Tea connoisseurs have long believed that black tea’s flavor comes from the chemicals created during oxidation, but a new study reveals microbes at play. Black’s tea’s rich flavor is partly due to fermentation, the same microbial process used to create fermented teas like kombucha, jun and pu’erh.

What does this mean for tea producers? By adjusting the microbes on the tea leaves, fermentation could amplify the flavor in the final brewed cup of tea.

“The finding that bacterial and fungal communities also drive tea processing suggests the microbiome of the leaves can be manipulated to create greater quantities of tasty compounds due to fermentation,” says Dan Bolton, founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey.

In research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team of scientists from Anhui Agricultural University in China studied how sterilization of tea leaves affected tea flavor. They began by sampling the microbes on leaves from the Dongzhi tea plantation in Anhui province. Half the leaves were sterilized in mild bleach for five minutes — the other half were left untouched. All the leaves were then processed traditionally: withered, rolled, oxidized in the sun and dried.  

Their conclusions found black tea produced through microbial fermentation from the unsterilized sample was full of catechins and L-theanine. Catechins are flavonoids and a naturally-occurring antioxidant; L-theanine is an amino acid (also found in  mushrooms) known to ease stress and insomnia. Both compounds  help make tea flavorful. The sterilized leaves produced tea that didn’t have the same amount of compounds, and so wasn’t as flavorful.

“The sterilization process dramatically decreased the content of total catechins and theanine in black tea, indicating that microbes on the surface of tea leaf may be involved in maintaining the formation of these important metabolites during black tea processing,” says Ali Inayat Mallano, PhD, professor at the university.

Interestingly, sterilization had no effect on green tea. Both samples of green tea, sterilized and unsterilized, had the same levels of caffeine and theanine.

[To explore premium dark teas, TFA recently organized a webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea with Bolton and tea experts Jeff Fuchs (author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas) and Brendan McGill (chef and James Beard nominee who owns Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and Junbug Kombucha).

Tea consumption globally is increasing. But consumers don’t want a cheap, poor quality tea bag. They’re buying premium teas — and increasingly, dark, fermented teas. 

“What’s trending right now seems to be authentic tea, tea that has great flavor, more closely married to the terroir. People are beginning to understand that it’s just fine to have tea. You don’t have to have coloring in it, you don’t have to have a lot of bits and pieces of fruit and flowers, there’s a genuine benefit to just understanding the terroir and keeping it simple,” says Dan Bolton, the founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey. Bolton and two tea experts discussed two lesser-known fermented tea varieties in the TFA webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea. “Tea just isn’t as good as it could be, without fermentation.”

A new study on tea demonstrates how important fermentation is to tea quality, Bolton says. Researchers from the Anhui Agricultural University in China recently studied the effect of surface microbiomes on the quality of black tea. The results found microbial fermentation in non-sterilized control tea samples produced complex compounds and more flavorful teas than with sterilized tea leaves. The results  were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

“It’s a remarkable finding because, certainly for the last century or so, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether fermentation plays a role in the production and processing of tea,” Bolton says. The study proves “black tea is actually a result of both fermentation and oxidation.”

Pu’erh Tea

Jeff Fuchs — author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas — shared details of pu’erh tea. Pu’erh is a tea style from a strain of camellia leaf cultivated and produced in the Yunnan province. Fuchs spent over a decade living in there and is the only Westerner to have traveled the Tea Horse Road through Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet.

“Pu’erh is a tea that certainly I think it’s been deliberately mystified to some degree,” Fuchs says. “It’s interesting that you have this very simple, raw material green tea that is now arguably one of the great  boutique commodities.”

Fuchs stresses consumers need to research tea sourcing. Where is the tea coming from? How was it stored? Who stored it? Older tea cakes are being sold for large amounts of money, but can have questionable provenance.

“Young teas I think are making a big assertion in the tea world right now because they represent a closer line to the terroir, a closer line to the origin point,” he says, adding dark teas are becoming more popular in North America. He sees more bartenders experimenting with dark teas, playing with flavor compounds. “I think dark teas will come into the sway more and they’ll remain.”

Jun Tea

Jun is another tea style making waves in the fermented beverage market. It is a type of kombucha, but the base is green tea and honey instead of black tea and sugar. Brendan McGill shared his experience making jun — he is a chef and James Beard nominee; he owns the Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and  the newly-launched Junbug Kombucha.

“Jun is a very special style of kombucha,” McGill says. “It’s shrouded in mystery, where these cultures originated. What we do know is how they’ve been developed and manipulated in fairly recent history. One of the joys I’ve had with this is just being extremely creative because i found that while the fermentation isn’t necessarily a delicate process, it has allowed us to modify and use a lot of different inputs that it’s actually a pretty robust fermentation process.”

McGill began making kombucha over a decade ago, as a replacement for beer and wine. He liked jun for its similar flavor to alcohol, the additional bioactive compounds that create a more nutritious drink and it’s made with honey instead of added sugar. 

Junbug Kombucha uses filtered water, organic green tea, wild honey and, of course, a SCOBY. In the secondary fermentation, fresh herbs, berries and even mushrooms are added. Junbug flavors include Chaga Root Beer, Chili Raspberry and Maui Mana. 

The Covid-19 pandemic powered strong food and beverage sales last year. But natural and organic brands grew even faster than conventional ones, with sales growing 12.7% to $259 billion. 

“Natural products throughout the last year have really been outpacing all product growth. Natural and clean products are now about $1 out of every $10 spent, which is really significant,” says Kathryn Peters, executive vice president of SPINS, a retail data provider. Peters presented sales trends at the virtual Natural Products Expo West. 

Data from SPINS and Nutrition Business Journal documents that there was a “dramatic shift” in consumer behavior during the pandemic, as more people cooked at home and bought healthier foods.

“2020 was a record year for the U.S. natural and organic product industry,” says Carlotta Mast, senior vice president and market leader for New Hope Network, producers of the Natural Products Expos. “The industry has so much to celebrate, despite the very challenging time we’ve been through the past 14 months.”

Natural and organic sales are expected to pass the $300 billion mark by 2023.

Food as Medicine

Functional food and beverage sales grew 9.4% to $78 billion in 2020, a surprisingly high figure since grab-n-go offerings — the category in which many functional products are tracked — were reduced significantly during the pandemic. 

“And yet that strong growth, nearly 10% experienced in that category, demonstrates that people continue to embrace the food as medicine trend,” Mast says. 

Products that claim to offer immune-boosting, functional ingredients are selling well. Consumers are “shifting from reactive to preventative and from cold and flu season to year-round protection.” Ingredients and supplements like elderberry, vitamins C and D, antioxidants, collagen and cider vinegar are increasing in sales. 

Sales of animal welfare-positioned products grew 17% in 2020, and sales of grass-fed and free-range products increased more than 13%. Other key wellness attributes that appeared to drive significant dollar growth included paleo (up 32%), plant-based (21%) and grain-free (18%). 

“Consumers are expecting more from the products they buy,” Peters said. “Whether it’s because of a limited budget or health and wellness considerations to build a stronger body, people are seeking nutritional benefits.”

Mission-Driven

Consumers are seeking to buy from brands with a purpose. These are products that, for example, want to save the environment, create a sustainable food system, champion a social justice cause or support a minority group.

Nick McCoy, co-founder and managing director at Whipstitch Capital, a food-focused investment bank, calls these brands “better for people and the planet” and says they are “doing good while making money at the same time.” The amount of ESG (Environmental Social Governance) investment funds has increased tenfold over the past two years. 

Brands that are mission- and community-minded are experiencing the strongest sales growth. 

“This demonstrates that our industry is home to brands that do a lot more than just sell a product — they’re a force for better, better health and better outcomes for humans, animals and the environment,” Mast says. “Our industry shoppers expect more than a transaction from the brands they do business with.”

In a SPINS survey, consumers said they want to support brands that are LGBTQ owned (19%), BIPOC owned (28%) and/or woman owned (18%). 

Vegetarian and vegan products are also increasing in sales. Plant-based and meat alternatives grew 21% last year, at a rate of two-times their mainstream counterparts. 

“In many cases, plant-based is bringing more nutrient density than the original animal-based analog,” Peters says . “Plant-based support is growing beyond just health benefits to earth-based benefits like lower greenhouse gas emissions, water conservation and biodiversity.”

E-Commerce

Not surprisingly, e-commerce sales fast-tracked during the pandemic, accounting for 58% of natural and organic sales last year. E-commerce also became the main channel where new brands were launched. Though sales in brick-and-mortar stores are not predicted to return to pre-pandemic levels, physical retail locations are still expected to account for 30% of all natural and organic products sales in 2023.

Speakers at the event advised brands to take an omnichannel approach, tackling marketing through brick-and-mortar stores as well as e-commerce channels. Sashee Chandran, founder and CEO of Tea Drops (a producer of organic tea pressed and preserved in different shapes), spoke at the conference about her experience following this marketing approach. 

“Even though things are opening up, consumers still want that flexibility to be able to shop online but also in store,” she says.

The World of Fermented Foods

In the latest issue of Popular Science, a creative infographic illustrates “the wonderful world of fermented foods on one delicious chart.”  It represents “a sampling of the treats our species brines, brews, cures, and cultures around the world,” and is particularly interesting as it shows mainstream media catching on to fermentation’s renaissance. Fermentation fit with the issue’s theme of transformation in the wake of the pandemic.

Read more (Popular Science)

New Fermented Coffee & Tea Drinks

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have created new fermented coffee and tea drinks. These drinks, invented by a professor and two doctoral students, are being labeled as “probiotic coffee and tea drinks that are packed with gut-friendly live probiotics.” They claim that the  drinks can be stored for three months without altering the probiotics. 

“Coffee and tea are two of the most popular drinks around the world, and are both plant-based infusions. As such, they act as a perfect vehicle for carrying and delivering probiotics to consumers. Most commercially available probiotic coffee and tea drinks are unfermented. Our team has created a new range of these beverages using the fermentation process as it produces healthy compounds that improve nutrient digestibility while retaining the health benefits associated with coffee and tea,” explained NUS Associate Professor Liu Shao Quan.

Read more (Science Daily)