My Round: Something's brewing

If a culinary Mystic Meg read the tea industry's leaves, they would see an exciting and exotic future - and a lot of green

It seems there's a revolution brewing in the world of tea. I've recently read all manner of exciting statements about the prospects for the nation's favourite psychotropic drug, and some suggest that the old-fashioned cuppa is in for a major shake-up. Beginning with a decline in sales of ordinary black tea in leaky teabags. According to figures from Datamonitor, reported on BeverageDaily.com, annual sales of plain old tea dropped by around 10 per cent between 1997 and 2002, from 127 million kilos to 113 million. OK, that's still a lot of tea. But if the trend continued, it would mark a significant change in the nation's drinking habits.

What's taking the place of our tea? Tea with a different kind of perceived therapeutic value, more precise and important if its advocates are to be believed. In the first case this means green tea which is steamed before rolling and drying to prevent the enzymatic and oxidative reactions (wrongly referred to as "fermentation") which give standard tea its colour and flavour. And if green tea is good, then white tea (steamed immediately after harvest and dried without further processing) is even better. Better in this case refers to anti-cancer properties which some research has seemed to indicate green and white teas have.

Do these teas really prevent cancer? The American Cancer Society says that the case isn't proven. The research arm of the UK's Tea Council goes only so far as to say: "It is reasonable to conclude that drinking both green and black tea is compatible with healthy eating dietary advice to help reduce the risk of developing cancer helping to maintain overall health and well-being." Not exactly a clear-cut statement of anti-cancer properties.

Needless to say, the inconclusiveness of the medical research has not stopped sellers of green tea from making righteous claims for their product - or drinkers from buying them in astonishing quantities. Sales increased 20 times over from 1997 to 2002, according to Datamonitor, a truly amazing leap. Consumers, clearly, are convinced. Or maybe they just like the taste - and they're certainly right on that score.

The other area of tea growth is not in tea at all, though it goes under that name. Herbal preparations haven't grown as much as green teas, but the figures are still pretty impressive: 50 per cent growth in the five years to 2002. And all the major companies have got in on the act, with new herbals from Whittard and Twinings (each selling over 20) arriving on a regular basis. The excellent products of Dragonfly, a relative newcomer to the field, have found their way on to the shelves of several major supermarkets including Somerfield, Waitrose and Sainsbury's. Dragonfly sells a wide range, by the way, and not just herbals.

But this sales growth looks like a storm in an espresso cup compared with the upheavals predicted by the Future Laboratory in a recent survey it conducted on behalf of the Fairtrade brand Teadirect. The firm of futurologists (I'd like that job), tells us that tea looms large on the horizon. There will be tea temples, and tea clinics: "We will have patch delivery systems, tea gels and tea tablets or 'tea tabs'!" The UK will see tea restaurants opening up, as they have already in the USA. Exotics and tea cocktails will proliferate.

I see little evidence of the tea-change. Most people I know still rely largely on humdrum bags for refreshment and emotional rejuvenation. Herbal remedies might be dispensed at the end of dinner, or ordered in restaurants over the insomnia-inducing pleasures of a cafetière. But most of the time it's regular gruesome tea bags. Do I hang out in the wrong circles? Could be. Whatever the explanation, I'm still waiting for the tea revolution.

Top Corks: Three late-summer reds

Ironstone Vineyard Petite Sirah 2002 £5.94, Asda Though better as a blender, California's Petite Sirah can make some attractively tannic, hefty and expressive wines. This is one of them.

Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel 2001 £6.99, Waitrose Exemplary entry-level Sonoma Zin with a trio of other grapes. Avoids excessive alcohol that can mar this exuberant varietal.

Tesco Finest Touriga Nacional £5.99, Tesco A nice spicy number from one of Portugal's most reliable handlers of native red grapes. Fresh berries, a hint of raisins and deft oak.

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