We are officially the world's number one tea drinkers, and at least some of us are doing it for health and mood benefits, writes ALANA KIRK-GILLHAM
AT LAST, the Irish come top of the scoreboard. No, not the 2012 Olympics – although if tea drinking was a sport, we’d be awash in gold medals.
The Irish now drink more tea per capita than any other nation in the world – between six and seven cups a day. Thats an estimated 7lbs of dry leaves each a year.
We’ve always liked our black stuff, but increasingly, we’re doing it to boost our health.
Tea is as traditional as a turf fire. It’s rooted in our culture, with serving tea a social ritual in homes and businesses across the country.
Like coffee a decade ago, tea is fast becoming a booming business, with an estimated market worth €82 million, and, like coffee cafes before them, a plethora of tea rooms are springing up all over the country, endorsed perhaps by a resurgence in popularity of retro china cups and tea sets.
What’s more interesting is the rapid increase in the sale of speciality teas; sales have doubled over the last five years as Irish tea drinkers become more sophisticated in their tastes and lifestyles, choosing tea for reasons of health, lifestyle and moods.
Laura Pasquetti, buyer for the Kilkenny group, has seen a huge increase in popularity.
“Tea is the new ‘it’ drink,” she says. “Like coffee last decade, tea is the drink of this decade. As tea is on trend now, the demographic has changed dramatically.
“More of the young, cool set can be seen in our restaurants sipping teas of all flavours and types, and a new young generation of tea drinkers has emerged.”
The sale of vintage teacups, cake plates and tiered cake stands are all gaining popularity and Lasquatti admits that buying tea sets as wedding presents is back in vogue.
Tapping into this trend is a new Irish tea brand, named after the fictional tea lady, Mrs Doyle. Sparked by a girlie discussion round the teapot in a Dublin kitchen two years ago, Mrs Doyle’s Tea is a newcomer to the Irish market.
Heather Kingston explains how it began. “We decided that Barry’s wasnt doing it for us. We wanted teas that were aimed at us – young professional women with adventurous lives and busy days. The teas we developed appeal to various times of day and various moods, from the Chill Out Tea, to Detox Green Tea, Ultimate Energy Tea and Happy Tea. Appealing to younger tastes, Mrs Doyle’s Teas have become a hit at the summer festivals. Suddenly, tea is cool.
Heather agrees: “Making a pot of tea has become fashionable again, especially among young women, and in these days of recession, having a friend over for a good cup of tea and a treat is more and more popular. And of course, we’re becoming more conscious of the health benefits.”
Pasquetti explains why speciality teas are gaining prominence in places like Avoca and Kilkenny shops and restaurants. “Initially the fun and quirky aspect of Mrs Doyle’s is what attracted me to the brand. But the flavours and quality of the tea is what drove me to list the range in our shops.”
So what exactly are the health benefits of tea? Long before someone added hot water and a global obsession was born, tea leaves were originally used as medicine. They were thought to clear headaches, weariness and rheumatism.
But today, the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis are also known to include pharmaceutical properties such as powerful antioxidants which can combat heart disease, strengthen the immune system, reduce bad cholesterol and aid digestion.
Tea also helps restore the chemical balance in your stomach, which makes it the perfect after-meal drink, as it helps reduce heartburn.
A word of caution. Recent research released by the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow has suggested that men who drink more than seven cups of black tea a day can add to their risk of prostate cancer.
Most previous research had shown no link(and a preventative quality in green tea).
Researchers admit it was unclear whether it was the black tea itself adding to the risk, or the fact that tea drinkers tend to be healthier and live longer, making prostate cancer more common anyway. More research is needed in this area.
Martin Mehner founded House of Tea in 2001. “I arrived in Ireland from Germany and discovered there was nowhere to get a good, loose-leaf tea. I started buying for personal drinking, and then realised there was a market, and established myself as a tea merchant.”
Now selling to individuals and businesses around the country, he also recently opened the House of Tea in Rathmines.
However, he doesn’t see the explosion of tea rooms as competition to coffee-centred cafes. “People will stick with coffee as a quick fix. But tea needs more care. It’s more of a ritual, and enjoyment comes from sitting down and enjoying it with a nice piece of cake.”
Tea appeals to different moods, which is something that sets it apart from other drinks, and makes it the second most consumed drink in the world, after water.
Mehner agrees. “People ask me what my favourite tea is, but it depends on the mood I’m in or the time of day,” he says. He believes the tea market in Ireland is huge and mainly untapped as our awareness of what tea can be develops.
“People drink tea for two reasons – taste and health,” he says. “I cringe when I hear the word ‘speciality’ tea. They’re not a speciality – that is how tea should actually be.”
While teabags have made tea a fast food, the benefits and tastes of loose leaf tea are marked and, as such, the process of using loose tea and a teapot is returning.
This is because the most antioxidants and flavour are found in the top leaves, which make up the loose leaf teas. Leaves for teabags are usually made from the whole stem.
But Mehner says that he doesn’t just drink quality tea because of its benefits to our health.
“If you serve a lovely cup of tea when friends come round – a nice Darjeeling, for example – and make everyone feel good, that is the benefit. In Ireland, there is a huge social ritual around boiling the kettle. You might as well make it a good one.”