One of the biggest stories in beverages today transcends industry segments. Operators in settings as diverse as colleges, hospitals, fast-casual restaurants and big-city cocktail bars are mixing tea with a variety of flavors to create crowd-pleasing specialty drinks.

They are building on the popularity of the world’s most widely consumed beverage after water. Tea’s selling points include a healthy halo, thanks to its high antioxidant content, and a persona that may be perceived as refreshing, stimulating or soothing, depending upon one’s mood. The fact that it can be served either hot or cold and customized with myriad ingredients adds to its appeal. Little wonder that customers are eager to try a new tea-based specialty beverage, whether it is hot tea with a creative herb or spice addition or iced tea layered with fruit flavors. 

“The trends definitely show that tea is rising in importance to consumers,” says Laura Thompson, senior brand manager of offer development for Sodexo, the Gaithersburg, Md.-based foodservice management company.

Jazzman’s Café & Bakery, a Sodexo concept in more than 200 onsite locations, including hospitals, government offices and colleges and universities, features iced and hot tea lattes in flavors such as Chai, Coco Coconut and Green Tea Macha as well as a signature Iced Blueberry Green Tea.

“In the colder months, we focus on hot tea lattes, and in the warmer weather, we focus on iced teas and other cold beverages,” says Heidi Hastings-Brien, senior director of marketing, brand management for Sodexo.

Jazzman’s also has a repertoire of limited-time offerings such as Blackberry Sage, Acai Green Tea, Tropical Green Tea and hot Pumpkin Chai Latte for fall.

At Rice University in Houston, students cool down when the mercury spikes with such creative iced tea blends as Ginger Mint Lemon, Hibiscus Citrus, Mango Poblano, Blackberry Lime Cilantro and Cranberry Thai Basil.

“We go through them fast when it’s smoking hot here,” reports Johnny Curet, Rice University dining director, in an email.

Signature teas like those are poured at special events and stocked at campus hydration stations during the hottest parts of the school year — the late summer when fall classes start and the final weeks of the spring term.

There are fans of peach- and lemon-flavored iced teas at the University of Dayton in Ohio, but the real refreshment news is the Taiwanese-style boba tea.

Made with a base similar to a fruit smoothie, the boba tea is available in such flavors as strawberry-banana, lemon, mango, cherry and blueberry. A garnish of boba — chewy tapioca balls — creates an unusual mouthfeel in the drink as they are slurped through an extra-wide straw.

Variety and customizability are what captivate students, according to Sue Falter, general manager of the Marycrest dining hall.

“Each time they come in, they can choose a different flavor for the base, and they can change the flavor of the bobas,” Falter says. “They really enjoy tailoring it to their own tastes.”

Although tea has become a trendy ingredient for some mixologists to explore today, it actually has a long history at the bar. As far back as the 17th century, punch was being made with strong black or green tea and spirits, according to Tyler Fry, bartender of the Violet Hour, a craft cocktail bar in Chicago.

“We are now starting to see a lot more people use tea at the bar and in a lot of different ways,” Fry says.

One of Fry’s tea-based creations is a remake of the flip, a drink that was in style over a century ago. He prepares his version with chai-infused rum, spices, milk, Demerara syrup and rum-based allspice dram. The drink is completed by beating in a whole egg for richness and grating nutmeg on top.

Onsite operators who follow fast-casual restaurant trends might take a leaf from the tea program of Flower Child, a new member of the multi-unit Fox Restaurant Concepts group in Phoenix. House-brewed tea blends are a popular and profitable aspect of the menu, which features simple dishes made with clean, healthy ingredients. There are three iced tea flavors to choose from: Passion Fruit Black, Japanese Mango Sencha Green and Acai Green with Hibiscus Blossom.

Beverage manager Mat Snapp says the concept goes through about 45 gallons of brewed iced tea a day, along with nearly a whole 5.2 gallon keg of kombucha, a fermented, alcohol-free sweet tea beverage.

The trio of teas is merchandised in transparent circulators that keep the contents chilled, mixed and on display. “Plus the circulators allow us to put out five gallons of each iced tea flavor at a time,” Snapp says. “Based on how much the community is enjoying this tea, we would be crazy to serve it with any smaller device.”