Call me a snob, but both out and about and in people’s homes, I find 90% of the tea that’s served here undrinkable. The brands are depressingly familiar, typically yielding tannic dyspeptic brews. They’re boring, to boot. A couple of weeks back, Steven Esom remarked on the surprisingly limited choice in UK supermarkets. This was never more true than for tea. We seem fixated on the same tired brands of teabags filled with CTC (Cut Torn Curled) tea of the most workaday grade.
It’s as if the nation’s tea connoisseurship has got bogged down in 1950, with the standard lorry driver’s offering. Yes, I know we’ve got fruit teas, green teas and all that, but instead of developing the essential quality of the tea, we’ve got hooked on gimmickry: bags with quirky shapes, pseudo-therapeutic herbal additions, mouth-mugging flavourings that stink like scented candles.
Our willingness to buy ethically when it comes to tea is laudable, but it hasn’t done much to address our tea knowledge deficit. With the sterling exception of Equal Exchange – a company that shows commitment and intelligence in explaining tea quality to consumers, alongside equitable trade issues – the Fairtrade sector has concentrated on the morality of what’s in the box, not its inherent quality.
Whole leaf, loose tea – what’s known as ‘classic’ or ‘orthodox’ in the trade – has been neglected for way too long in the UK, relegated to prissy tins for the gift market. It’s as if understanding the standard industry classifications is beyond us. That’s why so many Britons think that flowery orange pekoe has something to do with citrus fruit, rather than referring to the specific type of leaf picked. Meanwhile, quite impressive markets for fine tea grow apace in countries like Germany, Japan and France, sprouting chains of well-patronised specialist tea emporia.
The beauty of tea as a product is that even the most expensive Japanese Gyokuro or first flush estate Darjeeling is still inexpensive in the cup because you need so little. There’s a great business opportunity here for any visionary company prepared to supply and explain the great teas of the world to a popular market. Not just as some stocking filler, but as an exquisite pleasure to brighten our everyday lives.
Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain.