Tea Together Tuesday: Fraternité and Iced Tea

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your favorite way to jazz up iced tea. Now I have waxed rhapsodic about my love of cold-brewed tea over the years, most recently in my back-to-back videos about cold brewing both in plain water and sparkling, but today I am, surprisingly, not going to talk about cold brew!

After all, the prompt is “iced” tea, and I frequently never pour my cold-brewed teas over ice! I was also reminded when I signed onto social media this morning that it happens to be the Fête Nationale (or Bastille Day), during which French people and Francophiles around the world celebrate the liberation of the French Revolution. Since I spent much of my remembered childhood in a former Ursuline academy, I grew up steeped in French culture, and it seemed only appropriate to celebrate this festival at the end of Messidor, leading into the steamy Thermidor month, with a bleu-blanc-rouge inspired iced tea.

I was heavily inspired by Traci of Tea Infusiast, both to try her iced tea technique (borrowed from Taylor of Cup of Té) and create a Bastille Day inspired iced tea. I used the shaken iced tea technique to create a delightfully frothy chilled tea, using some White Silver Tips from the Rare Tea Company, and then strained it into a coupe glass (which has an appropriately-French apocryphal origin) studded with some fresh strawberries and blueberries. The froth almost gives it a champagne-like look, and the combination of the strongly-steeped silver needle tea with the slight dilution and muting of flavors from the chilling yields a tea that tastes like a summer day, with notes of fresh hay and summer stone fruits. It reminds me of walking through a peach orchard at the height of summer, where the grass is a little dry from the heat, and the scent of dry grass and peaches permeates the air. The strong steeping also reminds you that silver needle white tea, contrary to popular belief, can be rather high in caffeine, which concentrates in the tips of the tea plant. After a couple glasses of this, I was ready to take on the monarchy, or at least my ever-expanding to-do list.

While the fruit does not so much imbue the tea with its flavor (although you get a lovely whiff of strawberry as you sip), the tea-soaked fruit at the end makes a lovely treat. I also encourage you to try this with actual champagne, as raspberries that have steeped in champagne is not only delicious, but one of our family’s Christmas traditions.

So in keeping with the community theme and the ideal of brotherhood celebrated on Bastille day, I offer up this community-inspired tea drink. Sip in good health and good company, be it in person or virtually.

NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Difficult History (or Present!): A Chat with The Rare Tea Lady

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Last month, I decided to start a posting series called “Difficult History,” in which I examine the darker corners of Western tea culture and its connections to colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. But before I dive deeper into the historical context of the dark side of tea, I thought it was important to examine the current state of the tea industry, since history is continuous and these historical origins have led to the injustices perpetuated today. To that end, I scheduled some time to sit down with Henrietta Lovell of the The Rare Tea Company to discuss how the modern tea industry perpetuates some of the same injustices that we think of as blots on history.

Of course, I’ve talked about Henrietta before in my review of her book, Infused, and as I’ve sipped my way through the offerings of The Rare Tea Company (full disclosure: their Earl Grey is my favorite Earl Grey and I am endeavoring to get all my Earl-Grey-loving friends hooked on it), but I had never had a chance to chat directly with her, other than a few brief exchanges on Instagram. But when I messaged her to ask if I could quote her Story in my post on injustice in tea, she suggested we meet over FaceTime to talk further and I rather leapt at the opportunity. We “met” in the morning for me, and the afternoon for her. I had just poured my second cup of tea of the day, the single-origin English breakfast from the Rare Tea Company because, yes, I am that guy, and she tried to make me jealous with a shot of the gorgeous Danish bakery in which she was sitting.

She started our conversation by pointing out that more than 90% of the tea in North American and Europe is bought and sold primarily by seven companies, which act as brokers for smaller vendors down the line. These companies even own many of the industrial tea gardens from which a large portion of our tea is sourced. This helps smaller companies because the brokerage companies act as a sort of a bank — they assume the primary financial risk of buying up the tea, and the smaller companies can simply purchase what they need to sell, rather than assuming the risk of buying an entire harvest from a large-scale farm. But because of this, the brokerage firms can drive down the wage that farmers earn from their tea, leading to widespread poverty in tea-producing communities in India, Sri Lanka, and the tea-producing African countries, like Kenya and Malawi.

As she had previously said in her Instagram Story, the average life expectancy of people living and working in these tea-producing communities is only about their 40s, with few seeing their 50s. They’re experiencing a lack of access to education, medical care, or even clean water. And initiatives like Fair Trade, Henrietta says, only work to improve the system within this status quo of the brokers setting the prices: “They’re there to make sure we’re not total [jerks].” And it’s not helping. Tea prices are dropping and conditions are getting worse.

Part of the problem is that young people are moving away from drinking commodity tea. She compares it to the issues happening in the dairy industry: as young people move towards plant-based diets, milk prices are dropping, and farmers are finding it harder and harder to move the inventory they have. And that leads to dairy farming communities experiencing serious hardship. “It’s not just cows that are suffering; it’s whole communities,” she says. And in the same way, it is necessary to find a way to make tea sustainable, not just for the planet, but for the people who produce it.

Henrietta’s solution is direct trade, rather than Fair Trade. By dealing directly with farmers, she and The Rare Tea Company not only have the opportunity to visit gardens and deal directly with farmers, so they can see the conditions in which the workers live rather than dealing with a faceless broker, but they can also give the farmers the advantage of being able to sell an interest in an entire harvest and negotiate their own prices, ahead of production. This involves some risk to her company, but it gives the farmers security and provides her company with high-quality tea produced by farmers who are paid a wage that they had a say in negotiating.

That’s not to say it is all unicorns and rainbows. There is still the problem of people expecting cheap tea. The Rare Tea Company, and other direct-trade tea sellers, tend to charge more for their tea than you would see at the grocery store, and many of their large orders come from businesses that don’t want to pay more for a better cup of tea. But Henrietta is heartened by the amount of interest consumers have started taking in the companies from which they are buying. She says that she can see that, rather than searching for a product, finding the product page, and immediately making a purchase or else leaving, consumers now are taking upwards of ten or twenty minutes looking at mission statements and information about the ethics and sustainability of their purchase. It’s something that gives her hope for the future, despite being called a Pollyanna whose company would never make it in the past.

But the pandemic is not making this easier. In addition to the disruptions to tea production itself — India and Nepal had no first flush this year, while China has lower output from their spring harvests, in part due to the difficulty in getting temporary migrant workers to do the picking — the entire model of the company representatives visiting farmers directly to buy new harvests has been disrupted. Plus, a large portion of The Rare Tea Company’s business comes from the hospitality industry, which has been devastated by the drop in travel. If a hotel was hesitant to serve a more expensive cup of tea in the past, they probably will not be more willing to take that risk now. But she is adapting. By using social media apps and tasting samples that are sent through the mail, Henrietta is able to keep in touch with her farmers, tour gardens virtually, and select teas to buy. And she remains optimistic that the continuing shift of public opinion towards paying attention to where your tea comes from will put pressure on other companies to adopt a more transparent, equitable business model.

In her ideal tea economy, Henrietta explains, rather than brokers acting as a go-between, tea sellers and tea producers work together. Farmers would work directly with the sellers. Right now, often the farmers and the sellers have no idea what the other is getting for the tea, and the brokers can drive up their profits either by driving up the selling price when there is high demand, or by driving down the price paid to farmers when there is low demand and selling prices drop. If sellers work directly with farmers, not only is there more transparency, but the broker profits are removed from the equation. But it does mean more risk for sellers, as farmers are given a guaranteed order at a set price and for a set quantity.

And Henrietta has seen these risks. Her small group of Rare Tea Company employees, including herself, have taken 20% salary cuts this year to make sure they can fulfill their financial obligations to their farmers. She also helps manage the Rare Charity, which works to provide educational opportunities for those living in these tea-producing communities. It all comes down to her personal philosophy: “There’s more to a successful business than a profitable business.”

So that is where we are in the world of tea. Many of the brands that you may think of are probably working with these large brokerage companies, especially if you are buying Fair Trade rather than direct trade. There are smaller companies out there who are moving to a direct trade model, but the cultural issue of direct trade and economically-sustainable tea being considered “posh” is part of the problem. Just as we’ve started looking at avoiding companies like Amazon or Walmart, those of us with the means to choose can vote with our dollars as one way of encouraging the tea industry to follow in the footsteps of those who are concerned with mitigating these inequalities.

NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

On My Bookshelf: Infused: Adventures in Tea

Everyone and their brother in the tea social media universe has become enamoured of Henrietta Lovell’s new book Infused: Adventures in Tea. So of course I need to add to the chorus of her praises here with my own thoughts on this fun little book. It is an ambitious work, blending memoir and tea education into a work that reminds me more of some books on yogic philosophy that I read years ago than a typical tea primer. Henrietta has led an amazing life as “The Tea Lady” and this book is foremost a collection of her experiences in tea.

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She starts at her home, where she discusses her “bed tea,” that first cup of tea in the morning, preferably drunk in bed. From there, we circle the globe, meeting tea producers and tea consumers the world over. It is perhaps worth noting that the chapters follow the teas that her company, The Rare Tea Company, sells, which is perhaps a brilliant marketing strategy because as I read the book, I became enchanted by the stories she tells and wanted to try the teas. So I can now make myself a cup of her White Silver Tips as my own cup of bed tea and have a little ponder about this delightful little book.

I think the thing that makes this book so utterly enjoyable is that you get a clear sense of Henrietta’s personality in her writing style. She is a classic British lady (English, mostly, and Scottish when it suits her) with a love of tea and red lipstick. How could I resist? While I have not had the pleasure of meeting her in person, as she had not yet made plans to come to Washington, D.C., on her tour, friends who have met her insist she is exactly like you would imagine from the book. As an avid reader of fiction, it is charming to believe that one of these characters from a book I loved might be walking around in my world. As she travels the globe investigating tea and other plants, she often gives her guests in each chapter the starring role, but there is enough personal anecdote to feel like you’re in the room with Henrietta as she regales you with stories of her life.

And while I’ve mentioned that the book serves as an excellent advertisement for her company’s teas, it doesn’t come off as artificial. The desire to try her teas is so strong precisely because she gives the teas and farmers the stage, letting them present themselves, rather than sounding like a salesperson. By punctuating her chapters with recipes, she entices you to try her tea, though she always writes to allow that you may order the same variety of tea elsewhere. And her final appendix on making a good cup of tea is approachable to anyone with an interest in tea, not just the expert or connoissieur. While she herself uses a gaiwan and often drinks tea gongfu style with tea masters, she does not demand it of her reader, nor does she presume to educate on these forms. Her book is about the leaf, first and foremost.

Perhaps the highest praise I can personally give this book is that her immersive prose has convinced me to give a second chance to a tea I have for years thought I despised: rooibos. Her chapter on the farmer who grows Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos is excellent and her description of the complex flavor of the infusion made me second guess my own convictions. And the conviction that I dislike rooibos has long been my most firmly-held. But upon tasting Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos, prepared using the method in Henrietta’s book, I found a warm cup that rivaled the complexity of my favorite whiskies.

So those are my thoughts on this lovely book. It is certainly one I would recommend to any tea lover, or as a gift to anyone with even a passing interest in tea. I am already wondering who among my friends and family might receive a copy for the holidays.

NB: I purchased everything mentioned in this post with my own money and was provided no incentive to review or feature them.