Normal as a cup of tea

Pyramid selling is what has driven Albania to anarchy. But in Britain, pyramid selling means shifting tea, pounds 500m-worth of it. By PT Meard
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The Independent Online
You've heard of pyramid selling? It was being done in central London yesterday on a scale that would have made Cheops green. A pounds 50,000 pyramid fireworks display launched from a barge berthed below the Oxo Tower was just the end of a long and expensive day that began with a 50- ft pyramid being towed under Tower Bridge, which was opened specially for the occasion. A string quartet played under four pyramids on Richmond Hill. A playwright, Tim Newton, was writing an instant play under a pyramid in Leicester Square. Musicians, dancers and drummers performed in and around pyramids in locations dotted across central London.

And all this because the British love a nice cup of tea. Not just any cup of tea: if Brooke Bond has judged its marketing moment correctly, we will soon be buying pyramid-shaped tea-bags in droves. Apparently we needed yesterday's art-meets-commerce hype to let us in on the act.

Pyramid-shaped tea-bags are the latest thing from Brooke Bond PG Tips, the nation's favourite cuppa, or so the sales statistics prove. Brooke Bond has 22.4 per cent of the tea market, and PG Tips account for 17.7 per cent. Its deadly rival is Tetley, who launched the very first tea- bags in the late Fifties and trounced the square tea-bag with a round one in 1988. Now it's the turn of the round bag to be trumped, or so the PR people say, by the PG pyramid.

Why bother to change the shape of a humble tea-bag? Because tea wars are hot stuff, and novelty sells. The British tea market is worth at least pounds 532m a year. Last year we drank 187m cups a day (or three-and-a-half cups each, more than double our coffee fix). This adds up to 150,000 tons of tea-leaves, or 10 per cent of all the tea produced in the world. Four out of every 10 drinks drunk by Brits last year; despite all the cappuccino hype, and all the machismo telly ads promoting high-energy fizz, our favourite tipple is still a soothing cup of tea, mostly drunk at home.

The PG Tips Pyramid tea-bag has, says Brooke Bond (a division of Vandenberg Foods, itself a subsidiary of the mighty Unilever) taken four years to develop. White-coated boffins in the Brooke Bond labs have rejected cubes, cones, pentagons, cylinders and balls. Whether they tested dodecahedrons and other convoluted three-dimensional geometries, we do not know. What we do know is that tipplers in south-west England have been brewing up with paper pyramids and, as regional sales are up 2 per cent, appear to like the new-look PG brew.

Which is all very enjoyable, but does tea in a pyramid really taste better than tea in the round, or square?

"I haven't made an exhaustive test of rival tea-bags", says David Marchant, an independent tea expert who advises Tesco, "so I can't give a definitive answer. What I can say is that there is probably only a very marginal difference. It seems obvious, though, that if most people dunk a tea-bag in a mug for a few seconds at most, then the boiling water has a better chance to bring out the flavour from a tea-bag with greater surface area."

Fair enough. But surely it hardly matters what shape the tea-bag is, because the sweepings shovelled unceremoniously into tea-bags are low- grade stuff anyway? What difference can a tiny increase in the flow of boiling water make to enhance a brew that is essentially crude, if reviving?

"Now that's just nonsense," says Mr Marchant. "The tea in tea-bags is not rubbish. Over 90 per cent of all tea drunk is brewed from bags, and much of it is excellent. The big difference between leaf tea and bag tea is that the latter is blended from smaller and more pungent leaves, because the paper tissue takes away some of the taste. It has to be stronger, and stronger tea is dustier."

"We like our tea pretty strong in Britain," says Stephen Jones, Brooke Bond's Tea Blender, "so, yes, tea bags contain small, strong leaves. These small leaves are known technically as broken pekoe dust; the word 'dust' tends to give the impression of sweepings from the factory floor, but that's quite wrong. The pyramid tea-bag is definitely a superior way of getting tea to brew quickly and well. One of the London University hydraulics departments has examined the efficiency of the shape and agrees independently with our own technicians' findings. But, yes, of course there is also a degree of novelty-seeking in the process, because this is a very competitive market and one small technical leap can allow rivals to pull ahead."

British tea-drinking habits, despite what we may want to believe, have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. When Tetley launched the tea-bag, it was a bit of a gamble. In the mid-Sixties, 85-90 per cent of tea was still brewed in teapots. In fact, tea-drinking by the bulk of the population is itself a relatively new phenomenon. Tea arrived from China towards the end of the 18th century and was very much the preserve of the rich, who said the word as if it were French. It was only when tea was planted in Assam from the 1830s on that cheap tea became available, and even then not in bulk - until a coffee blight wiped out plantations in Ceylon in the 1860s, and they were replaced by tea plants. Brooke Bond began blending tea in 1869.

"The tea you find in tea-bags is remarkably sophisticated," says David Marchant. "Tea is picked every day, but climatic changes and day to day variations in the weather mean that it is all but impossible to ensure a consistent product. Tea blenders work full-time creating a taste that can be re-created day in, day out. The very finest teas are made from the bushes of a single garden, or estate, but these are expensive to buy and don't lend themselves to the tea-bag brew."

According to Stephen Jones, the tea-bag, so often associated unfairly with the lower end of the "beverage" market, has been the saviour of committed British tea-drinkers. "If you think about it," he says, "it seems unlikely that most people would bother to brew tea from leaves as they did 30 years ago. We're too impatient now, and expect a cup of tea in seconds. Without the tea-bag, we might have opted almost entirely for instant coffee, and for a tea man that's not a nice thought."

If it's a choice between instant coffee and pyramid tea-bags, then pyramids here we come. Industry experts make them seem all but inevitable, but it's hard not to think that someone, somewhere, is making chimps of us alln