As the morning daypart lifts off and craft cocktails surge, it was only a matter of time before restaurants and bartenders started putting the essence of the two trends into one glass. Enter tea- and coffee-based cocktails.
“To have something as complex, delicious, and familiar as coffee and tea, it’s kind of crazy that it wasn’t the rage all along,” says Skye LaTorre, beverage director for the New York City chain the Meatball Shop. The restaurant uses cold-brewed coffee to blend libations like the Buzzed Lebowski, which is a modified White Russian, and the Cajun Iced Coffee with tequila, citrus liqueur, and sweet milk.
The simple, age-old bases of tea and coffee offer a lot for restaurants to play around with, from different types of tea to varied roasts of coffee. In addition to a vast array of flavor profiles, tea can be customized by how it is prepared. For mixing with juices or a mulled wine, one can brew a more concentrated tea, says Joe McKinnon, national tea trainer and foodservice marketing coordinator for Numi Organic Tea. For a mate-infused vermouth (mate being a South American, caffeine-rich beverage) or other spirit infusion, tea can be steeped in the liquor for four to six hours.
“Right now, especially in fine dining and even in quick-service to an extent, I would say tea is starting to be elevated,” McKinnon says. He sees an increased preference for premium teas. “Everybody is focused on tea and trying to bump it up to where coffee is.”
Familiarity with tea-based cocktails is strong. According to a study by Datassential, 70 percent of Americans are aware of tea-based libations, which outpace other trends, including bitters and artisan cider.
Tea-based cocktails aren’t necessarily new, says Chris Mitchell, chef/owner of BFB Highline in New York City’s Meatpacking District. “Bourbon iced teas are something that have been consumed in the South for eons,” he says, although he notes the combinations are becoming increasingly inventive. “The average consumer’s palate has gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last three to four years.”
Six months ago, Chef Mitchell began experimenting with tea-based cocktails. He now concocts two to three new tea libations each week. One menu staple, Lowered Inhibitions, pairs smoky mezcal with Owl’s Brew Coco-Lada, a concentrated black tea with coconut, chai spices, pineapple juice, and agave.
“With the farm-to-table movement, people have been wanting all-natural, fresh ingredients,” Chef Mitchell says of the explosion of tea-based libations. “I think it offers a wide variety of possibilities in terms of cocktails.”
Concentrate to Build a Cocktail
Some bar operators and chefs such as Chef Mitchell use bottled tea or coffee concentrate in their beverages, as concentrates provide a bold burst of flavor while eliminating the time required to steep or brew the caffeinated element.
“People were asking for coffee cocktails, and it was a nightmare because [the long brewing process] stops the show,” says Dave Sands, co-owner of Brooklyn-based Grady’s Cold Brew, which makes a New Orleans-style iced coffee concentrate.
Cold-brewed java, he says, is easier to use than traditional espresso, which involves brewing the coffee and then waiting for it to cool. Coffee pairings can be unexpectedly tasty—one of Sands’ favorites is a cold-brew coffee with a milk stout beer—but Chef Mitchell adds that restaurants should remember an ingredient as bold as coffee is never subtle.
“I can make you a bourbon iced tea 20 different ways, but a White Russian, there are only so many ways,” Chef Mitchell says. “At the end of the day, the overwhelming flavor profile is going to be coffee.”
An offshoot of the artisanal Brew Lab Tea, Owl’s Brew, which Chef Mitchell uses in his cocktails, specializes in bottled tea concentrates to be blended with spirits. Jennie Ripps, founder and CEO of Owl’s Brew, says she noticed the trend really take off about two years ago, when she started being approached to do tea cocktails for events. After witnessing the success of tea-based drinks at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Twilight: Breaking Dawn movie premiere, and a string of charity events, Ripps and her business partner Maria Littlefield decided to specialize in ready-to-mix blends.
Owl’s Brew offerings are brewed to a concentrate, so they can be shaken or put on the rocks. They also don’t dilute when mixed with other ingredients, which is often an issue when a restaurant makes tea cocktails from scratch. “You can do so much because you have an amazing flavor profile,” Ripps says.
National tea retailer Numi Organic Tea was experimenting with tea and spirits long before the current trend.
“We’ve been doing infusions in cocktails and things like vinegars for at least eight or nine years, if not longer,” says McKinnon. Every time the brand launches a new line of teas, it creates an accompanying booklet that includes cocktail and mocktail recipes.
Tea or Coffee?
Jameson Huckaba, bar manager for Washington, D.C., restaurant Ardeo + Bardeo, has played around with an espresso rendition of the Negroni, a cocktail that mixes gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, but he also finds that tea invites more possibilities.
“I believe tea is really a wonderful ingredient for building complexity in a subtle, button-down manner,” Huckaba says. “I’ll go shopping around town for specific, interesting teas.”
Ardeo + Bardeo’s tea cocktails include 50 Shades of Grey— Earl Grey tea vodka with Earl Grey simple syrup and freshly brewed Earl Grey— as well as seasonal libations like Summer in Warsaw, vodka infused with jasmine green tea and cucumber.
“Tea is a smaller component of a bigger movement of using nontraditional ingredients in cocktails,” Huckaba says. “It allows us a little more flexibility in what we come up with.”
The prevalence of tea and coffee cocktails is growing, but chefs and mixologists like Chef Mitchell agree that the trend is still most common in major metropolitan areas like New York City, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles.
“We just realized from watching our friends at brunch [in New York] that everyone was ordering something boozy like a mimosa and then a coffee,” Sands says. A coffee cocktail, on the other hand, smartly combines the disparate ingredients into an ideal beverage choice for lunch.
Consumers in their 20s and 30s are not the only adopters of this trend, but they may be the most enthusiastic. Numi’s McKinnon says he’s noticed a surge in experimental beverages and flavor profiles in recent years as Millennials look for new, different, and exotic tastes on the menu. He adds, “It makes you tilt your head and go, ‘Huh, I never thought of using tea in that way.’”
Beverage names like BFB Highline’s Right Swipe—a combination of rum, cilantro simple syrup, and a Darjeeling-hibiscus tea from Owl’s Brew—are a nod to the sliding motion users make when perusing the Millennial-centric dating app Tinder. It may also be further proof of who is driving the cocktail movement.