The Leaf Branches Out

Unlike many beverages, tea has been less affected by the recent recession. Indeed, as the economic picture brightens, sales of tea products are rising. In 2010, tea imports were up 10 percent over the previous year, to a record 274 million pounds, according to estimates by the Tea Association of the U.S.A.

Perhaps overshadowed in this country by specialty coffee purveyors, tea is, after water, the most consumed beverage globally. Of course, Starbucks et al. also serve a substantial amount of iced and hot tea and chai drinks. Additionally, there are some 3,000 specialty tea rooms in the U.S.

Mixologists are also reaching for the leaf to create innovative cocktails, with tea infusions. Tea accented liqueurs like Zen Green Tea and Qi are gaining adherents, and Absolut recently released a Wild Tea Vodka, flavored with oolong and elderflowers. However, much of the action in the tea arena is in RTD beverages. Bottled iced teas have proliferated over the past few years. And thanks to the leaf’s well-documented health benefits, tea is often a key ingredient in the rising category of functional drinks as well. The RTD tea market totaled $3.30 billion in 2010, according to the Tea Association.

For operators, RTD drinks are easy to buy, store and sell. But preparing iced and hot teas from scratch is more profitable. Plus, freshly brewed tea, properly promoted, can be a point of differentiation for your restaurant. The interest is there among consumers. The Tea Association predicts dollar sales of specialty teas will increase 5 to 8 percent in 2011.


Hot Profession

A tea sommelier is the bridge between the culinary and tea worlds,” declares Cynthia Gold, one of just a handful of professionals in the world with that title. As tea sommelier for the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, Gold supervises the hotel’s popular Afternoon Tea, develops tea cocktails, creates “tea cuisine” dishes, blends the hotel’s signature teas and devises tea-accented special events.

Offered Friday through Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., Afternoon Tea is held in the hotel’s Pairings restaurant. It’s priced at $29.50 and includes three courses of scones, tea sandwiches and sweets paired with appropriate teas. “Afternoon Tea is quite popular with a wide variety of demographics—families, couples and groups,” says Gold.

The tea sommelier will also conduct private tastings with guests upon request. “Pairing tea is really no different from any other beverage. You can pair for balance, for compatibility to tease forward flavors or for contrast. You look at texture, flavor and aromatics,” explains Gold. And, as with red wine, tea has tannins that aptly balance rich foods. However, hot tea’s heat adds another pairing dimension. “Heat can cleanse fats off the palate or dramatically change the impact with cheeses or chocolates, for instance, melting more smoothly or quickly,” she notes.

Gold used her expertise to create a unique line of tea cocktails. The Plaza Citrus Tea-zer ($12) is made with green tea-infused rum, coconut and lemongrass shaken with grapefruit juice and syrup infused with more green tea, lemongrass and fresh basil; the drink is served in a martini glass with a splash of champagne. The Southern Earl Grey ($11) is a Champagne cocktail with a splash of Earl Grey-infused bourbon, Grand Marnier, green tea and ginger syrup and orange bitters. The Keemun Cream ($10.50) is Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur with Keemun Hao Ya A (a rare black tea) infused in vodka. Gold also infuses White Port with black tea, rose petals and lavender for a floral drink.

“I developed the cocktails the same way I would create any recipe,” explains Gold, a Johnson & Wales and CIA alumnus.

Most of the food items offered during Afternoon Tea, as well as a number of dishes served at Pairings, are Gold’s tea-cuisine creations. For example, scallops are poached in Lapsang Souchong tea, gravlax is cured with Yin Hao Jasmine, and a tea-smoked salt seasons potato chips served as a bar snack.

This focus on tea gives the Boston Park Plaza a competitive edge when it comes to attracting groups for special events.

“A tea cocktail party with tea-cuisine canapés is a unique option for hosts booking parties,” says Gold. Last year, the hotel hosted a “tea wedding” for a couple who loved tea and wanted to take the event’s emphasis away from alcohol. “For the reception, we served tea cuisine canapés and the wedding meal had tea cuisine running through it.”