Move oolong coffee: Tea is taking over


With the wellness fad here to stay, the average Australian is starting to change their habits. What passes their lips must offer more than just great taste or satisfying hunger - it also needs to be an active ingredient to better health.

Whilst breakfast, lunch, and dinner are undergoing transformations of kale-sized proportions, the drinking habits of our nation are also shifting. Sugary juices, and processed drinks are being tossed out in favour for organic drinks that offer vitamins and other health benefits.

Rising to the forefront of the healthy beverages is a previously rather unglamorous drink: tea.

Packed with antioxidants, tea has been used in many cultures for centuries to treat inflammation and boost the immune system. From herbal teas to your basic English Breakfast, tea is not just delicious - it’s a beverage superpower.

In recent years, however, tea earned itself a pretty daggy reputation, favoured by the elderly, the sick, or those curled up on the couch on a Sunday morning in pyjamas. Tea wasn’t as glamorous or youthful as coffee, and in a world motivated by getting things done faster, faster, faster; tea’s leisurely reputation left it lagging behind. Well, not any more.

Turning over a new (tea) leaf

Corinne Smith is the owner and founder of Rabbit Hole Tea boutique tea bars in Sydney; and she is certain that the great tea movement is well underway.

“We are finding a growing number of young women and young men drinking tea,” says Corinne. “People are getting to the point where, actually, coffee is not making them feel particularly good - and there’s a beverage that actually will start to make them feel better, reduce anxiety levels, and work towards better health in a myriad of other ways.”

Corinne runs two tea bars in Redfern and Barangaroo, as well as founding and organising the annual Sydney Tea Festival. Through her seven plus years in business, Corinne is noticing the younger audience making the conscious shift to reduce their coffee intake, and move to tea instead.

She estimates that a massive 85 per cent of her demographic is under 35 years old, with her audience growing in leaps and bounds year on year. For some perspective, the attendance of the Sydney Tea Festival doubled in size from 5,000 attendees in its inaugural year to 10,000 attendees the next. Australia’s young people are loving tea.

Tea with purpose: health benefits

The physical health benefits of tea have been proven time and time again. Studies have found that some teas may help with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; encourage weight loss; lower cholesterol; and increase mental alertness. Tea also appears to have antimicrobial (antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, etc.) qualities.

For Corinne, however, the less explored health benefit of tea isn’t only just physical, but emotional.

“We are living in a time where we need to be switched on, 24/7,” says Corinne. “What’s coming as a result is never before seen levels of anxiety, loneliness, and disconnectedness. One of the driving factors for creating Rabbit Hole Tea was to make something that encourages slowing down and connection.”

In traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, the emphasis is solely on the performance and presentation of the tea: it can take up to four hours. For Corinne, there is something to be gained for introducing some of this ritual back into our everyday lives. Tea drinking therefore becomes something much bigger than just a hot drink - it’s an opportunity to pause in our busy days, and share the experience with another.

The hot new ingredient: tea trends

As the interest in boutique grows, so does the offering. At Rabbit Hole Tea, they offer a massive array of hand-made blends. You can get fruity, spicy, floral, zesty, or creamy. There’s white, green, black, oolong, herbal, and caffeine free. It’s a far cry from the ‘old days’ of tea drinking when you could choose from Earl Grey or English Breakfast - maybe a green tea if you’re lucky.

Also growing is the public interest in niche teas such as matcha, and turmeric - and not just for drinking, either. Tea is now a hugely popular ingredient in cooking, both sweet and savoury cuisines.

Rabbit Hole tea bars showcase an exciting menu of tea-infused dishes, from poke bowls with green-tea infused brown rice and hot salmon, to lapsang-souchong flavoured mushrooms with hummus on toast. Tea can be used to smoke meats, flavour desserts, and even dress salads.

“I’ll be good, I’ll have a cup of tea.”

This is the mentality that Corinne has noticed among younger tea drinkers today. Coffee, with its high level of caffeine and dehydrating properties, is no longer the experience people want from the daily beverage habit. They want to feel good.

“People are getting bored of coffee!” says Corinne with a laugh.

“I think most people have a limit on how much coffee they can drink - maybe one of two cups in the morning. Then they are looking for something else in the afternoon.”

This is where Corinne and her team have become innovative. More than just straight tea, they offer concentrated tea syrups, which can be added to hot milk for a latte-like beverage, or even added to soda water for a fizzy tea-infused drink. It’s all about scratching the itch for ‘something to drink’ - without having to resort to unhealthy options like sugar-laden iced coffee or soft drinks.

Tea is seen as a clean alternative by many, and are therefore extremely receptive towards the new offerings places like Rabbit Hole Tea are creating. From beetroot lattes to tea-based cocktails, it seems like there is no limit to how willing the tea-drinking audience is willing to experiment.

Tea time on social media

Part of the extraordinary success of Rabbit Hole Tea surely must come down to their beautifully curated social media accounts. Whilst their followers are few, they are committed - the 3.5k followers on Facebook and 9.5k followers on Instagram are passionate tea-lovers who often drop into the tea bars for a photoshoot with the products.

Tea can be an aesthetically beautiful beverage, and Corinne and her team have used this to their advantage on social media.

Far from the stale cup of milky tea that’s probably sitting on your desk right now, the Rabbit Hole tea imagery is bright, vibrant, and exciting. There’s purple teas with blue swirls, creamy and frothy lattes, and vivid yellow turmeric teas. The Rabbit Hole Tea Instagram account shows off not just the tea, but the food too - mouthwatering shots of fresh orange tea cakes, and crunchy salad bowls.

The Sydney Tea Festival

Even Corinne was surprised by the response she received at the opening of the original Rabbit Hole Tea in Redfern in 2015. So it wasn’t long that she had dreamt up another exciting venture to give the local tea drinkers what they wanted: a festival!

The Sydney Tea Festival begun that same year, with the help of friend, fellow tea aficionado, and owner of Perfect South Green Tea company, Renee Creer.

“It all started when a friend of mine and I who both run tea businesses, and we were lamenting the fact that you can go to a festival for just about anything. There’s chocolate festivals, coffee festivals, craft beer festivals, bagel festivals, but nothing for tea! We could see that there was this passionate, growing number of speciality tea lovers that were ready and waiting for something to be presented to them.”

The festival houses over 40 specialty tea growers and blenders, as well as DIY leaf blending workshops, ceramicists, and food stalls. The big surprise for the 2017 festival in August will be a live performance art piece, where guests are encouraged to enter a private cube without their devices. With no phones or distractions, the guests are then paired up with a perfect stranger to share a cup of tea. Yes, a real live conversation! For Corinne, it’s what the tea festival is all about: connecting people, and providing a calm and happy space to relax and indulge a love for tea.

A leap of faith that paid off

Starting up a niche business was a giant leap of faith for Corinne. Prior to Rabbit Hole Tea, she was a singing teacher who worked alongside ENT doctors to restore damaged or surgically altered voices. It was a career she loved, but that niggling feeling that her tea passion might just make a rather good business concept was one voice she couldn’t silence.

For almost seven years now she has poured her heart and soul into Rabbit Hole Tea and the Sydney Tea Festival. It was a risk that paid off: as Corinne found, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Her passion for tea was not isolated - she has found a whole community of people just like herself - but with no other specialty tea businesses at the time, it was an uncertain move.

“How did I make it work? Persistence and resilience,” says Corinne. “It’s not easy, and it takes a long time, so you need to constantly keep your eye on the goal and making sure that you pick yourself from any knocks, and keep moving onwards and upwards.”

Corinne has built a empire that she hopes will one day spread interstate and further again. Health, wellness, and happiness are the new pillars of the modern hospitality industry, and Corinne is most definitely on the right track.

As 19th century playwright Arthur Wing Pinero once said, “Where there's tea there's hope.” And where there’s Corinne, there’s sure to be plenty of tea.

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