Tea is growing in popularity in the Western world. Blends first enjoyed centuries ago are coveted once more as the fine tea movement shines a light on them.
The experience of drinking speciality tea shares a lot of similarities with enjoying a glass or two of fine wine. Certain wines can only be grown in certain areas. The same is true for tea. Factors like the tea plant itself, when it’s picked, how it’s picked and how it’s processed also affect how tea looks, tastes and smells.
With a huge amount of different blends, regions, and tastes on offer, the world of speciality tea is as varied as that of fine wine. But are the two really comparable? Read on to find out.
What is speciality tea?
“Speciality tea” can mean different things to different people. But generally, it’s defined as teas that are higher quality and rarer than the average. Similarly to wines, you can find cheaper, lower-grade teas right the way up to rare, speciality teas.
The lowest grade tea leaves are used to make standard supermarket teabags. Sometimes, this includes leaves that have fallen off the plants and are scooped up from the floor. The leaves are ground up into a fine powder and bagged. Once brewed they can lack flavour and character.
High grade (or speciality teas) tend to use whole tea leaves, buds and flowers. Using the whole plant (rather than grinding it up) makes the flavour much stronger and more complex. These teas usually come from small tea-growing estates; the rarest speciality teas can only be grown in certain areas. Generally, speciality teas are hand-processed and are sometimes aged for years to improve their flavour.
Have you ever made a cuppa with a teabag and noticed it tastes different from the last cup you made? That’s because each bag contains varying amounts of tea powder, so it’s difficult to get a consistent cup each time. Once you nail your technique with speciality tea, though, you’ll enjoy the perfect cup every single time.
Is speciality tea comparable to fine wine?
Because of the similarities between fine wine and speciality tea, some people are giving up booze altogether in favour of a hot cuppa.
Tea as an affordable luxury
Some of the top speciality teas sell at auction for more than £1,000 per kilogram. But apart from these pricy outliers, a speciality tea habit is more affordable than a fine wine collection.
You can get your hands on some of our entry-level speciality teas (like Fujian Mao Feng) for around £6.50 for a 50g pack, which will make around 25 cups of tea. Middle of the range fine teas hit the £10 - £20 mark, while our rarest tea, Supreme Oriental Beauty, comes in at £45.
Even the most expensive tea is comparable (if not a bit more affordable) per cup than a fancy bottle of wine.
The beauty of aged tea
Like wine, the flavour of some teas only gets better as they age.
Maturing tea to deepen its flavour started by accident in China, more than 1000 years ago. Back then, it could take a long time to transport tea to the county’s rural areas. To make it easier to carry and less likely to spoil, teas were compressed into bricks and naturally aged over the course of the journey.
The result? A deliciously complex, fermented flavour that’s still prized today. And as an added bonus, aged teas are packed full of nutrients too.
Pu Erh is one of the most popular varieties of aged tea. Fermented using traditional methods, Pu Erh teas are black tea infusions that can be aged for many years. The oldest recorded Pu Erh tea is around 200 years old and would cost thousands to get your hands on. Our 30-year-old Pu Erh tea is a much more affordable alternative, offering a deep, silky smooth brew.
There are other kinds of aged tea beside the black Pu Erh; you can also find matured white, green and other black infusions. Sipping on a cup of matured tea can take you back in time - you’re literally drinking a piece of history.
Tea is taking over top hotels
Some of London’s top hotels are recognising the wonder of speciality tea. Afternoon tea is becoming increasingly popular and these hotels are making sure the “tea” part is just as special as the cake.
Visit The Ritz to pursue an extensive menu of high-grade teas, guided by a certified Tea Sommelier. Lots of other hotels are following suit (like The Mariott where you can enjoy our own blends), sourcing only the best teas to serve alongside sandwiches and cakes.
Pairing tea with food
For years, people in the East have drunk tea with main dishes while in the West, we seem to save our brews for breakfast or cakes. But we’re missing a trick here: the right tea infusion can elevate the plate of food it's paired with.
Think about the flavours in your food and try to match them to your tea. For example, strong, meaty flavours will go best with a robust black tea, whereas a delicate dessert will pair wonderfully with a light white tea. Green tea tends to go well with salads, veggie dishes and sushi, while smoky oolong teas taste brilliant alongside cheese plates.
If you want to find out more about the best teas to pair with your food, check out the ITMA aroma wheel for tea. Designed to mirror the wine aroma wheel, it will help you work out which tea to serve based on aromatics like spicy, sweet and nutty.
A healthier indulgence
Who hasn’t woken up with a fuzzy head after one too many wines? Indulging in tea, thankfully, means no hangovers.
Swapping fine wine for fine tea also opens you up to a whole host of health benefits. Tea is full of antioxidants which can help protect your body from damage and boost your immune system, potentially reducing the risk of some diseases. Most teas are good for the gut too, aiding in digestion and soothing stomach pain.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the taste, tea is sugar-free (unless you add it to your cup). This means you can enjoy the luxury of a rich-tasting brew without needing to worry about your waistline.
An age-old ritual
There’s something extremely special about the ritual of making and enjoying tea. It’s not hard to see why Eastern culture has valued tea ceremonies for centuries; preparing the perfect cup of tea can bring an unrivalled sense of calm.
With the right tools, tea and teaware, brewing a cup of tea is so much more than simply boiling the kettle and pouring water onto a teabag. The ritual is part of the charm when it comes to speciality tea, using traditional techniques that help you feel connected to tea drinkers of the past.
How to get started with speciality tea
Acquiring the taste
Falling in love with fine tea can take some practice. You’ll need to get your palette used to the flavours.
Experiment with different varieties of speciality tea to find the brews you like best. Play around with how you make them too; an extra minute of steeping could bring out a whole new flavour. Generally, the longer you brew your tea the more honey-like it will taste, but be careful not to over brew or you’ll risk a bitter cup.
Speciality tea varieties
Whether you love black, green, or white tea, there is a speciality tea option for you. With luxury, rare and limited edition infusions across all the categories, it’s time to get experimenting. Try as many fine teas as you can to find the ones you love.
White and black tea: Darjeeling First Flush
One of our favourite categories of higher-grade tea is Darjeeling First Flush, sometimes referred to as the Champagne of teas. Picked at the very beginning of the season, these infusions are made up of the youngest, freshest leaves grown in India’s Darjeeling region. Because of this, only a limited number are available.
With several makers in the Darjeeling area, there are a few varieties of First Flush to choose from. Our First Flush Discovery Collection includes six distinctive Darjeeling First Flush teas (from white to black) and is a great way to find your favourite.
Black tea: Pu Erh
As we mentioned earlier, Pu Erh is an aged variety of black tea. Its flavours deepen as it matures, delivering rich, earthy notes.
Pu Erh is growing in popularity in the West and is thought to be one of the best options for high-grade tea. Produced from leaves grown in the Yunnan province of China, each tea maker creates its own unique blend. Sample five different aged teas in our Pu Erh Discovery Collection to find the one that tickles your tastebuds.
Green tea: Dragon Well
China’s Zhejiang province is known as the home of Dragon Well green tea. Sourced from the area, our No 59 Longjing Dragon Well tea is part of a micro-batch and is perfect for anyone who wants to sample green tea at its finest. The most tender buds were picked for this blend, resulting in a creamy cup that tastes like spring.
Want even more fine tea options? Why not browse our rare tea selection.