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Time for Tea?

Guest Contributor

Coffee has had a massive impact on the British High Street, especially in London. Why has there never been a tea brand to rival them? We spoke to tea shop owner Lubna Madan.

Coffee shops - in London there's one on every street, sometimes two. Whether they're well-known international chains like Starbucks and Costa, smaller but still familiar joints such as Sacred and AMT or traditional independents such as Soho gem, Bar Italia, there's just no escaping the ubiquitous bean. So why did Britain, a nation of tea drinkers, fall for coffee? What's more, it seems to be the Americanised style of coffee shop that lures us through their doors; places where you need to use the correct vernacular when you order, the ones with sofas, where a 'grande' is the size of a bucket.

So why did Britain, a nation of tea drinkers, fall for coffee? We spoke to tea shop owner Lubna Madan

Having a brew is part of our heritage. Whether you like it milky, in a mug with one sugar or strong, unsweetened and drunk from a bone-china cup and saucer, we all love a nice cuppa. Which begs the question, why are there not an abundance of tea shops, just like the coffee equivalent? Where are all the multinational tea chains, with people queuing out the door at 8.45am on a wet Monday morning? To tourists, London is the home of the afternoon tea, yet us natives have succumbed to a coffee culture.

Just off London's Carnaby Street there's a beautiful tea room called Camellia's Tea House. An Aladdin's cave for tea lovers; the Mad Hatter would be in his element here. Owner Lubna Madan has a shop stocked full to the rafters with hundreds of different varieties and she blends the tea leaves by hand, following her own original and unique recipes. We caught up with her and asked her about her business and why there has not been a tea competitor to the high street coffee shop.

TASTE What tea variety do you sell most of?
LM English Breakfast tea, without a doubt, although people are gradually coming around to trying new flavours and being more adventurous in what they drink.

TASTE Why do you think there are not more shops like Camellia's, given the British tea-drinking tendencies?
LM Tea is perhaps not seen as being as trendy as coffee and visiting tea rooms can be seen as something young people don't do. Traditional independent coffee shops have always been present but the real'wave' came when trends from America and TV programmes such as Friends glamourised coffee shops, which influenced the surge in outlets over here. If anything, tea went out when coffee came in.

TASTE It's not easy to recreate a shop-bought coffee with all the trimmings at home. Unless you have specialist equipment and barista skills, a frothy cappuccino or a smooth flat white are hard to make, especially on an individual basis. A cup of tea, however, does not require so much effort. Do you think this impacts on the demand for tea shops?
LM Currently there is not the demand for tea, like there is for coffee. I don't think anyone really knows why that is, perhaps it's for some of the reasons you've just mentioned. I think people are discouraged from opening tea rooms as we've yet to see if it's a concept that can really make money. You can't really charge big prices for a cup of tea. As people become more open to new flavours perhaps this will open up more opportunities for tea-based businesses.

TASTE What would you say to encourage people to visit a tea room and sit down and enjoy a cup of tea with friends?
LM Tea with friends should be a slow ritual and not a quick-fix or pick-me-up, like coffee. For many people, drinking coffee is habitual and the fast-pace of coffee bars goes to show this. Tea has a 'soul'; it shouldn't be rushed, it should be allowed time to brew and each leaf must be savoured and appreciated. Tea rooms are perfect places to spend time; tea lends itself better to be consumed in this way, rather than as a takeaway product.

TASTE Are you noticing any new tea trends?
LM People are definitely growing more adventurous in the flavours of tea they choose to drink, experimenting with fruit and herbal varieties. There are so many different teas out there and with the scope of being able to blend different leaves and flavours, the possibilities become almost infinite. There is also the raised awareness about the health benefits some teas claim to offer; green tea with its antioxidants, nettle tea for cleansing and detox, peppermint to aid digestion, and so on. Many fruit and herbal teas are also caffeine-free. It seems to me that the Americans have done the‚ 'coffee thing' and are now moving onto tea and seeking its benefits. We are always a step behind so it's almost a given that we will follow suit, eventually.

Camellia's Tea House is on the top floor of Kingly Court, just off London's Carnaby Street.