Can the coffee giant make a decent cuppa?
Starbucks is hoping to do for tea what it did for coffee. But the UK already has great, independent tea houses – here are six of the best
This week Starbucks opened its first tea house, the Teavana Fine Teas + Tea Bar, in the Upper East Side, New York. While Teavana has been in existence as a chain of tea shops since 1997, this is the first opening since the ubiquitous coffee company acquired the brand just under a year ago. “Tea has been a part of Starbucks heritage since 1971,” says CEO Howard Schultz, claiming the new offering “elevates the tea experience in the same way we’ve done for coffee.”
So will the Starbucks touch indeed do for tea what they did for coffee? And will it march into high streets the world over? This latest venture is, they say, in response to a 16% increase in American interest in tea over the past five years. The company claims to be harnessing a “$90bn global hot and iced tea category by offering a variety of customer touch points with tea.”
There’s a widespread view that when Starbucks marched into the UK in 1998, there were relatively few decent independent coffee shops across the country, and some argue that the chains have nurtured a taste for better coffee in the UK. This is debatable. But, in any case, tea in Britain is sacrosanct, the answer to every problem, a drink to warm and to cool, to get over bad news, and to accompany cake celebrations and biscuit breaks. How would Starbucks fare rolling out ‘customer touchpoints’ for tea in the UK?
“When Starbucks first came to the UK it opened our eyes to coffee,” says Henrietta Lovell, founder of the Rare Tea Company. “But there are small independents here doing amazing things with tea, so there’s no comparison.”
Silver needle tea at a Teavana store in New York. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters
And with the rise in what’s available comes a surge in popularity for quality brews and loose-leaf tea. “We saw the trend five or six years ago when we opened,” explains Helen Taggart, owner of Metrodeco teahouse in Brighton, “and the popularity of loose leaf tea over the past two years in particular has massively grown.” Lovell, too, cites a 600% growth in sales of her company’s tea to restaurants in the past year alone.
“Tea is becoming increasingly fashionable, and people are looking for new or reinvented creative spaces to enjoy a cuppa,” says Natalie Haywood, owner of Leaf in Liverpool. “We’ve been offering a space like this for four years now, and there are certainly people following suit.”
Tea fans in the UK are a little sniffy about the likely offerings from Starbucks, particularly Teavana’s flavoured teas alongside the white, green and black. “If something similar were to launch in the UK I don’t think we’d go down the French or US route of adding flavours to tea,” Lovell says. “We understand that tea is beautiful in itself and doesn’t need flavouring added. Handcrafted teas have amazing flavours, and if you put the emphasis on quality, not on cost, everyone benefits – the growers, the pickers and the drinkers.”
Across the UK, longstanding and well-loved tea houses such as Betty’s in Harrogate, as well as newer independent places with a contemporary feel, have been reinventing our relationship with tea beyond squeezing the bag, adding milk and two sugars, and giving it a stir. Though teahouses with their own blends are still few and far between, these six are all good examples.
A small tea house in a Georgian building in the market town of Sturminster Newton in North Dorset, you might think this would be a bastion of the frilly doily and floral chinaware. In fact, it’s a clean-lined, contemporary space, which owners Rob and Michelle Comins have painstakingly devoted to tea. You won’t find any coffee here, as Rob explains: “We’re tea experts and are passionate about great tea. Why would we sell something alongside our tea that would dilute the tea experience?”
In the creative heart of Liverpool’s city centre, Leaf has established itself as cultural hub, as well as a place to try a large variety of loose-leaf teas. Drink your tea at one of the large communal tables, and, if tea stops being strong enough, hang on until the evening when Leaf transforms itself into a bar and club hosting a wide range of music, arts, and community events.
Transport yourself back to the 1930s and take your tea at Metrodeco’s Parisian-style tea salon. Its art deco style lends an opulent feel to the taking of tea. “For us it’s about the quality of the leaf, good flavours, and the theatre of the tea pots and strainers,” explains Taggart. “You can relax more with loose leaf and tea becomes an outing, not a pit stop.” They take their blending one step further by adding their infusions to alcohol to make fantastic tea cocktails.
The neutral and unimposing atmosphere of Kasim Ali’s Waterloo Gardens Teahouse takes the focus from the decor and puts it squarely on to the tea, which is carefully sourced, brewed and presented. “Good tea shouldn’t be left in the domain of fancy teahouses and hotels,” Ali explains. “We want to be as welcoming to ‘hipsters’ as to working professionals, serving tea in an everyday space.”
The first company in the world to put the provenance of their tea on every single packet, Postcard Teas are true connoisseurs. Though not strictly a tea house, their tasting sessions will give you an insight into the vast variety of leaves and flavours. Their focus on having a clear supply chain means the attention to detail begins before the tea has even arrived in the shop.
After spending a year visiting plantations, Erica Moore, owner of Eteaket, felt tea was in need of an image overhaul. Her response to bringing leaf tea up to date for the UK is a relaxed tea room in Edinburgh’s New Town. The staff are knowledgable and Eteaket’s commitment to the welfare of their tea pickers makes theirs a particularly satisfying brew.
Where do you like to take your tea? And would you trust Starbucks with your daily cuppa?
Read this article in full as it originally appeared on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog