Reading the Tea Leaves
Steeped in tradition, the rituals of tea are attracting a broader audience
Tea drinking differs from coffee as baseball contrasts with football: Enjoying a cup of tea is a slower-paced, more nuanced experience, sipped and savored rather than gulped.
If, in an increasingly hectic world, that distinction left hot tea behind when coffee shops boomed in the 1980s and ’90s, it also may explain why the tortoise now is catching up. Consumers are rediscovering the pleasures of tea.
“People are looking for ways to slow down in a fast-paced world, and tea provides that,” says Bruce Richardson, co-proprietor of the Elmwood Inn tearoom in Perryville, Ky., and co-author with his wife and business partner, Shelley, of “The Tea Table” (Benjamin Books, 2003), the most recent of five books devoted to tea and food recipes. “We don’t rush guests. We greet them, take their coats and seat them in a parlor, letting them warm by the fireplace in winter, before we take them to a table.”
|Tea is so important at The Peninsula Chicago that the hotel intends to designate a tea sommelier who will educate guests and staff about the beverage.
Even if accompanied by food, as it is at Elmwood Inn, tea should be an “experience, not a meal,” Richardson says, noting that leisure is an uncommon treat in many peoples’ lives. They have earned a “cup of serenity.”
Tea’s relaxing aura also makes it popular at healthcare facilities. Florida Hospital Orthopaedic Institute in Orlando, for example, recently introduced daily afternoon teas where patients and families can take a break and socialize. English teas are served with scones and other pastries.
Despite tea’s profit potential—tea bags and portions of even the priciest imported loose tea leaves cost pennies—many foodservice operations undermarket the beverage. Iced tea is ordered as often as coffee, according to R&I’s 2003 Tastes of America survey, with each drink requested by 44% of respondents. Hot tea, however, had been ordered by just 13%.
If hot tea’s stereotype as preponderantly a woman’s drink holds back operators, it need not. Tastes of America research finds that 13.9% of women and 12.7% of men had ordered it.
“Many couples come to Elmwood Inn, and the first time, it’s probably true that the man is brought by his wife,” says Richardson, who estimates that 30% of guests at its $21 prix-fixe afternoon teas are men. “But we find that very often he makes the reservation for the second. Real men do drink tea.”
T is for tasting
Tea, according to Richardson, is “more closely related to wine than to coffee. Flavor nuances are much more pronounced in tea than in coffee.”
As with wine, superior tea service benefits from a trained staff and educated customers. Since The Peninsula Chicago hotel opened in 2001, Food and Beverage Director Jonathan Crook has expanded the number of tea-related events, finding them a good way to introduce locals to the hotel and its dining venues (including Avenues and Shanghai Terrace restaurants).
The hotel makes 29 different teas available for the afternoon tea served daily in the main lobby. Servers have been educated about flavor differences among varieties and styles so they can assist diners in choosing and enjoying their tea.
During the first quarter of 2004, Crook intends to designate a tea sommelier—likely from among assistant managers—for the hotel. As with its wine counterpart, the job would entail overseeing purchases and staff training. “We take tea seriously,” says Crook, “and having a sommelier says that.”
|Italian décor inspired The Ritz Carlton, Lake Las Vegas to create an Afternoon Florentine Tea in the Firenze Lobby Lounge.
The Peninsula Chicago offers afternoon tea service in the lobby daily from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. for $23 per person ($30 if champagne accompanies the tea). “When the hotel opened, we knew we would do a traditional English afternoon tea,” says Crook. “We’re one of nine Peninsula Hotels, most of them outside the United States, and we have a reputation for elegant teas to uphold.
“In Chicago, interest has been there from the start. We do 60 to 80 covers on weekdays, 150 to 180 daily on weekends, with two seatings.”
In October, The Peninsula added a daily tea from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Pierrot Gourmet, a cafe/wine bar adjacent to (but a part of) the hotel. “The market for this tea is almost totally local, so we priced it aggressively [$19 per person] and gave it a little more of a rustic feel rather than traditional,” says Crook. Scones still are served, along with French baked goods such as smoked salmon tartine and pastries including éclairs.
The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., serves afternoon tea Thursday through Sunday. A special Teddy Bear Tea is held on the first Sunday of each month, with a donation to the city’s Children’s Hospital made for each child attending.
Another trait tea shares with wine is that it can be enjoyed with a wide variety of foods. Scones are a traditional accompaniment, but options shouldn’t end there. “Food is a very important part of a tea, but we have stayed away from cucumber sandwiches, so often associated with afternoon tea,” Crook says. “We let our chef and pastry chef be creative.”
Traditional English tea sandwiches are augmented with more-daring takes, such as butternut-squash purée and radicchio on seven-grain bread. Served at The Peninsula’s special Year of the Monkey Chinese Afternoon Teas last month were Beijing duck quesadillas, California rolls, shrimp spring rolls and Asian-scented poppy-seed scones with house-made mango and pear jams.
Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., has resumed a tradition of afternoon teas—complete with English crumpets—after a 40-year hiatus. And Executive Chef Joh Kobuko prepares tea sandwiches and pastries for afternoon teas at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.