Tea: the humble infusion is making a comeback


Tea is enjoying a resurgence thanks to period dramas such as Bridgerton and Downton Abbey, where scandals brew and gossip or ‘tea’ is served on porcelain cups and hand-painted teapots.

New Zealander Mark Webster is on a mission to make us love a cup of tea as much as a white dish, and says the ritual of making, steeping and serving tea is a perfect pleasure for our post-life. -pandemics.

“There is something uniquely comforting and soothing about drinking tea. In times of distress, this is a must. Pausing to steep and enjoy a cup of quality tea is an instant boost for your taste buds and your mood.

Stepping into the quaint Webster Tea Shop in Clarke Road Village near Te Puna on the rural outskirts of Tauranga is like stepping back in time to the pre-supermarket days when people bought blended teas fresh in bulk in boxes and brown paper bags.

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Webster started his business after working for a tea company in the American Rockies.

Returning home six years ago, he discovered that New Zealand’s “dunk culture” of tea bags and “gummy tea” lacked flavor, despite the fact that, per capita, we consume around 325 tea bags per year.

“I dare you to open a tea bag to see what’s inside – stale dust. Bland, tasteless bags are the norm and, in cafes, tea is often a afterthought.

Today, Webster’s Tea supplies coffees nationwide, has an online store, and recently opened a retail store.

A “tea person” who drinks four to six cups a day, Webster grew up in a tea-loving family.

“In our house, the simple question, ‘tea?’ was how guests were greeted, how breaks were suggested, and how we made up for it.

Drinking tea is more than a thirst quencher for Webster, it’s an art form.

“The practice of drinking tea is thousands of years old and has spawned strong rituals and cultural traditions around the world, from India’s famous chai merchants to Morocco’s mint tea, signifying hospitality and friendship, through the sacred tea ceremony in Japan, dating from the 9th century to Buddhism”.

Many New Zealanders are turned off by tea, he says, because they haven’t discovered the difference using loose leaf tea versus tea bags.

“Tea breaks shouldn’t be spent sipping stale bag dust. Mass-produced tea bags are often made from leftover crumbs produced by fanning loose whole leaves. They are very inexpensive and constitute the most profitable ingredient when quality is not a priority.”

Webster’s Tea uses fresh whole organic leaves and ingredients sourced locally and around the world, which are then hand-packed in Tauranga’s tea shed, where various blends are crafted.

“Bag tea ingredients land in your cup aged, having sat in warehouses and on supermarket shelves in boxes, unsealed, having long since lost their aroma and flavor. We pay close attention to everything from origin to your cup, including how the tea is transported and stored, so the tea retains its nutrient density and vibrant flavor.

Mark Webster's infusions are a cut above the tea most people sip on a daily basis.

Alan Gibson / Stuff

Mark Webster’s infusions are a cut above the tea most people sip on a daily basis.

The company aims to benefit the environment as well as the tea drinker: the tea is certified organic and free of synthetic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. It’s carefully packaged with recyclable materials made from renewable wood pulp, which means they’re biodegradable so you can toss them in the compost with your tea leaves. Compare that to all those tea bags, which are often bleached, stuck together, and many of which have staples and tags.

Part of the joy in the teahouse is smelling and tasting the 13 aromatic blends with tempering flavors such as mānuka, lime, ginger and blood orange.

The range includes classics such as breakfast and rooibos, as well as more innovative blends such as chocolate tea made with cocoa shells mixed with licorice root, which gives it a natural sweetness to taste alone or to associate with the atmosphere of whole milk chocolate.

There are caffeine-free and plant-based blends that Webster has added their own twist to.

“We recently launched a chamomile blend of chamomile flowers, citrus peel and rosehip peel, which promotes relaxation and sleep. He flies out the door. People are aware of the caffeine they consume at certain times of the day.

As the cost of living crisis rages on, wouldn’t people balk at over $30 for a tea bag, even if that includes the box?

Webster says its largest retail option has about 100 services, or 30 cents per service.

“When people are happy to spend $20 for a bottle of wine, or a few dollars each for coffee pods, I think 30 cents is extremely reasonable for something that tastes undeniably better than the stock alternative.”

There’s a “money can’t buy” experience to drinking loose leaf tea, Webster says. Not just what we drink, but how we drink it, is a big deal and, like most things in life, the rewards can only be reaped if done correctly.

The shop can outfit you with all the tools you need for the ultimate tea break, including teapots, infusers, serving boards and mugs handmade by local ceramist Suzy Granger of Slab.

There are recipes for whatever your favorite dipping cookie is. Webster’s current pick is a three-ingredient shortbread. If you want to go wild, try an Earl Gray Latte or add rum to your pineapple tea.

While stainless steel teapots were perhaps the norm in old English kitchens, with more sophisticated teapots deployed for afternoon teas in the garden, Webster prefers glass teapots.

“It’s an attractive way to steep tea, watch it change color and steep to your desired strength.”

Using the right equipment is part of the experience of enjoying tea as a break.

“Whatever the occasion, the ritual of preparing, serving and drinking tea is important and should be treated as such.”

It is also a moment of conviviality, whether it is a simple family meeting or a party. Ultimately, tea is about people, says Webster. So put the kettle on and spill the tea.

The details

Webster’s Tea is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 3pm, 7 Clarke Rd, Te Puna, Tauranga.

Shop nationwide via websterstea.co.nz or https://websterstea.co.nz/pages/stocklisting.

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