It is said that the British love little more than a cup of tea, but this affection is not shared by Unilever. Its 4.5 billion euro sale this week of some of the world’s biggest and most historic tea brands, including Lipton, PG Tips, and Brooke Bond, shows just how less sentimental companies can be.
It also raises a troubling question: Is black tea, brewed in a teapot and served with milk, becoming a relic? Sir Thomas Lipton created one of the world’s premier consumer brands in to acquire plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1890s and selling tea leaves at low prices in yellow packets. But sales have plummeted in developed markets and Unilever will no longer be polishing its Imperial jewelry.
Many drinks, from aromatic tonic water to espresso coffee, have gained some quality followers in recent years. When Pret A Manger decided to attract its customers during the pandemic, it created a monthly “coffee subscription” (tea is included, but not in the title). Tea is now treated like an aging parent: reliable and heartwarming, but boring.
Can tea do better? Both green and black teas have medicinal qualities – drinking tea regularly has been find to reduce cardiovascular disease and even type 2 diabetes. Tea is a mild stimulant, with less caffeine than coffee but enough to boost the morale of the drinker, and there is no need to alter the taste with sugar. What’s not to like?
Many drinks are now presented in the form of tea, from herbal teas to kombucha. Twinings does good business in cold brew – herbs and fruit essences in a bag to flavor the water. Unilever owns Tazo, an American brand of teas such as Dream, a “soothing blend of superstar valerian root, soothing chamomile, aromatic lavender, almond and sweet vanilla notes”. Thank you but no.
The proliferation of herbal drinks in many kitchen cupboards has transformed the simple question “Do you want a cup of tea?” »In a quiz in several parts. But the thing itself – what is commonly referred to as English breakfast tea – hasn’t made much headway. The last burst of excitement came when PG Tips unveiled the pyramid shaped tea bag a quarter of a century ago.
The industrial designer Raymond Loewy pioneer of principle “most advanced, but acceptable” products; they should push the boundaries of convention without alienating customers. But, like some other mature packaged goods, black tea has gradually regressed to its less advanced, but acceptable form. As for iced tea, the American variant, let’s not talk about it.
Unilever is the main culprit, as it got stuck with a bunch of unpromising brands. It’s a struggle to extract great taste from Lipton’s yellow brand tea bags in the United States, and PG Tips is the classic British “builder’s tea”. The latter was outmoded as the best-selling British brand in 2019 by Twinings, whose queen is said to drink (not made with bags, I guess).
But tea suffers from an identity problem: the substance we drink regularly comes in a processed form called CTC (crush, tear curl) in which the leaves are Browse cylindrical rollers to create small pellets. This 1930s technology produces black tea with a strong flavor that is ideal for tea bags, spear in modern form by Lipton in 1952.
Lipton tea standardized in the UK and US in the late 19th century, making the product more consistent and safer at a time when tea packed in chests was often adulterated with twigs and contaminants. Like Coca-Cola, Cadbury, and other emerging brands of the day, Lipton sold Comfort.
The original blend was also superior to the contents of most Lipton tea bags today. It was orange pekoe loose leaf tea (one ranking the size of the leaves and the space on the branch) of his own plantations – the quintessential Victorian of single origin traceability – with brewing instructions.
Tea has long been rooted in the house, unlike the history of coffee which was brewed in the 17th and 18th centuries. cafes and 50s espresso bars. It has become a staple that has been drunk around the hearth, says Markman Ellis, professor at Queen Mary University in London: “It’s domestic and familiar, and it must be wilder and more expensive.”
Starbucks beat instant and mediocre filter coffee by convincing people to pay extra for espresso and experience. Nespresso then came up with something similar in pods. But high-end tea bars struggle to woo customers with what seems ordinary, and I find tea at Costa Coffee, with the bag left floating in milky water, inferior to the house.
A revival is however possible. I had a nice cup of tea in a porcelain pot at Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair the other day, and it was worth it. Emilie Holmes, founder of Good & Good Tea, a tea company in London, says working from home helps sales: “People have a little more time for daily rituals, rather than dunk and dash.”
These are the ingredients for the tea that enhance both the CTC sachets and the odd fruitiness, even though Unilever himself has lost faith. Before Lipton’s industrial intervention, 19th-century hosts used to leaf mixes in teapots and let them steep gently for a few minutes before serving their guests. Call it mindfulness.