Henrietta Lovell seeks to redefine good tea as a beverage that tastes amazing. Tea must also benefit the people who craft it and those who drink it, she says. Her firm buys direct from farmers globally, advocating farmer support and development over costly certifications and rejects teas grown with pesticides and herbicides or blended with additives and flavoring.
Listen to the Interview
The Value in High Quality Tea
Having read Henrietta Lovell’s fabulously engaging book “Infused, Adventures in Tea” earlier this year with TeaBookClub, I jumped at the chance to chat to Henrietta the tea person, founder of Rare Tea Company, mistress of the artful blend and champion of tea farmers. Join me as the Rare Tea Lady spills the tea.
Kyle Whittington: I’m fascinated about the moment someone “gets” tea. What’s been your experience of this?
Henrietta Lovell: It’s very interesting. If they’ve already got a preconception of what tea is, it is harder. So if I’ve got a young person, or they don’t have a very firm, fixed preconception. They might be a little bit more fluid, bit more open to experiencing new things. So then it’s like, “Oh, I’d love to try.” And then “Oh, this is amazing, this is delicious.” But when someone’s got a very strong opinion beforehand, then it’s a really wonderful revelation. Because you know that you’re not just making someone fall in love, you’re making them change an established thought pattern and it’s super exciting. But I don’t really do it, the tea does it. I’ve got a very privileged position where people will trust me enough now to try things and it’s just absolutely wonderful.
It’s one of the most life aﬃrming experiences. Really, the most is when they’re very resolutely not going to like it. They think they know what they like. And then, they have a taste of something that just starts to excite them. And it’s like “Oh, okay” but their face is still completely closed, they’re just there because they need to be or they’ve been dragged in. And then the face softens, the body language softens, and a sort of joy starts to creep into the face.
Because pleasure is a joy. Let’s not forget. It’s not just amazing flavors. It’s really a sense of euphoria that overcomes you when you discover something that is so beautiful, and so joyous.
Kyle: So is there one tea that really captures people?
Henrietta: I mean that obviously we will have very diﬀerent tastes and flavor profiles that we enjoy most. But interestingly, it’s often either an English breakfast or jasmine tea because we know those teas very well. And experience is so extraordinarily wonderful because you think you know something, and then it’s opened out to you.
Jasmine silver tip because it’s so clean and bright and fresh and it’s scented with jasmine flower. There’s no flavoring in there. This is just the flowers that have given up their scent, and it’s been absorbed into the tea. That is such an extraordinary experience. People are like “Oh, ooh!” And it’s so extraordinary. They’re sort of, “I know it but I don’t know it.” And they feel quite discombobulated at first, and then very joyous.
And then the other thing is to do is an English breakfast with an industrial teabag, and then an English breakfast made with beautiful teas crafted to be something better than the sum of its parts. And that’s really amazing. You try them side by side, and then there is this revelation because you’ve probably drunk that industrial teabag tea every day of your life, maybe six times a day. And then you have something that is remarkably better. You’re like shit, what have I been missing out on my whole life. And that can be a little bit hurtful. You can’t argue with your taste buds. So when your taste buds say, “Oh my God this is better.” you have to just let go of the past and go Okay, the world is opened out. Whatever their taste background, whatever their profession, whether they’re a taxi driver or a famous chef, or a sommelier, everybody can taste the diﬀerence. So it’s much more accessible. It’s just having that first sip.
Kyle: You’re known for creating some fabulous blends. But sometimes, blending is seen as the poor relation to a “pure” tea. How do you see blends and the art of blending?
Henrietta: I think it’s the intention of the blend that’s absolutely important. Are you trying to create something that’s better than the sum of its parts? Or are you trying to disguise or make bland and easily indistinguishable? But it can be something really extraordinary. And with such a huge cornucopia of flavors within black teas, but then with blending, it becomes exponential. Absolutely exponential, what you can achieve. I’m still shocked. I’m still surprised now.
Because it’s never the sum of its parts.
The history of scientific revolutions is often led by mistake and that’s often been the case for me.
My favorite thing that I’m drinking at the moment is a blend of almond blossoms from Tarragona with Croatian Camomile. But I never thought I would do that, I did it totally by mistake. I have to admit that to you. I charge lots and lots of money for making blends for people and then sometimes I just do one very good one by total mistake.
Kyle: I’m interested, what’s something that bugs you in the tea world?
Henrietta: But I wanted to say that there’s a lot of snobbery around tea and we should be more inclusive. If we’re going to make a real revolution in the tea world and get people to understand that there is this cornucopia of deliciousness and joy and flavour. Which will in turn, nourish and support the tea community throughout the world. We got to stop putting our noses in air and being snobby and shutting everyone out who doesn’t know, you know, the names of tea estates in Taiwan. It’s really not that interesting, what the code of that that particular varietal is. Because there’s so much more to do with flavor.
Kyle: Talking of snobbery, how do you deal with the naming of a tea? What’s your approach?
Henrietta: Two of the farmers that I admire most (one is Jun Chiyabari in Nepal) they refuse to use any of the old colonial terms. So they won’t do a TGFOP or whatever and they’re now even not calling things green or black tea. Because why is it that it has to be a green or a black tea? One of the teas we have is called Himalayan Spring and it’s actually technically, if you’re going to be super technical, a black tea though it tastes like green tea. And so if we called it black tea it would disappoint everybody. So why do we need to? The flavor profile is softer, richer, much greener than a lot of green teas. If you’re comparing it with a very deep Sencha, you’d be like, well, this is not. How can we call these two things green tea? It’s like trying to compare a whiskey with a rum almost.
If you really love tea, if it’s a real love, not an intellectual challenge, then it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. And if you need to know more about it, you should be able to delve in. I ask questions of my farmers all the time passed on from my customers because that connection is jolly important. If you really need to know varietal number of the tea then we’ll find that out and get it to you. But I don’t think that should be the thing that leads because it’s really oﬀ putting.
People often question me on our packaging, it’s often very simple on the front. It might say just green tea or oolong tea and then on the back it says more stuﬀ. And that’s because I began in 2004 and no one had ever heard of oolong tea, so I didn’t call it Tie Guan Yin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy. So I’ve really tried and it’s been super interesting how farmers have adopted that same thing.
My favorite new terroir, and one that I admired tremendously is in New Zealand in Waikato. They’re producing tea and again they’re not using traditional names. They’re making oolong teas and they’re not calling them oolong they’re calling them, you know, dark or light or whatever. Just simple words that people will be able to understand from about the flavor.
Kyle: You work directly with farms, what is it about working directly that is so important for you?
Henreitta: Working with farms. Working with people to understand, number one, there’s a value in high quality tea, but working with farms. That we don’t just ostracise people or communities that have been reliant on industrial tea. We don’t just say “Oh, we can’t work with them.”
Often people speak about farms that produce speciality tea and non speciality tea. If the person who’s picking the tea is paid the same for both. Well then that’s not fair really, because then the value of that speciality tea is not getting to the picker. And this is not okay. We shouldn’t really work with commercial farms that are producing non speciality tea.
There is not a problem with supply in the world of speciality tea. There is a problem with demand. That is the problem, right?
So it’s our job to try and spread the demand and to educate people and to show people that there’s a reason and a value for buying more expensive tea.
But if a farmer is trying to come out of a world where they’ve been reliant on selling commodity tea, cheaper tea because that’s where the market was, we can’t punish them when they’re trying to then create speciality tea. And this makes me so mad. And when you talk about wages and you say, “Well, I shouldn’t work with a farm where the wages are low.” How are they going to improve the wages if we don’t buy more speciality tea? We need to work with these farmers because we have to understand that we need to have relationships. How do you get to that? Like working in a farm in Malawi; wages are low, life expectancy is low, standard of living is low. How do we make a fucking difference there? How do we do it differently? And it’s not by only working with a tiny small holder or tiny farm that just makes speciality tea. That’s part of the solution. But it’s not the only solution.
Rare Tea Co.
Henrietta Lovell is perhaps best known as the Rare Tea Lady, after her company “Rare Tea Co.” rareteacompany.com. Sourcing directly from farmers since the very beginning, Henrietta has traveled the world, searching for rare and precious harvests of teas and tisanes. Her quest has taken her on many adventures, from the far flung and bizarre to those closer to home. She has worked with some of the most prestigious restaurants and hotels around the world, pairing teas and creating bespoke blends. Henrietta founded Rare Charity, which works to bring educational opportunity to young people in tea growing areas.
“The people working in tea estates represent some of the most marginalized communities in many of the world’s poorest countries,” writes Lovell. “Our aim is to give ambitious young people the agency to uplift themselves, their households and their community. Education enables these young people to return to their community as qualified professionals, to implement long-term social change,” she said.
— Kyle Whittington
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