Corinne Smith to start the Sydney Tea Festival in 2014 alongside co-founders Amara Jarratt, Smith’s partner at The Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar in Sydney, and Renee Creer, owner of specialty green tea brand Perfect South. The first year pulled a crowd of about 5,000 tea-lovers; in 2015, the modest venue welcomed more than 10,000.

The trio now head Tea Festivals Australia, which will debut its first event in Melbourne, acknowledged as the specialty tea-drinking capital of Australia, on 29 May at the high capacity Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. “The Australian tea industry is currently thriving with more interest than ever from tea-loving consumers ready for unique and high-end specialty teas,” says Smith of this move. “Companies are responding and new, boutique tea blenders are popping up left, right and centre, which is really exciting to see.”

Who’s drinking tea in Australia?

Most of the tea drinkers I meet are women, about 60:40 to men. Based entirely on what I have seen, I’d say that there are more women than men interested in specialty tea appreciation. However, of the tea-drinking men, the proportion interested in tea appreciation is higher than for women.
Many younger tea drinkers do not arrive at specialty tea through a history of tea drinking in their family or culture. Even if they have a family heritage or cultural connection, they tend to explore other beverages before deciding to commit to tea and often come via coffee, wine and whiskey, or flavoured teas, including bubble tea. The 40-plus tea drinkers tend to convert to specialty tea from drinking black tea—they are already tea drinkers but have started to explore different types due to better access to fine tea.
There is also a segment—young female—largely interested in functional teas. They drink tea for health reasons rather than for appreciation. 

A tea culture still unripe

In my eyes, the Australian market still has a long way to go to mature. A lot of the tea drinkers I meet regard flavoured, scented and/or blended tea as definitive of the specialty tea sector. There is rarely an understanding of terroir and only a minority have experienced and appreciated the amazing differences between tea grown and processed in one area or plantation versus another. Only by leveraging wine parallels do relatively immature tea-lovers start to understand specialty single origin tea. Pu’er, for example, is extremely difficult to explain to an absolute beginner.

It is important, however, not to make the mistakes the wine industry made when educating the public, which is to say the tea industry needs to avoid becoming elitist and snobbish. I have personally adopted the attitude of opening palates, which is to say I’ve taught myself not to judge someone who nominates Earl Grey as their favourite tea, but will instead encourage them to try tea they’ve never tasted before.

But tea is not alone in this regard. While barista-made coffee is standard, there are still comparatively few people who appreciate single origin and specialty coffee. Perhaps the next step for us is not to focus on the type of tea served in venues but the way it is served.

David Parnham, President of the Australasian Specialty Tea Association, says the hospitality sector is due for a tea change and observes there is now a “scientific approach to tea infusion” used by many cafes. He believes that as technology evolves we can expect the introduction of “more refined and automated tea brewing equipment”.

Johnston stakes more on staff training. She says Australian Tea Masters classes, such as the Tea Sommelier and Tea Blending courses, are becoming more popular. Tea consultants such as David Lyons of 18ThirtyFour have also been hired to train hospitality staff in tea service.

The first Tea Masters Cup, hosted by Johnston, will be one way tea service can encourage professionalism. Furthermore, says Parnham, “the rise of tea competitions will engage consumer interest and increase media interest.”

And while I’m not personally keen on tea becoming a competitive pursuit, I do recognise that events which bring tea-lovers together demonstrate to the industry that there is a significant, largely untapped, market for tea. It’s why I continue to run tea tastings and why I hope there will come a time when well-made tea in Australia is as ubiquitous as barista-made coffee.

Reading the tealeaves

What’s in store for the Australian tea industry?

Sharyn Johnston: “More chefs are becoming interested in tea and food pairing, plus including tea in their cooking. There will also be more of a push for naturally grown tea and more information on farm origin.”

Corinne Smith: “The climate is an interesting aspect of the Australian tea culture.  We’re into iced tea, but nowhere near as much as the Americans and many avoid tea in the warmer weather. This is a great opportunity for educating tea-lovers on the versatility of tea as a cold beverage from your standard iced tea through to things like tea-based milkshakes, smoothies and other interesting uses of the leaf. Cold-brew and carbonated tea will also trend, as will the use of unique ingredients for blending.”

David Parnham: “General FMCG will still be dominated by traditional black teas, but there’s a strong growth in herbal blends and a very strong influence on health and detoxification and functional teas. Consumers will lean more toward sustainable and healthy alternatives.”

It’s a tea date!

Tea Masters Cup (Melbourne)15 May 2016

Melbourne Tea Festival29 May 2016

Sydney Tea Festival21 August 2016

Australian International Tea Expo (Melbourne), featuring the Golden Leaf Awards, 
30 March-1 April 2017