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With tea, the flavor possibilities are virtually endless.
Tea, like coffee, straddles a variety of beverage categories that target particular consumer preferences, from the high-minded loose-leaf tea brewer, to the casual iced-tea drinker grabbing a bottle at the convenience store. Tea has something for everyone: it tastes good, it has functional aspects like energy, but it also has a healthy connotation.
So, while coffee is certainly experiencing a boom, particularly in the ready-to-drink (RTD) cold-brew space, tea, despite being considered a counterpart, does not necessarily compete with coffee, but instead exists in its own space. “Tea has become more the evolution from the carbonated soft drink, sparkling beverage platform, as opposed to coffee, which is more functional,” says Shannon Coco, strategic marketing manager, Taste, for ingredient and flavors supplier Kerry North America (Beloit, WI).
Renata Ibarra, senior RD&A director, Taste, for Kerry, agrees, saying, “Tea has a more healthy halo than coffee, so the consumer going after coffee would not necessarily go after tea. We think tea still has a lot of space [to grow] because [of the versatility], from the sweet teas to the unsweetened tea, combined with fruits or varieties like white, green, or black tea.”
With tea, the flavor possibilities are virtually endless, and the reasons for drinking tea are not limited to a particular function.
Adapting to Consumer Tastes
RTDs account for 46% of total tea volume, while tea bags account for 44%1. According to Nielsen, “liquid tea,” or RTDs, was the number-one product category in dollar growth change at the end of 2017, with a dollar percent increase of 18.9%.2 This was the second year in a row that RTDs took the number-one spot in dollar growth, Nielsen says. Considering the growth of the category, this creates a lot of opportunity for new and innovative flavor solutions as brands chase the ever-changing palates of consumers.
Among the biggest challenges currently in formulating beverages, including tea, is managing sugar content. A recent white paper3 by Kerry, which surveyed over 1,500 U.S. consumers, found that 46% of American consumers are trying to reduce their sugar consumption, 27% prefer products that are less sweet, and 50% seek out a specific type of sweetening agent in their products. That means a lot of creativity has to go into how a beverage, such as an RTD tea, is formulated in order to develop a low-calorie beverage that also hits all the right flavor and textural notes. This means combining sweeteners, using flavor maskers, or introducing other flavor profiles such as floral or fruit flavors.
For tea, this can mean any number of flavor combinations; it depends on the type of end-product that is being created and who it will be marketed toward. Some will want a tea that is sweet and fruity, while a consumer that is more of a purist will desire a more astringent and authentic tea flavor. Because of the level of customization that an RTD tea product requires, using tea extracts is advantageous.
“The way [extracts] are broken out is that we are able bring out the top notes, the middle notes, the different components of the flavor, based on the extract,” explains Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager for Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY). “We can change the levels of all these to get the taste that you want. You can actually change the taste of the tea while still using all the natural components. If you like the brighter notes, you can increase those, or you can add them back to a cold-brew tea to get rid of some of the off-notes that may happen from brewing.”
Synergy Flavors (Wauconda, IL), for example, has a portfolio of extracts and essences that can replicate the experience of drinking freshly brewed tea in an RTD format. “You put [the ingredient] and water into our propriety system, you draw off the aroma (which is the essence), and what comes out the bottom is the extract. Then you put them together,” explains Lindsey Oostema, business development, Synergy Flavors. In an RTD tea format, this creates that full experience of drinking tea by releasing the tea aroma, which will fortify the flavor of tea. Synergy also makes extracts and essences for other flavor profiles, so besides the tea flavors and essences, a hibiscus or lemongrass essence can be incorporated for a more nuanced and robust flavor. One must remember that much of the flavors we perceive comes from our sense of smell.
Part of the diversity of flavors comes from the diversity of the teas themselves. “Something we’ve been pushing is single-origin [flavors],” says Caputo, such as from Assam, Sri Lanka, teas from various regions. “That’s something customers have been frequently requesting, so that is often a selling point. We can make the tea extract just for the single origin and then flavor pairings; obviously florals, spices, that kind of thing. It really comes down to the type of tea. That’s the kind of flavor we will pair it with.”
One flavor profile that has continued to be popular in teas and RTD beverages in general has been tropical flavors, says Caputo. Tropical flavors provide the refreshment RTD tea consumers want, and it’s why citrus flavors continue to sell well and see continued innovation. “Trending and emerging citrus is definitely a platform we’re seeing a lot of traction in,” says Coco. “More exotic profiles that take a familiar citrus consumers love [and] bringing in that touch of exoticism-in particular, meyer lemon, yuzu, and calamansi lime are some things we’re seeing traction for in the market and continued interest around from consumers and customers.”