Here's how hotels are redefining the tea experience for their guests while adding to their revenues

What was once quintessentially an Indian experience is now being adopted by the world as a spiced Chai Latte, a malty, robust, spiced and sweet concoction, catapulting chai into a premium millennial drink

Tea, Gourmet tea, Tea packaging, Tea pairing, Hotel tea experience, Bala Sar da, Founder & CEO - Vahdam Teas, Manu Nair, Director – F&B, Goa Marriott Resort & Spa, Samuel Massey, Director of Food &Beverage, Vivanta New Delhi, Dwarka, The Leela Udaipur

In India, tea is considered to be more than just a way of life. It is also a ritual, our cultural marking, a celebration, or even an escape from a stressful life. In 2018, India was the second-largest producer of tea in the world, with an estimated production of 1,183.27 million kilograms. Assam had the highest production of tea in the fiscal year 2019; the number now stands at 322 million kg, 7% more than a year ago.

What was once quintessentially an Indian experience is now being adopted by the world as a spiced Chai Latte, a malty, robust, spiced and sweet concoction, catapulting chai into a premium millennial drink. Manu Nair, Director – F&B, Goa Marriott Resort & Spa says, “Tea is a stimulator, a beverage that you look forward to drinking every morning and evening, to help you deal with the day or unwind at the end of it.

The entire process of growing, hand-picking of leaves, careful sorting and harvesting is fascinating and a premium-grade cup of tea commands a fitting price.

Tea is not just therapeutic, but great to taste, besides being zero calories.” The rise and rise of gourmet tea Hotels serving teas beyond the regular Earl Grey and Darjeeling have helped popularise gourmet teas. Cafes and restaurants in hotels now serve single estate teas and unique blends. According to Manas Tiwari, F&B Manager, Roseate Hotels & Resorts, tea is a gastronomical delight,marked by the variance in geography and the tea estates they are grown in. Apart from being a gastronomical delight, teas have also evolved into a wellness drink. Subrata Mukherji, Business Head, Typhoo India says, “Owing to its wellness property, tea is treated as a versatile ingredient and used in mocktails, cocktails and summer coolers. The rise in sales can be attributed to demands from the millennials.”

The making of a gourmet tea

Brewing a good cup of chai is an art and everything lies in how well it is balanced. Bala Sarda, Founder & CEO, Vahdam Teas believes gourmet tea is much like fine wines. “The flavours of tea are so sensitive that everything from the terroir of the farm to harvesting techniques, processing and storage impacts its flavour profile, aroma, freshness and experience, and commands a premium.”

The entire process of growing and harvesting is fascinating and a premium-grade cup of tea commands a fitting price. Darjeeling teas, considered the ‘Champagne of Teas’, grows on the foothills of the great Himalayas. The region has rich and fertile soil, the air is clean and there is a right amount of sun and rainfall, which significantly impacts the flavour profile of the tea grown in these Himalayan plantations. So, rare Darjeeling teas have a delicate and flowery profile, with a slight hint of astringency. Assam tea, on the other hand, is characterised by fertile lowlands that are fed by the Brahmaputra river, receive heavy rainfall, and have a hot and humid climate which contributes to its brisk, robust and malty flavour and bright colour.

At the Emperor Lounge, The Taj Mahal Hotel - Mansingh Road, 26 tea varieties are served, from Panch Dhatu Tea to Rooibos Apple.

A great cup of tea requires careful hand-picking of leaves, the right amount of processing, careful sorting, efficient packing, and getting it to the consumers in the shortest time possible, so that it retains its garden-like freshness and flavour. Tiwari, however, offers a slightly different version of a great tea. He says, “A good cup of tea should be brewed at the right temperature, served in beautiful teacups from a stunning teapot, and feel fresh to the palette.”

As wellness finds its way to the centrestage of people’s lives, particularly after the COVID-19 scare, tea, with its various health benefits, will find increased acceptance. The ingredients extracted from various parts of the tea plant, such as bark, stem, root, leaf or bud have medicinal properties that help in dealing with a lot of health issues.

The hotel tea experience 

In India, teas have been trying to move up the value chain and hotels play a major role on this front. At Port Muziris, Kochi, A Tribute Hotel by Marriott, guests are treated to an unusual tea tasting session at Kettle, the tea lounge. The cellar holds several varieties of teas inspired by Muziris’ spices and floral heritage. Jasmine, a common flower around these parts, lends itself to a delicate tea. Hibiscus-imbued tea leaves, a green variant flecked with saffron, the not-to-be-missed blue tea made by infusing tea leaves with the butterfly blue pea flower, and lavender-infused teas are part of the extensive cellar.

The cellar at Port Muziris, Kochi, A Tribute Hotel by Marriott, holds several varieties of teas inspired by Muziris’ spices and floral heritage.

Four years ago, Shangri-la's Eros Hotel added Mister Chai to its F&B offerings. They serve tea stall delicacies with tea at the hotel's lobby, converting it into a beehive of teacentred activity. Chef Neeraj Tyagi, Executive Assistant Manager, F&B, Shangri La Eros, New Delhi, “In 2014, when I began working towards establishing Mister Chai, a space that celebrates Masala Chai, the idea was to break away from the concept of lounges and create a restaurant.

With Mister Chai, we went all out to ensure that the typical chai time is a far more luxurious experience.” Among its offerings is Kali Mirch Chai, served with the Colaba Fish Fry Sandwich. ITC Maurya's rooftop Pan-Asian restaurant - Tian, asked Anamika Singh of Anandini Tea to work with its chef de cuisine to put together a tea-paired menu. The hotel now has a regular teatime service delivered at the room by designated butlers, exclusively for those who check-in at the women-only Eva Floor. For its executive floor guests, it has a dedicated tea lounge named Samaya, where the house blends are particularly popular.

At The Oberoi Gurgaon's threesixtyone° all-day dining restaurant, Gourmet High Tea involves pairing a guest’s preferred teas with an array of savouries and desserts. At the Emperor Lounge, The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mansingh Road, over 26 tea varieties are erved, from Panch Dhatu Tea to Rooibos Apple and Vintage Pu- Erhh. Radisson Blu Atria Bengaluru serves infusions with raspberry and strawberry added to tea-based cocktails. Its revenues from special tea services have gone up by 20% over the last two years.

Even The Leela Mumbai has reported a 20% rise in revenue earnings. The hotel has over 60 leaf teas from all over the world in its collection and has tied up with an international brand TWG, which  curates a small batch of international teas. Their most popular blend is ‘The Leela Blend’, crafted for The Lobby Lounge. Atrium, the tea lounge of The Imperial, has a guided art tour followed by a high tea featuring their finest orthodox tea collection, which boasts The Imperial Single Estate Tea Collection, including Crystal Flush and the exotic Silver Tip Imperial from Makaibari. The annual contribution margin of The Atrium is around 3.5 per cent to the total F&B operating budget.

The Lounge & Terrace on the lobby level of Four Seasons, Bangalore introduced the rarefied experience of loungy, relaxed afternoon teas to Bengaluru. In-house tea sommelier Mousumi Sharma has put together blends such as Apple Cinnamon Dust, Wild Berry Tales, Chocolate Mint and Orange Blossom, along with the classics.

The art of pairing

With the rise of gourmet tea culture, hotel guests are becoming more experimental with just not the beverage, but also the pair-ing with food. Simon Rastrick, Executive Assistant Manager – Food & Beverage, The Oberoi, New Delhi, says, “The bottom line of tea-pairing is that flavours in the food must not overpower the flavours of tea. Not to mention, the tea by itself will need to be brewed perfectly for the leaves to release its optimal flavours and aroma.” While there is no pressing need for tea-pairing, it adds an interesting edge to the dining experience. 

Nair believes that each tea has its defined list of food accompaniments. High-Tea in Britain is said to be an extravagant and lavish affair,  accompanied by garden sandwiches,  scones, tarts, pies and cake. The rise and rise of High-Tea show how widely appreciated and accepted this mid-evening meal is.

While cucumber sandwiches and scones are the traditional pairings, many hotels experiment with their pairings. For instance, The Leela Palace Udaipur pairs its gourmet teas with Indian dishes such as idlis and other savouries. Food pairing is not  a new concept. Like wine, tea is also a seasonal produce and has a complicated and layered flavour profile.

Just as there are wine sommeliers, there are tea sommeliers. The art of pairing the right food with the right cup of tea requires the sommelier to have some practice and a well-defined, sensitive palette. There
are some dos and don’ts. For instance, white teas should be paired with lightly- flavoured dishes and not with rich, spicy and heavily aromatic food. They  are best paired with very light food  such as white fish like sea bass or mild cheeses and desserts. Pakoras or a hot plate of vegetarian fritters go incredibly well with a piping cup of spiced chai, according to Samuel Massey, Director of Food &Beverage,Vivanta New Delhi, Dwarka.

Packaging teas right

While all of us agree that ‘taste’ or the flavour profile of a tea is one of the most important factors, packaging plays a significant role in the world of luxury teas. Innovation has led to teas being sold in metal cans, beautiful wooden chests and even glass containers in elegant colours  and designs.  For a brand like Vahdam, Bala Sar da, Founder & CEO - Vahdam Teas says that they have a revolutionary supply chain, devoid of unnecessary middlemen, it is imperative that the product reaches the consumer in the shortest time possible and remains garden-fresh. Thus, they source teas within hours of harvest; upon being processed, they are packed in large and sealed aluminium bags that are stored in an environment-controlled warehouse. They ship the teas in a tight, vacuum-sealed bag and also provide consumers with a separate sealable bag to store their teas in.

Not only does this ensure that the tea retains its flavour but also its aroma and freshness. But the packaging has to go beyond the fancy; it also has to ensure freshness of the products, many of which are imported. Packaging reinforces positioning as many luxury hotels and restaurants, in addition to wine walls and cellars, have introduced or added a tea wall indicating the demand and awareness about luxury tea segment. “We buy through our eyes first,” says Nair, who believes that the right packaging of the teas can help position one product over others and create a brand impact on the store shelf.

According to Rastrick, the packaging does way more than just protect the product. “Perhaps, home-grown teas from India should be packed even more thoughtfully and distinctly. Tea is yet another compelling Indian product that allows the country to strengthen its presence on the global consumer map.”

Maintaining exceptional packaging standards and overall design concepts are other forms of efficiency of any tea brand. Each tea bag at Typhoo India is packed in heat-sealed envelopes and then in rectangular
paper boxes to further safeguard the envelopes from heat and moisture while in transit.

According to hoteliers, the industry has contributed to helping introduce gourmet teas to their guests and raising their sales in India. The statistics from the Tea Board of India are telling: in 2019 the total tea production stood at 1,400 million kgs.

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