The revolution is here, and it’s in the form of loose leaf tea. Deep in the inner sanctum of Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, the afternoon tea (or “arvo tea”, as it is colloquially referred over here) situation is celebrating the humble cup of tea on a stage previously unseen. For tea purveyors, it’s one the most exciting periods the industry has ever seen. In a country so dependent on café culture and coffee (and so rich with new approaches to brewing and batching beans), tea is finally starting to get the spotlight it deserves. What’s the big deal?
“In Australia, we still have the colonial history,” says Andrew Cutcliffe, founder of Tippity Tea. “Whether it’s drinking a cup of tea or having scones. Everything, up to the 1970s, was pretty British… Since the 70s, we’ve had this huge Asian influx, and that’s where tea is from.”
The city, he says, is the perfect petri dish for the rise of tea culture.
“We’ve got these worlds colliding: we’ve got the Devonshire tea thing and we’ve got gong fu cha in China,” Cutcliffe says. “As soon as a conversation starts, so does the interest. And I think we’re only at the beginning of that interest.”
In 1996, the first T2 store opened in Melbourne. The brainchild of Maryanne Shearer, the brand now has 65 stores in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the United Kingdom. The brand’s success lies somewhere between the unique and specific flavours—Sydney Breakfast, a black tea with bergamot “to send your senses sailing around the harbour”; Red Green Vanilla, a green rooibos blend with “sweet and earthy flavours”; or Geisha Getaway, sencha with pineapple and coconut—and the approachable, shareable, aesthetically-pleasing packaging. Perhaps Sydney’s fascination grew from there.
“It was packaged well and the descriptions were intense,” says Sticky Chai co-founder Piero Pignatti Morano. “People were keen to buy tea but whether or not they consumed it, I’m not really sure.”
The signature orange boxes were matched with a minimalistic Scandinavian label; the curious design combination is a reflection of the melting pot of history inside the box.
Paul Sunderland and his wife, Amber, know a thing or two about packaging. They started their Newtown-based tea company, T Totaler, in 2012, and opened a tea bar by the same name in mid-2014. Their tea is packaged in brown glass jars and tubes because “it reduces the deterioration of the teas,” Sunderland says. The design, in many ways, reflects the intentions inside; T Totaler aims to feature a plentiful amount of sustainably-sourced, Australian-grown products. The market, they say, is there.
“There’s definitely a market for tea lovers,” says Sunderland. “I think Australia is synonymous with coffee: everyone is into coffee, especially with speciality roasters popping up. But tea is on the rise and people are starting to appreciate it.”
Piero Pignatti Morano – who found a passion for chai after his café, Two Chaps, started roasting coffee – echoes those sentiments. The co-owner of Sticky Chai, a brand entirely focused on honey-soaked chai using a variety of spices, says that tea can function as “an egalitarian alternative”.
“The base of every café is their kitchen and their coffee machine,” he says. “Unfortunately, with coffee, it’s a bit boring. After you’ve gone fair trade and organic, what more can you do? I’m a fan of coffee but it’s not all that fun. It’s kind of so done and saturated that it’s a real monoculture.”
Maybe, Sunderland suggests, the focus shift from coffee is translating to a renewal of tea appreciation.
“It’s definitely a lot smaller than coffee, but people are starting to get interested. I think it was always going to move more towards tea after there was the big coffee explosion.”
Some of Australia’s top coffee labels are branded with concentrated, minimal, intentional aesthetics, creating a transparency that enables the product to speak for itself. The same is true of tea branding; with ‘organic’ often a priority for purveyors, the product must be as diaphanous as the concept. With consumers buying into the tea-taking moment as well as the tea, enjoying the aesthetic of the experience, and—in many cases—being able to Instagram that moment of solitude, is key.
Product design, Cutcliffe suggests, must match that demand (his extensive range of ethically-sourced teas has recently received a packaging revamp) .
“The way they treat tea, and their reverence for tea,” Cutcliffe says, of his experience in Japan in 2013, “is something that’s just an inconceivable thing. The packaging and style is so gorgeous. Simplicity and refinement: now brands are starting to cotton on to the Scandi design and Japanese style.”
At The Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar in Redfern, those design elements are the focal point. Owners Corinne Smith and Amara Jarratt opened their first tea bar last year and their second is due to open in Barangaroo in early June. Designed by Matt Woods, the Redfern space features billowing natural light and art centred on the Japanese art of kintsugi, or putting broken pieces of porcelain back together with gold. Tea is served with a timer, from specially-designed pots, mugs and stemware. The delivery, Smith believes, is breathing new life into the experience.
“I think the thing about calling something a tea bar is that people want to distinguish themselves from what’s traditionally considered a tea experience,” says Smith. “I think that people have an expectation of what tea can be and they don’t realise that it’s actually much more interesting than that.”
A passion for quality tea is growing in parallel with a reinvigoration of Sydney’s café culture. Consumers are demanding more from their cuppa, and sharing more of their experiences—particularly on social media.
“The general café consumer expectations have gone through the roof in the past few years. You absolutely can open a corner shop and put the kettle on, but it doesn’t get Instagrammed,” says Smith. “There’s a certain level that needs to be achieved and the competition is fierce for where people are going to spend their time.”
Like T Totaler, Rabbit Hole offers sparkling tea and tea mocktails. The latter also serves tea produced through an Alphadomiche Steampunk machine; tea lattes; tea cakes; and tea served, more traditionally, in a pot. Both tea spaces offer classes and workshops for those interested in tea because, Sunderland says, there is interest.
“The main thing I really see happening is knowledge of tea increasing: people starting to understand where it’s from, how to brew it, how to use it in other ways,” he says.
Smith says that at the end of the day, the boom is about, for, and because of tea lovers.
“I think they appreciate that someone is thinking about them,” says Smith.
In a big way, it seems. In 2014, Smith and Jarratt launched the Sydney Tea Festival with co-founders Perfect South Green Tea. In its inaugural year, the festival saw a turnout of 5,000 people. In 2015, the response was closer to 10,000. This year, the organisers expect over 10,000 visitors, with 64 tea-makers manning stalls.
“There’s a lot of tea lovers in Sydney,” Smith says. “I think there are still some really traditional people. There’s a process for us to show them that there are some really exciting things to be done with tea.”
Perhaps it’s just coming down to the right brew.
“All the right things are happening,” says Cutcliffe. “The people who are in the industry care and are in it for the right reasons, and the consumer is drinking tea that is of an increasing quality.”
But the future for the modest arvo tea? It’s already very much in motion. It’s still about what it always was: brewing the right tea, and making the time to enjoy it.
“I think it’ll just be better everywhere and that’ll filter out the shit tea and then more tea places will arrive,” says Pignatti Morano. “Just sit down, shut up, have a cup of tea, and take twenty minutes.”
Riley Wilson is a native Sydneysider who grew up between Australia and the USA, with extensive travels throughout Europe along the way. She is a freelance writer and editor, contributing to Broadsheet Sydney, Melting Butter, The Sydney Morning Herald, and a variety of publications in Australia and overseas. She’s deeply passionate about olives, oysters, postage stamps, and punctuation. Find Riley on Instagram: @thelifeofrileyw or clippings.me/rileywilson.
Mitch Lui is a lifestyle photographer based in Sydney. Her work is primarily inspired by nature, city lights, colours, space and architecture. Passion driven, observant and in search of every fine detail, shown through her lens in digital and analog formats. You can find her daily work in Broadsheet & Time Out Sydney. Follow @mitchlui or on mitchlui.com.