London’s tea story stretches back nearly 300 years and, truth be told, that story had grown a bit stale as the 20th century came to an end. Several factors clouded the picture – the dominance of tea bags beginning in the 60s, the foreign purchase of major British tea packers in recent years, and the lingering cliché of pinkie-raised tourists having “high tea” at posh hotels.
Britain has been late coming to the most recent worldwide tea party. This tardiness can be attributed to the fact that tea was so ubiquitous in British society. For years, it was cheap, abundant, and what you drank when visiting your grandmother. That’s all changing.
Like The Americas, Germany, and Japan, the British tea scene is putting on a fresh face.
I recently spent 75 hours in London for meetings with Jane Pettigrew and the National Trust as we worked on the updated edition of A Social History of Tea. I also packed in interviews with Stephen Twining, 10th generation of a tea dynasty, and Tim d’Offay, the Jamie Oliver of the modern London tea movement.
I met Stephen on a misty Thursday morning at the Twinings Tea Shop on The Strand. The Twining family has had a shop here since 1706. It is a must-see for any tea lover. I hadn’t been in the shop for several years and it has certainly been revamped for a new tea drinking culture.
Loose teas from around the world again fill the shelves and, best of all, a sleek new tea bar can comfortably accommodate a half-dozen guests who can taste any tea they stock. Tea shops across America have been going in this direction for several years because, as we know, customers will buy what they love to drink. Plus, it’s a lot less hassle – with fewer permits – than running a tearoom.
Stephen is the newest face in a family tea dynasty that stretches back ten generations. Twining’s shop at The Golden Lyon was one of the first into which ladies could step to buy tea. They originally sourced their teas from the same East India Company warehouses which dispatched 600,000 pounds of Chinese teas to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston in the fall of 1773. (We know where that ended up!)
Stephen made a nice pot of a very tippy single estate Assam and we compared notes on the current state of tea in the UK and US. There are a lot of similarities – a growing demographic of young tea drinkers, a greater preference for loose leaf teas, the influence of tea’s healthy reputation, and tea’s universal ability to bring people together.
We came to the happy conclusion that we are both fortunate have vocations which bring us into contact with so many people worldwide who love our products.
Across town, Tim d’Offay is holding court at one of the hottest – and smallest – tea shops in London’s sophisticated New Bond Street at Oxford Street shopping area. I first met Tim when he was just beginning his store a few years ago. I re-visited his tea sanctuary, Postcard Teas, and experienced one of the most finely-honed selections of rare teas to be found in London.
At a long, low, wood-planked table, Tim’s staff will steep a perfect sample for you, or you can send a tea postcard to someone back home. Simply fill out the address label with a personal message and the staff will mail a few ounces of tea to them. It’s like Twitter with good taste – and at a slow pace. Young Japanese students had discovered it the day I was there and they were very excited to send London tea back to their friends at home.
Tim travels to China and Japan to source many of his rare finds, including Ancient Tong Mu Original. This exquisite black tea is made from tea trees over 100 years old growing near Gua Dun village in Tong Mu area of the Wu Yi Mountains. Wu Yi lent its name to Bohea, the common name for tea in the western world in the 17th and 18th centuries. But, I’m sure 17th century British tea drinkers never tasted tea like this!
Such teas as this tend to draw media attention and it hasn’t taken long for Tim to find a loyal following amongst celebrities, including Bianca Jagger and Nigel Slater. If you want to see the new face of London tea, it doesn’t get any fresher than Tim and Postcard Teas!
Video extra – watch Stephen Twining make a steaming pot of tea for Bruce Richardson
Photos copyrighted 2013 by Bruce Richardson at Benjamin Press