My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 5 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Anyone for tea?

My feature on the traditional cuppa in today's Irish Examiner

Have you heard that tea is now the new coffee? Mrs Doyle from Father Ted might just keel over from the news, but it seems that after serving for centuries as a humble restorative, soother and social lubricant, the traditional Irish cuppa is now being sexed up for a nation that has become increasingly sophisticated in its approach to all matters food and drink.

During the boom years, Irish people became knowledgeable and demanding coffee and wine connoisseurs, to the extent that most of us now order trans-national, multi-hyphenate brews in our cafes, and cock our noses up at standard sweet German wines that not too long ago would have been categorised with Ferrero Rocher as the height of fanciness.

Having completed our stints in coffee and wine appreciation, Irish people are now becoming more curious about and adventurous with two of the oldest staples in the Irish diet that seemed impervious to change: tea and beer.

Alternative blends such as green and white tea are now in high demand, while supermarket shelves now groan under the weight of stacks of beers of various flavours from all over the world.

“Tea is definitely tracking the wine and coffee revolutions of the last 20-30 years,” says Jeremy Sturges, a Master Blender with tea marketer Twinings. “People used to just drink the same tea morning, noon and night regardless. But people are now more quality-conscious and have started to experiment with a repertoire of teas.

“The beauty of tea is that the styles are massively diverse. Traditional Irish tea tends to be a quite strong brew with lots of body and strength. But from the same tea plant you can get other types of black tea like Darjeeling, which has a sweet, muscatel character, or you could try green tea which is light, clean, and palate-cleansing.”

Martin Mehner, who has just opened the House of Tea in the CHQ building in the IFSC in Dublin, argues that if it seems the traditional cuppa is now being revised, it’s because we knew so little about it to begin with – ironic for a country with the highest rate of tea consumption per head in the world.

“What we got before in this country largely was not tea,” Mehner explains. “What’s in a teabag is the lowest quality of tea available. Tea is so much more.

“Irish people are better educated now, and they travel a lot. They bring ideas back from wherever they were, so there is a demand for quality teas, as much as there is for cheese or wines.

“People have money to spend too, but the big thing is that people are more health conscious today. They know that the likes of green tea and Pu Erh are good for them.”

Our broadened horizons also underscore the rise in popularity of speciality beers in Ireland in recent years. “Certainly in terms of a lot of speciality beers it’s down to foreign travel,” says Dr George Philliskirk, head of the UK-based Beer Academy (that’s not a euphemism for university!).

“The traditional pint isn’t gone away, but certainly in recent years, both in Ireland and the UK, traditional ales, stouts and even lagers have been in decline. There’s been a growing awareness about the more interesting range of beers out there, and an especially large interest in how beer matches with food.

“The thing about beer is that there’s one to suit every mood and situation, depending on where you are, what the weather’s like or if you’re eating. I’ve been involved in brewing since 1970s and I’m still learning new things about the stuff.”

There are already several beer festivals in Europe, and Dr Philliskirk even held a beer appreciation evening in the Donnybrook Fair Café in Dublin lastTuesday. But what about the beloved cuppa and its newfound hip role? Can we expect trendy, Starbucks-type outlets to pop up around the country for busy people to drink their diverse, high-quality teas on the go?

“No, you can’t automate tea making like you can coffee,” Martin Mehner states. “You can’t buy a nice shiny piece of equipment, put the beans in and press a button. Tea is much more versatile than coffee.

“There are a range of coffee beans, but in China alone there is an estimated 3,000 different types of tea, and most of them we don’t even know about. We have over 100 varieties in our store, but that’s a narrow selection.

“Besides, I don’t think it’s in the nature of tea to be shown off. It’s a humble, natural product. You can’t just slap it in a funky cup. There’s a different philosophy and lifestyle behind tea.”
With that in mind, can the reliable, traditional Irish cuppa survive the sophisticated, competitive modern world intact?

Mehner smiles and replies: “I think that in Ireland, the tea was always irrelevant, and it still is to some extent. It was more about coming together, boiling the kettle, winding down, and having a chat. I would like to see people drinking a nice cuppa instead. A quality tea can bring so much more to that experience.”


Best Teas
*Darjeeling: A black tea with an intense, sweet, grapey character that would appeal to traditional Irish tea drinkers.
*Green Tea: Green tea is not fermented, so it contains a lot of Vitamin C and anti-oxidants that kill free radicals that can cause cancer cells.
*Pu Erh: Famous for its slimming properties and for reducing cholesterol. Also the only tea that gets better with time: like wine, a vintage Pu Erh is worth a lot of money.
*White Tea: The least processed brand of tea. Only the unopened top leaf is picked, so everything good that’s in tea is kept intact.
Best beer and food combos:

The Beer Academy advises to always try match beer with regional food.
*Moretti is a light, crisp Italian beer that goes particularly well with Italian foods like pizza and spaghetti.
* Bavarian Hefeweisen: A German wheat beer with a clove-like, smokey character that goes well with sausage and pork.
*Sol: A light Mexican beer that matches well with fajita, enchilada or spicy Mexican dishes.
*Range of Belgian fruit beers – Kriek beers – go well with Green and Black’s organic chocolates.
* IPAs (India Pale Ale): Have a spicy hot character that goes really well with curries and Indians.

No comments: