Features

Tea: Cool brew

1 Oct 2006 by business traveller
How did tea, the working man's drink, the building site cliché playing second fiddle to fashionable coffee bars, become such a hot topic? Smart teahouses are cropping up everywhere and attracting a cool crowd – a far cry from pensioners on seafronts or tourists in grand hotels. Every yuppie kitchen stocks designer tea along with single-estate olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Business meetings are held around the tea table instead of over a two-hour lunch; green tea is a superfood with irrefutable health benefits; and an acquaintance with specialist teas marks you out as refined, stylish, and above all, modern. The statistics tell their own story. In the last five years, consumption of specialist teas in the UK has rocketed, with sales of green tea growing by 1,500 per cent and by nearly 2,000 per cent in terms of value per head of population. Meanwhile, consumption of standard black tea (white, two sugars, you know the type) fell by nearly 10 per cent. Niche tea retailers have sprung up in major cities, and websites are doing great business as customers tire of supermarket-own brands. In terms of tea appreciation, the UK is years behind Germany, France, Japan and China, but we're catching up fast and it's a younger, more progressive consumer who's leading the charge. Just as you wouldn't dream of serving instant coffee in the boardroom or to your friends at home, there's a cachet to offering good tea – and in appreciating the difference.

A LITTLE HISTORY

About 5,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered that the leaves of the Camellia sinensis made a cracking good infusion that worked as both a food and a medicine. The tea gardens in China were developed all over the country with different types emerging from the variety of climate and terrain, from hot steamy Yunnan in the tropical south to the temperate regions of Fujian further north and into Taiwan and Korea. Tea was a luxury cash crop all over the world, but the Chinese weren't especially keen to do business with outsiders and so when, in the early 1800s, the plant was found growing wild in Assam, the British were delighted. From these modest beginnings they developed the India tea trade that was a staple of the British Empire. Our everyday tea here in the UK has been a tragic vulgarisation of this subtle, delicious drink, but now there's life beyond English Breakfast. From China there are fresh green and white teas, best drunk between April and October; jasmine tea infused with fresh jasmine flowers; complex, semi-fermented oolongs that make an ideal "wake-up" morning drink with warming aromas and a smooth mellow taste; and the earthy, aged puerh teas from the southwest that last many years and command a tremendous price at auction. Don't despise Indian black teas but look for prestige harvests like First Flush darjeelings (Margaret's Hope, Castleton and Goomtee are the best estates), picked early in the season with a sweet, smooth taste and golden green colour. Or the fuller flavour of Golden Assam picked later in the year with a fuller flavour and honey aroma. Japan can't produce enough tea for its own needs but a small amount is exported and available in the UK, including the grassy sencha, the classic green tea and gyokuro, the highest grade of Japanese leaf tea. Experiment with drinking teas at home or in one of the new, fashionable teahouses (see overleaf) to find what suits your own palate. Websites of specialist retailers give useful tasting notes and background of their products, helping you navigate through a mass of unfamiliar names. Then it will be time to buy the new kit – glass teapots with cunning reservoirs to hold those pesky leaves will soon be as commonplace as cafetières. There's a whole new world of flavour out there so go for it.

THE TEA MASTERS

In ancient times, the tea master was a poet, artist and philosopher, who found a reflection of the divine in the subtlety of tea enjoyment. Today there's still a magic about tea that attracts some pretty unusual characters into the business and while they are all intent on financial success, it's a very different occupation from normal office life. Edward Eisler Edward Eisler is just 27 but has been passionate about tea since he was eight years old and is an unrepentant "anorak" with a mind-blowing knowledge about tea and a messianic urge to convert us all. He studied Mandarin and Chinese medicine at London University, but even in his teens he was travelling to China, India, Nepal and Taiwan, determined to bring specialist teas into the UK. He launched Jing Tea at the end of 2003, and today operates from a large Victorian house in southwest London. The website is superb and offers a wide range of produce including Long Jing, the best green tea, Silver Needle, Jasmine Pearls, Monkey Picked, and dark roast oolongs with a hint of chocolate like Red Cloak from the Wuyi mountains, China's equivalent of the Rockies. He aims to reintroduce Bohea, the original smoky Lapsang from a 400-year-old farm that was all the rage in England in the 1600s. Edward supplies a whole tea menu (including staff training) to top restaurants including the three Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray, and the fashionable Japanese fast food restaurants, Itsu, of which there are now eight in London. Business is booming, especially wholesale with major clients in the US. Edward wants Jing to set the gold standard for tea (much like Illy for coffee, or Green & Black's for chocolate), and he plans to open a high-profile connoisseurs' tea club this autumn (for details, email [email protected]) for tastings, conversation and networking. Bruce Ginsberg Bruce Ginsberg is no Johnny-come-lately to the tea world. His family line stretches back to the Russian Imperial Court where they supplied tea to the Tsars, but in 1900, Bruce's great, great-grandfather moved from Moscow to Cape Town and in the process, he discovered a native plant that could be turned into a form of tea. Rooibos became the national drink of South Africa and is now popular all over the world for its calming, caffeine-free effect. It founded the family fortune but Bruce, a passionate environmentalist, was already looking further afield, studying garden design and Asian culture. At the famous Zen monastery where the tea ceremony was born over 500 years ago, he was instantly hooked on the specialist teas of China and Japan, and resolved to import them into the UK. For nearly 30 years, in tandem with his successful Rooibos business, and in partnership with his wife Kaz, he has run Dragonfly teas, based in a grand stately house in Berkshire. Dragonfly supplies Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Tesco and a number of quality independent stores. Alas, the British supermarket buyer is obsessed with tea bags so if, like me, only leaf will do, access the Dragonfly website for a wide range of teas and accessories by mail order. Bruce travels to China each spring, tracking down handmade artisan teas in remote tea gardens. He is a scholar and a gentleman, leading a life where his transcendental love of art and nature exists side by side with a successful business. Lucky man. Tim d'Offay Another regular visitor to the tea gardens of the East is Tim d'Offay, who caught the tea bug when he was studying in Kyoto in the mid-90s. The epiphany came in Taipei when tasting a small cup of tea without any milk or sugar, and its fragrance and flavour sent him into the countryside to track down the grower. In 2000, along with a friend Alex Fraser, he set up East Teas, bringing green and oolong teas into the country for sale at Borough Market in East London. Earlier this year, he formed Postcard Teas to expand the portfolio and bring in superior black teas from India and Sri Lanka. He opened a tea boutique in the heart of Mayfair, just off New Bond Street, where his father, the renowned art dealer Anthony d'Offay, had made his name working with the best artists of the 20th century. With his flat cap, long apron and gentle manner, he is an unlikely version of the dynamic businessman, but his passion and knowledge is boundless and his website lists an impressive range. Travelling to the East each year, to areas of spectacular beauty, and being able to work with nature and local culture gives him the most pleasure. "Tea is a creative business," he says. "Like a winemaker, you have to be an artist to make great tea." Sean Moran Sean Moran was born in the US, brought up in Northern Ireland and worked in New York in advertising, as an account director for top brands like cognac and Cadbury. The events of 9/11 brought a dramatic change to the ad business and, after making his team redundant, Sean found himself without a job and went to St Barths to recover and regroup. He returned to the Republic of Ireland with a plan. His grandfather, Frank, had been a tea merchant in the 1930s, selling quality teas from India, China and Ceylon to the local gentry in the west of Ireland. It was good business. He started with a bicycle and ended up with a chauffeur and the first Model T Ford west of the Shannon. Inspired by the palpable changes in Ireland as it morphed from a meat-and-potatoes culture into the Celtic Tiger, Sean Moran saw tea as the way forward and by Christmas 2003, his company, Sip, was born. Still in his 30s, he now lives in the heart of the countryside importing specialist teas and determined to raise Irish awareness. "My mission for Sip is modernity, simplicity, no fuss," he declares. "This is not a brand about cake-stands." He's developing a version of the dreaded teabag: biodegradable silky pouches that use the whole leaf for maximum flavour and visual appeal. Until now, Sean has been salesman, production manager, packer, designer and CFO, but for distribution he now uses the Dublin-based Odaios website that supplies upmarket food products whose motto is "a journey in search of culinary adventure". His business focus is the progressive younger market and he targets smart trendy restaurants, hotels and spas. "The movers 'n' shakers are more open to the tea experience," he says, "but good tea should be populist. After water, it's the most widely consumed beverage in the world. The Irish deserve better." Carole Bamford Carole Bamford is a woman who could sit back and enjoy the finer things in life. After all, if your husband is the owner of JCB, you don't need a day job. But in November 2002, propelled by her own obsession with organic food, she opened Daylesford Organic farm shop in Gloucestershire and the place is now foodie heaven. Teas are another of her passions, and Bamford teas include an impressive range from Silver Needle White, Honey Pearl Pekoe Green and classic oolongs to top teas from Assam, Sikkim and Sri Lanka. The Tea House at Daylesford sells the whole range plus tea accessories, while the two smart Bamford clothing shops in London, (in Sloane Square and Draycott Avenue) have cool, chic café areas for tea appreciation and sales. It-Girl central perhaps but there's no denying that Carole Bamford does things properly. Mr Mao Mr Mao is the only Chinese man in this tea story and he is an astonishing figure "on the edge of history", as he describes himself. Born in 1967, he was educated under the strict communist system and, after graduating from the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade, he was sent by the state to work in the tea business at the standard salary (throughout the country – whether you were a doctor or a road sweeper), of 65 yuan a month (about US$10). He had a lucky break because he was highly skilled, and instead of spending three years in a rural factory, he was kept in head office where he first encountered the concept of organic farming. A Dutch client wanted to buy organic black tea but China had no system, or even knowledge of this new category. Thanks to a friend who was working with the UN on environmental issues, Mr Mao recruited Canadian inspectors to help them meet the requirements of international certifying bodies. In 1991 a single container (11 metric tonnes) of organic black tea was shipped to The Netherlands, and the rest is history. Mr Mao is now regarded as the foremost expert in organic farming in China. He's currently developing 11 different organic projects: three in Fujian province, two in Yunnan, one in Jianxi, one in Anhuis, and four in Zhejiang where the city of Hangzhou is the centre of the thriving green tea business. No chemicals are allowed and only rape seed and fermented animal manure is used as fertiliser. Weeds are allowed to grow in the tea gardens as they fix nitrogen in the soil. Mr Mao received the New Industrial Star, first issued by the government in 2001 to honour exceptional entrepreneurs. It's all part of the new China where government is going into partnership with private companies instead of controlling the whole process. Mr Mao welcomes government involvement. "They have the capital, resources and good selling channels," he says. He says China is split in terms of embracing capitalism. The north has few private companies and finds it hard to adapt to the new system, while the south, with its transportation advantages, is more open and confident. "China isn't really communist anymore," he says. But it's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, schoolchildren were still told that socialism was better than capitalism. On the edge of history indeed. Peter Leggatt Peter Leggatt typifies the old-school of tea aristocrats. He is chairman of Lawrie Plantation Services, part of the larger parent company Camellia, the only independent tea producer left in the UK, with huge estates in India, Nepal, Africa and Bangladesh. He's one of the last grandees of the tea world, having joined Inchcape in 1959 when they had vast interests in the Far East. He ran the Indian side of things from the late 70s through the 80s. The British offices are based in a superb 16th century Jacobean house in Kent, Wrotham Park (for operations in the Indian subcontinent), and a handsome Palladian mansion, Linton Park (for Africa). Much of the company's production is destined for the supermarket teabag, but they still make a small quantity of very special tea – from Darjeeling and Assam in particular – and it finds a keen market in the tea boutiques of Paris, Berlin and Hamburg as well as Harrods and Whittards in the UK. "Tea is having to fight its corner," says Peter Leggatt. "The next generation may not even own a teapot." Not if these accomplished tea masters have their way...

WHERE TO DRINK TEA

Yauatcha 15 Broadwick Street, London W1 tel +44 (0)20 7494 8888 The Parlour at Sketch 9 Conduit Street, London W1 tel +44 (0)870 777 4488 Café T Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1 tel +44 (0)20 7307 5452 Chai Bazaar 16 Albemarle Street, London W1 tel +44 (0)20 7629 9802 The Wolseley 160 Piccadilly, London W1 tel +44 (0)20 7499 6996 Shanghai Blues 193 High Holborn, London WC1 tel +44 (0)20 7404 1668 Gilgamesh Camden Market, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 tel +44 (0)20 7482 5757 Ladurée at Harrods Brompton Road, London SW3 tel +44 (0)20 7730 1234 The Tea Palace 175 Westbourne Grove, London W11 tel +44 (0)20 7727 2600

WHERE TO BUY TEA

Bamford Teas Tea House, Bamford Barn, Daylesford Organic, near Kingham, Gloucestershire, tel +44 (0)1608 731 700, daylesfordorganic.com; 31 Sloane Square, tel +44 (0)20 7881 8020; 169 Draycott Avenue, tel +44 (0)20 7589 8729 Jing Tea (Edward Eisler) jingtea.co.uk Postcard Teas 9 Dering Street, off Bond Street, London W1, tel +44 (0)20 7629 3654, postcardteas.com Zhejiang Camel Transworld (Organic Food) Co. (Mr Mao Limin) organic-tea.com Dragonfly Tea tel +44 (0)1635 278 648, dragonfly-teas.com Sean Moran at Sip tel +353 8681 56369, odaios.com Yumchaa Tea Space West Yard, Camden Lock London NW1, yumchaa.com
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