Most of us know tea in only one form: a prepackaged, mass-produced tea bag found in boxes crowding the shelves of grocery stores, or as a cheap alternative to coffee sitting on the counter at coffee shops. The ingredients within the bag are virtually unidentifiable, given they’ve been crushed up into a tasteless powder that often requires an added teaspoon of sugar to make up for the lack of flavour.
“Tea is not meant to be served as dust; tea blends should smell like the ingredients that are in it and look like it too,” said David Segal, founder and owner of Canadian tea shop chain David’s Tea. “People are probably desperate to learn that there is more to the world of tea than what is found in their cupboards.”
Segal might be onto something, because according to the Tea Association of Canada, the tea industry is experiencing strong growth across the country. The Association attributes this growth to increasing awareness of health benefits that have been associated with drinking tea. Numerous specialty tea shops have opened recently and many grocery stores have expanded their tea selections.
According to Chinese mythology, tea was discovered by the legendary Emperor, Shennong, around 2700 B.C. after a tea-leaf accidentally fell into his bowl of hot water. Tea was introduced in Canada, when the Hudson Bay Company began importing it in 1716. In England and North America, tea has long been associated with the afternoon tea ritual, a social custom meant to fill the gap between breakfast and dinner.
However, over the last fifteen years, researchers have found the afternoon tradition does more than kill time. In fact, drinking certain blends of tea may strengthen the immune system, bones and teeth, ease digestion and might even offer some protection against cardiovascular disease and various cancers.
According to tea retailers, the way Canadians buy tea, and their perceptions of the beverage, are rapidly changing and more people are turning to loose-leaf tea blends. Unlike prepackaged tea, loose-leaf tea is stored in large canisters and sold per gram. This ensures the tea leaves and the other ingredients like fruits and flowers don’t get crushed, and maintain the blends’ original flavour, moisture and freshness.
In 2008, entrepreneur Segal decided he was going to conquer this market by opening up a “trendy” tea shop on Queen St. in Toronto. Since then he has opened seven more David’s Tea locations, including three in Montreal.
“Tea requires service and I think that is what we’ve brought to the market that the customer’s embracing,” said Segal. “There’s somebody here to show you how to make it, to explain the different blends, to tell you what the benefits are, and where the tea comes from. It’s a full-fledged tea experience.”
Each of his stores are distinguishable by their hardwood floors, rows of tea-filled metal cylinders and the signature blue mugs, cups and walls. At every location, there’s a place for customers to sit and relax while sampling the tea of the day.
“We treat tea like one would treat fashion &- each season we have a new collection,” said Segal. “For fall we have flavours like Pumpkin Chai and Apple Cinnamon &- flavours that compliment the foliage.”
Daniel Ng, owner and founder of Cha Guan, a Chinese tea shop in Monkland Village in N.D.G., agrees with Segal that tea flavours must compliment the season. He says winter is the most important time of year to drink tea, particularly certain Chinese teas which contain herbs designed to cure illnesses and to help prevent a cold or flu.
Cha Guan is only a few blocks from a street corner housing a Starbucks, Second Cup and Java U, but Ng says he gets a lot of people coming into his shop asking him to help them curb their caffeine addiction. While green and black teas contain caffeine, the proportion is lower than in coffee. Herbal teas, or tisanes, aren’t made from tea leaves and don’t contain caffeine.
“People are now aware of just how much healthier tea is than coffee,” says Ng. “And since everyone today wants to be healthy they want to cut down on their coffee which I can help them do.”
Even though loose-leaf tea is more expensive, Ng explains customers are willing to pay the difference because the quality is much higher.
Ng thinks the tea industry will continue to grow, although he doubts it will surpass that of coffee. But, he says any growth is great because the more people know about tea, the more of a demand there will be for better quality tea, from both specialty tea shops and large manufacturers like Twinnings and Tetley.
Now, for the most important question: is there a special tea for combating exam-related stress? Ng suggests a Ginseng Oolang tea to help with concentration, and any blend of white tea to fight off anxiety. Segal recommends a traditional Japanese green tea, or a mint tea from North Africa.