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The greatest trend of them all: Reading the tea leaves for 2022 and beyond

By Dilhan C Fernando

A new generation is driving change in a tea category where for decades price has meant more than taste or goodness. The trend they are forcing is about taste and wellness, but so much more. As younger customers turn to tea, they are demanding a more sincere appreciation of ethics and sustainability. This offers a glimmer of hope for passionate tea growers who make tea for the love of the leaf.

Predicting trends in tea was a lot easier a few years ago. There wasn’t much choice—black tea—with or without milk, Earl Grey or Lemon, green tea, and maybe a couple of herbs like Chamomile and Peppermint. Fortunately, that’s history now. Accelerated by an explosion in gastronomy, tea drinkers’ tastes for adventure brought Oolongs, artisanal teas and a multitude of herb—not really tea, but tisanes—into the picture. Then came the pandemic and the volatility the world experienced seeped into our brewing habits.

Dilmah founder Merrill J Fernando with his sons Dilhan C Fernando and Malik J Fernando.A single word that sums up the change—mindfulness. In the new norm, tea drinkers are more mindful than ever of the goodness in what they eat and drink. Tea has an abundance of the good stuff. Good quality black, green, oolong and white tea naturally have uniquely high flavonoid content. Flavonoids are antioxidants that can protect our bodies from oxidative stress—a key factor in the development of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, dementia and other non-communicable diseases. Antioxidants in tea are also said to boost immunity and help the body cope with emotional stress. Who wouldn’t want a mugful of all that?

That’s not all consumers are becoming mindful of; with the new normal fraught with climate anxiety and greater awareness of social and economic inequality, consumers want—more than ever—to drink what is good for others too. That’s great, but also a little ironic because it was in the name of making product affordable for consumers that retailers and monopolistic brands around the world forced the race to the bottom in pricing and promotions, creating the human and environmental consequences we see in most producing countries today.

Hand picking just the two leaves and the bud.There lies another complication to predicting what might be in 2022 and beyond, because no matter what consumers desire, the products they consume are still determined significantly by the choice they have in their local store. And that is decided by which major brands dominate that space, which quality brands can afford both good quality (i.e. more expensive) tea and the phenomenally expensive real estate known as the supermarket shelf. The answer to that is, not many. The internet helps deliver choice and despite the dominant e-tailers and their similarly expensive promotional demands, we have hope of a more equitable marketplace one day.

For us there is only one way to make good tea. It involves picking leaves and bud by hand, making tea according to an artisanal tradition in a sustainable relationship with nature, and by workers who are paid a fair wage. As with any ethical endeavour, profits must be shared with the less fortunate. The formula is logical and, for a family tea company, non-negotiable. For an industry with a harsh colonial history, and a hostile environment defined by discount culture, it is more complicated. Yet the good stuff in tea is where there is change for the better.

Tea and mindfulness align elegantly, so which teas can we expect to see in future? That’s one area where there is definitely a long tail, with taste adventure in tea wonderfully fragmented into a multiplicity of personal preferences, brewing methods, garnishes, recipes, pairings and cultural preferences. There is no other beverage that can equal tea when it comes to the myriad hues, aromas, flavours, textures and their agreeable synergy with food.

The Dilmah family business tastes 10,000 teas each week.

Non-alcoholic drinks are trending, but without compromise on theatre and taste. Every specialty loose leaf tea fulfills that requirement, adding the allure of aroma, flavour and texture crafted by none other than Nature herself.

Also trending is escapism, drinkers seeking to get away from the harshness of the present, even for a moment. That points to Chai—a delicious, comforting, profusion of strong tea with dairy, almond or oat milk, with mint, pepper, chili, star anise or other spices, herbs and roots, and even a dash of alcohol, like my favourite Saturday afternoon indulgence, Dilmah Pirate’s Chai (with Rum). Chai can be personalised to every individual taste, culture, moment and ingredient preference because there is no perfect chai, only a multitude of tastes which tell the chai puller’s personal story. Have a look at our Book of Chai for a few hints.

Tea in 2022 and beyond is also likely to pivot around authenticity. Like antioxidants, that’s a feature that real tea offers in plenty. The traditional method of making tea is based on respect for nature—handpicking the most tender leaves, where flavour and natural antioxidants are highest, withering the leaf to concentrate both, rolling in a manner that mimics what physicians did 5,000 years ago as they made tea, then as a medicine. Finally fermenting (black and oolong tea) and then firing or drying. With the tea plant, camellia sinensis, so dramatically shaped by a confluence of natural factors like wind, sunshine, rain, humidity and soil, that method of manufacture nurtures in each batch of tea a very specific expression of nature—its terroir.

There is no single tea that represents this particular allure in tea, but a thousand different teas, which vary over time, and are as changeable as the weather that influences flavour, aroma, texture and appearance in tea. It extends over black tea, from light to intense, through oolongs dark and light, green teas from floral to slightly bitter and white teas from aromatic to delicate.

Mindfulness aside, tea has always been a very social herb. With its imperial roots in China, its royal debut in Europe, the etiquette, poetry and parties that characterised its evolution, tea has always invoked conversation and relationships.

There is now scientific research to back up the assertion of ancient poets who referred to the ability of tea to inspire and uplift mood and mental state. This adds to the role and function of tea in the 21st century, when unprecedented escalation of mental health concerns demand kindness. There is simple, affordable impact in shared mugs of tea with friends, family or strangers for whom a moment of friendship could be much more significant than what it may seem.

There will certainly be a greater appreciation of the taste, goodness and purpose in fine and perfectly brewed tea. Even with the faintly ridiculous tea brewing methods that are being touted as the perfect method by a throng of internet experts in tea, the appreciation of the finest teas will grow alongside the appreciation of authenticity and love for produce, because fine tea can only be produced with love. The aged, mixed, unloved and heavily discounted stuff will continue to sell and delight marketers though only until they win their race to the bottom in discounting and find that it is time to sell their brands.

The t-Lounge by Dilmah is an upscale, elegant place designed around the enjoyment and appreciation of fine tea.The dreams of many passionate tea growers have unjustly met their demise in a market where the short-term pleasure of discount outweighed the long-term benefit of quality. Growers who produce teas with love, were previously exploited by a colonial economic system, but not a lot has changed with a universally detrimental discount culture taking its place. That is changing though—hopefully—as enlightened, empowered and empathetic consumers seek change for better quality teas for themselves and better lives for the people that make the produce they consume. This will gladden the hearts of tea growers because the indulgence, variety, purity, authenticity and provenance in fine tea is without parallel and it is a joy that too few have experienced.

That prediction is likely to evolve as 21st century tea drinkers realise the inspiring synergy that exists between tea and food with the right tea having the ability to enhance flavour, texture, mouthfeel and then … wait for it .. aid digestion, helping the body manage sugars, excrete fats and finally cleanse the palate. Tea is a very special herb—devoid of ethnic, religious or cultural barrier, imbued with taste defined by nature and the promise of goodness and friendship.

The true test of the adventure that is an emerging trend in tea, will not be limited to taste, but also in broader consciousness of ethics and sustainability in tea.

With the realisation that the unceasing discounts come at the cost of fair wages, quality and sustainability, must come fair prices because that the natural beginning and end for genuinely fair trade. That alone will be sufficient to brew up a wonderful combination of variety, authenticity and innovation led by the passionate producers who were the reason tea became a global phenomenon. That is the most promising trend for tea, fair prices leading to genuine social and environmental sustainability, enabling producers to devote themselves to producing beautiful teas, with kindness to nature and community.

That must rank as the greatest trend of them all—a genuinely sustainable combination of sensory and functional—taste and mindfulness—that tea drinkers and tea growers can celebrate together.

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