Steeped in culture

Australia has a world-renowned coffee culture and mature wine and beer drinking habits. Where does tea fit in? Adeline Teoh tells us how.

It wasn’t so long ago that we invited each other over for tea, or arranged social outings in tearooms around town. Today, we talk of “going for coffee” or “meeting at a cafe” because the bean’s influence is so prevalent on our daily lives and vernacular. According to Roy Morgan Research, Australians still drink more than a cup of tea a day on average, but our tea culture seems to have vanished from the public consciousness.

David Lyons, tea consultant at 18ThirtyFour, says it’s not that Australia doesn’t have a modern tea culture but that, at present, it’s “confused”.

“Tea culture in Australia is confused for a few different reasons. The obvious one is that we come from different cultural backgrounds and so we’re all bringing different tea cultures with us,” David says. “The same thing has happened with a lot of other products: beer, wine, coffee, food.”

He says the difference in those other cases is that we’ve since been able to “pull something together” that is recognisably Australian.

The ingredients of culture
David defines culture as “the ideas, customs and ceremonies of a group of people”, and tea culture as the customs of people “who are passionate about tea”. He says it has less to do with geographical borders and more to do with the people who practise culture, which is why the British influence on Australian tea drinking was the most prominent until migration increased from other nations with strong, differing tea cultures, such as China and India.

What separates our borrowed tea cultures from an Australian one is not yet clear, which is why David founded the Australian Tea Cultural Seminar, a two-day symposium in November to identify and develop a distinctive Australian version. He says the event is an attempt to move the notion of “culture” away from the “warm fuzzy” end of the spectrum to a practical one.

“In history, wherever tea culture has been developed in a community – it doesn’t matter where it is in the world – the increase and the uptake of consumption of tea and sales have been dramatic,” he says.

Demystifying tea will be one driver of culture, which is where education of hospitality staff and the general public comes in. “Educate people and you get a better beverage,” David says.

It took about two decades for the coffee industry to do it, and David says if we can create education and development in similar ways, we can get a tea culture going too.

How did coffee do it?
Dr Jill Adams, historian, hospitality educator and author of A Good Brew, says our beverage culture has been a combination of influence, marketing and education, and there’s historical precedent for it.

When American servicemen were posted in Australia during World War II, they brought with them a love of coffee.

“Australian housewives were educated on how to brew coffee in the newspaper’s women’s pages. There were a lot of articles about how to entertain American boys in your house,” she says.

Coffee was “glamorised” and “Americanised” at the same time tea rationing set in. The cultural switch to coffee from tea in that post-war period may have been circumstantial, but it doesn’t account for the distinctively Australian espresso culture that emerged in the 1990s. That, Jill attributes, to Lavazza’s sophisticated marketing and barista training, something she’s certain tea can emulate.

“We have to put tea education into the hospitality schools the way we put coffee education in,” Jill says. “When I first started in the coffee industry the big question was ‘where do you go to get a good cup of coffee?’ No one was doing coffee properly. We have to now get people saying, ‘where do you go to get a beautiful cup of tea?’

It’s tea’s time
David says the late Baby Boomer generation were seduced by teabag marketing campaigns.

“I remember adverts for teabags where they used fashionable looking people and geographical settings to make teabags look sexy,” David recalls.

He says tea culture declined with the rise in the availability of poor tea in teabags aimed at a generation for whom convenience was more important than quality. In turn, it had a negative impact on tea culture.

“Poor quality teabags dragged the culture down to its lowest common denominator,” David says. “When I talk to hospitality students today I tell them not to look for the easiest and, in most cases, the poorest option that you can offer your customer. When you try to find a cheap alternative that makes it easier for the hospitality person, you devalue the product. [It means] we’re not trying to educate people.”

Fortunately, there is a generational change on the horizon. Just as the “teabag generation’ rejected loose leaf tea in a teapot as old-fashioned, we’re seeing the reverse today. That’s right – teapots are making a comeback, David believes.

“We tend not to be like our parents but we don’t mind cherry-picking some of the ideas of our grandparents and great-grandparents. I hear about a lot more people, particularly groups of young women, who will think nothing of having a few friends around for tea and that creates a pleasant social interaction.”

But we still have a long way to go, David says: Food is a provocative identifier of culture in people’s communities. Here in Australia we’re still finding our tea culture identity.”