The consumer research firm Mintel recently released predictions for 2010 trends in consumer spending.  Reading these is like reading your horoscope – you naturally question the wisdom of statements so malleable as to bend to any number of realities.  Their flavor trend predictions, on the other hand, are far more concrete.  Here at least there is accountability.

I am not going to venture too far out on any limbs, but I thought I would hazard a few guesses as to which way the tea trade winds will blow in 2010.  Nothing radical here, just a little insight into trends I have seen bubbling (or boiling over) at the retail level.

1. Contraptions

Gizmos, gadgets, doohickies, and thingies.  No matter how many times I hear people wishing for an easier way to make tea, there is a total human fascination with process that can override sheer simplicity.  It is hard to beat the teabag for convenience, but the teabag does not inspire the imagination – the inner chemist in us all.  From the Jetson-like ease of the Keurig to the disciplined ritual of the Chemex, people want the satisfaction of seeing work in progress.

This trend has inspired “gravity-filter” tea makers carried by companies like Teavana, presses made by companies like Bodum, and nesting sets carried by companies like TeaForte, among others.  These ideas, along with the more classic Gongfu-inspired sets, are just the beginning.  Beverage prep will get a bigger, more sophisticated toolbox over the next few years, luring drinkers with presentation and process.

2. Tea and Chocolate Continued…

Certainly 2008 and 2009 were big years for the combination of tea and chocolate.  In November, Laura Logsdon wrote a great post here on T Ching that discussed that pairing in detail.

This trend is nothing new, but I believe we are going to see increased sophistication in this segment next year.  Recently, in Chicago, Argo Tea and Vosges Haut Chocolat announced a new partnership that will bring three new tea-inspired mini chocolate bars on the market.  Cooking with tea has never been hotter, and many of the best recipes feature these two addictive substances together.

I would look for tea companies to take more aggressive product and marketing approaches with chocolate.  If Vosges can do this, then tea is right around the corner.  In the end, these experiments may offer more style than substance, but they sure are fun!

3. Blending, Sampling, and Participation

Whittard of Chelsea introduced a blend-your-own tea bar when they first landed in Boston back in 2007.  The financial collapse in Iceland dealt Whittard a blow, but this concept was an intriguing one.

While a full-fledged smorgasbord of options might be a mess for any retailer, I do suspect that the world of tea will become more interactive at both the brick-and-mortar and online levels.  Customers are becoming accustomed to higher levels of product control and customization; tea businesses will have to adapt in order to achieve differentiation.

Creating experience, of course, is nothing new – just visit a good Chinese or Taiwanese teahouse.  But I believe you will see new and aggressive approaches focused on education and marketing.

4. Oolong Hits its Stride

Notwithstanding the weight loss and fat-burning nonsense that circulates as sage health advice, oolong has yet to make the big time in the United States.  The average American has only the vaguest notion of what lies behind the name.  In truth, oolong trails green tea by miles when it comes to recognition and appreciation.  (You are a natural exception, dear reader.)

The breakout is around the corner.  Have your eye on the late part of the year – this is when the USDA will complete a study on the consumption of oolong tea with regard to glucoregulatory control, metabolic rate, and fat oxidation.

Along with awareness, accessibility has been a major problem.  Oolong is something you find only if you look for it, even in 2009.  I see the limiting factors eroding over the next two to three years in the face of buzz and new business strategies.  I expect to hear the question “How many oolong teas do you carry?” more frequently.