The pairing of wine and food has been around for a long time and is gaining in popularity. Demand for matching good food with good alcohol is growing and fine dining restaurants are turning to sommeliers to improve their menus. Recently we have seen leading restaurants focus on tea pairings with food – this is a relatively new concept. This article gives a basic guide to the exciting new area of food and alcoholic tea pairing.
Because of the range of teas out there, tea has a very diverse and complex flavour profile, more so than wine in fact. It is not surprising that different teas match very well with certain dishes. There is some science behind this matching. At the end of the day everybody is after an amazing taste experience, so the right pairings matter. Customers expect a full taste experience and it is becoming important for good restaurants to take this seriously.
What is alcoholic tea (or tea spirits)?
Alcoholic tea beverages have been appearing in the market in recent years. Most are pre-mix iced tea drinks or “hard teas”. They are getting popular after the trend in seltzers (or “hard seltzers”), a flavoured alcoholic sparkling water. In line with the growth of low alcohol beverages.
A tea spirit is emerging that is a light, low carbohydrate beverage. It is distinctive with a subtle complex flavour, similar to tea, but not overpowering such as gin. It is the base for Tea Spritzers, a low carb alcoholic iced tea aperatif. Tea spirits are also a sipping beverage for degustation platters. Typically, a flavour-rich experience with greater diversity than wine food pairing.
Tea spirits are produced by distilling alcohol and blending high grade tea and local botannicals in a carefully constructed recipe.
What are the tea spirit flavours?
Tea spirits are a light alcoholic drink that get their flavours from the teas and botannicals used in their production. Different teas are used for different spirits produced, each tea with its own taste profile. Tea spirits are therefore only limited by the number of teas and botannicals available, and the flavour profiles match those of the teas used.
In order to pair teas, we must be able to distinguish different teas from each other. “Similar to wine, a tea’s qualities can vary dramatically depending on where it’s grown – the weather, the soil – as well as how it’s processed,” mentions writer Megy Karydes. The Australian Tea Masters Association diagram below shows the vast range of taste profiles that exist with different teas. Aroma plays a large part in defining their taste profiles.
“The whole idea of pairing tea with food is that you should have a tea that’s going to enhance the flavor of the food, or vice versa. What you want to happen in your mouth is to feel the different layers of taste and flavors. It’s like a wine sommelier, giving you advice, depending on what kind of tea you want to drink, what time of the day it is, and what you’re eating,” says Aurelie Bessiere, a tea sommelier (NPR Report).
How to pair tea spirits with food
The aim of pairing food with tea spirits is to achieve a balance that enhances the flavour of the dish and the tea spirit. Tea sommelier, Anna Kydd, recommends that you start by matching the intensity of the dish and the tea. The major tea categories in increasing intensity include: white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark.
In general the lighter the tea the more delicate/subtle the flavours, with black and dark teas having the deepest flavours with the highest tannin content or astringency. This is similar to white and red wines. In pairing tea spirits, the weight of the flavours of the dish must be matched against the tea intensity.
The next step is to find flavour notes that match or complement the food. For example a big flavoured dish such as a pork curry would require a tea spirit of similar intensity paired with it, based on a black tea or rooibos (red bush) tea. Then similar or complementary flavour notes need to be matched such as apple or cinnamon. Focusing on typical food pairings such as nuts and honey or ham and melon.
There are basic rules that should be followed as guides when pairing food and tea spirits. However, the best approach in the end will be to use your intuition and lots of experimentation. Your instincts and taste buds will give you the validation that you need.
Examples of tea spirit and food pairings
Here are a few examples of food and tea spirit pairings, by tea spirit type:
-> Fruit Blend is an English Breakfast black tea spirit with a lilt of fruit and lemon. It is richer and more tannic to the pallet. It matches perfectly with meal made from red meat (beef), tomatoes, garlic, herbs, pear and even some red wine sauce. Big, intense flavours.
-> Rooibos Lemon is made from Rooibos (Red Bush) tea and is spicy, woody, with a lively twist of cinnamon. It is a distinctive taste that complements a meal such as pork chops with apple sauce, green beans and red pepper.
-> Peppermint Cocoa has peppermint tea as is base ingredient. It has a minty note with a nutty aftertaste. For main meals, this pairs perfectly with a tasty lamb chop meal containing garlic, pepper and mashed potatoes. For desert, it is absolutely decadent with chocolate, cream and even Baileys!
-> Pekoe Berry is an award winning Orange Pekoe (black) tea spirit with an earthy, complex taste containing berry and cocoa notes. It’s richness is a fantastic complement to a chicken curry. It is also ideal as an aperatif before the meal, mixed with soda and lemonade.
-> Camomile Vanilla comes from Camomile tea, vanilla and honey. It’s floral, fruity tones blend themselves perfectly with mango, berries and sorbet. Or if you are feeling more decedent, why not enjoy them with scones, tarts or cake. Perhaps even as part of a “High Teaka”.
-> A product soon to be released will be a Green tea or Oolong based tea spirit. This will have a light vegetal flavour and will match very well with seafood, vegetables, rice and Asian food. Watch this space!
-> Finally, Tropical White tea spirit (coming soon!) will be designed for cheeses, salads and desserts.
Tea pairings are here to stay
The world of tea pairings has officially arrived and is here to stay, tea sommeliers are leading the way. The art is advancing quickly, with tea spirits now gaining in popularity. Given tea’s diversity of rich flavour profiles, it’s not surprising the people are looking for whole new taste experience extending on wine pairing. Tantalise your taste buds, you may get an unexpected surprise!