Also known as the Rare Tea Lady, Henrietta Lovell is the Founder of Rare Tea Company, a business with a mission: to revolutionise the way we drink tea.
Working directly with independent tea gardens from around the world and ensuring sustainable practices to benefit the land and the people, Henrietta sources the unique varieties of specialty teas we use in Ama.
In the first of this two part interview, we catch up with Henrietta to learn about how she’s slowly knitting the nets of her tea revolution.
How has the speciality tea market changed in the last 20 years since you started Rare Tea company?
Massively! Everybody told me that I was a complete idiot. There was no market. I set up the business in 2004, when there was no market, so that was kind of foolish and it’s funny now when you think because now you go to a nice restaurant and there’s beautiful tea but there was no tea in restaurants. It just didn’t exist, if you asked for it, if you were stupid enough to ask for tea, someone would go to the back to get some teabag that’s been sitting for 20 years on top of the coffee machine.
The chef world is a very wonderful world to work with because if you give someone a delicious flavour they will embrace it, there is no prejudice. Also, when you are in the fine-dining world people are very open to trying new things, they are not fixed, that’s why they are going to fine dining: to try new things. What’s happened in 20 years is that tea has gone from fine dining all the way through and now we work with coffee shops and everybody is embracing that. Young people are much more open to new experiences, it doesn’t matter what their nationality is, what their culture is. They are like “If there is a story, tell me the story”. They really care about provenience, about the story and the connection.
How was your upbringing? What were you like as a child?
I was actually very shy, which I’m not now. I grew up in a London family, in a kind of poor neighbourhood of South London but I had lots of family in Scotland and I spent my holidays visiting them. My mother grew up in Morocco and South Spain so I had a very interesting Spanish influence on my life; even though she was Scottish. She fed us Mediterranean food, everyone thought that we were total weirdos. I never had a dessert or a pudding after a meal, we always had a salad at the end of a meal and that was mind-blowing.
What were your thoughts when you first tried Ama pét-nat tea?
I’ve tried a lot of kombuchas over the years and I had a preconception but I was hoping that this would be different. I had a mixed preconception because I think that you guys are such huge flavour geniuses… but then I know that kombucha is so hard. So many other people have failed to make it delicious, even really amazing restaurants, so I was like “is it going to be a little bit disappointing again?” but it wasn’t in any way disappointing, it made me joyous. Joyous was my first impression!
From our side, we were totally nervous about you trying our kombucha made from your tea. Since our first visit to London, when we tried to explain the project, you trusted us and sent us many samples, so we were very afraid of failing; so when you said “they are good”, that was good enough for us to keep going…
I´m looking for tea a lot of the time and that’s the wrong thing to do. With the Sencha one (BAT), I can’t really taste the tea that well and that always disappoints me slightly but it is what people love and I’ve done tastings with other people and they go “oh! I love this, it’s super complex” and I go “damn! Where’s the Sencha?” But it’s about balance and I should’ve known that better because I blend a lot, and I know that the blend is more complex than the sum of its parts. Even when you make a dish or a cocktail, you don’t want to over-balance it with one ingredient; but because I´m tea obsessed, I want to taste the tea in everything. I´m probably the worst person to be tasting. When I tasted the lemongrass (BI), I could taste that more. I´m terribly partisan!
How can people get education about quality tea?
The lovely thing about speciality tea is that you taste it and it’s so different from industrial tea. You drink commodity tea and then you drink handcrafted tea, small-batch, beautiful leaf tea and you go “Oh! anybody can notice the difference”. I’ve had the same experience working with a Michelin star chef and with a tattoo artist, for instance. It’s easy to see the quality difference. How do we make people have the first taste? To go, “oh! this is worth me trying!” because until you taste it, you don’t know. You don’t have to understand all the complex stuff around it, you just have to taste it and that is the thing I struggle with more than anything. If you’d try it, you’d never say “they are wasting their time being ethical and sustainable”. You’d realize that it tastes amazing because people have put love and craft and care into it. I think it’s a shocking thing, even more than wine or even cheese.
Do you see that there is a new way of consuming tea, the raw material that you select? For example, Mr Lyan (Ryan Chetiyawardana – cocktail bartender), is using herbs as a way to make new and exotic aromas accessible to customers so that they can choose how to finish or accentuate their personal cocktails. Can you tell us where new entrepreneurs are taking the product?
To start with, with the cocktail world, it’s been amazing… I’ve been working in cocktails with bartenders now for nearly 20 years and to begin with they didn’t really appreciate that the different quality of ingredients would give them a different effect.
It was really hard, they would say “oh I want to make an earl grey drink” and they just went and bought a cheap industrial earl grey tea bag and they would wonder why they couldn’t get flavour and nuance out of it. It was very interesting because I was working with restaurants and restaurants often have bars attached to them. The drinks directors would be super interested, and then the sommelier and the bartender.
It was in fine dining that I first got to work with some really great flavour people and then some crazy wonderful bartenders. Working with them over the years we found that there was so much more to explore in the world of tea. It hasn’t got a great history, it’s just being used as a lengthener or as a syrup. It’s great working in the world of fine dining, it’s great working with chefs, they are really pushing boundaries, creating new things and re-thinking, and that’s the really important thing. In tea, there is “this is what tea is”, it’s a hard wall that sometimes you get.
When I first began 20 years ago it was like “tea is tea and what you have is nice packaging”. This wall is a little bit broken now. People understand that it’s like wine, wine is not just wine: different makers, different production techniques, there are different levels, you might have to pay a bit more or look a bit harder to find delicious ones.
Then there are the ways of making teas like it has to be like this, this is the way we do it, another wall, but when you start experimenting with methodologies, you can find really interesting new flavours. Tea is a very interesting herb, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, it works very interestingly with kombucha, with the mother (SCOBY), with alcohols, with different temperatures, with different infusion times, there is a lot of variabilities, you can extract the flavours in a very interesting way. You have to be open-minded to experiment and these young people like Ryan have their minds open. We still have some way to go to break barriers but drinks people are really doing extraordinary things. If you give beautiful ingredients to brilliant people, they can do amazing things and it’s a very unexplored ingredient, a huge cornucopia of different flavour profiles.
Is the growth of the NoLo category an interesting prospect for you?
I don’t always drink but here is a very interesting one; the first place where I saw tea going into the menu, as part of the pairing menu, was at Mugaritz. It was part of the alcohol pairing, to have a break from booze. I’m seeing a lot and I’m hearing a lot that there’s not only people wanting not to drink but while they are drinking, to have a break; to have a delicious drink that it’s not alcoholic as part of an evening, to extend the evening. Especially as young people are really controlling their alcohol intake. But our drink mustn’t be just boring, fizzy, water, sparkling or still. One day we are going to look back and we are going to say “do you remember when that was all we had?”. In the mocktail world when the bartender is creating a non-alcoholic cocktail, it is usually very very sugary; or we have the soda, and the flavour is usually very simple, it’s sweet and fruity, that’s all we have. Whereas when we have something like Ama, we have all the complexity of the wine, all the glamour and all the excitement. A treat is what we are also looking for and I think that’s very ignored in the low alcohol category at the moment.
All the booze companies are trying to get on the bandwagon of NoLo now and it’s tough when there’s all this noise but it’s not hard when you’re looking at flavour, you are not looking at the category, you’re looking at making something delicious and that’s a very different proposition.
What’s your opinion on the sommelier movement?
Sommeliers are not exclusive to wine and they’ve done a lot of study; maybe some of the sommeliers are not as experienced in tea as they could be. I would love to help steer the sommelier world like the Master of Wines and give them some more tea knowledge, but those guys who wear those grapes, they’ve done a lot of study, maybe not enough in tea and coffee.
The tea sommeliers are not certified by an official body, certifications are run by tea companies. You have to pay for a course that goes from 100$ to 10,000$. Nobody is regulating it, some of them are very good and some of them are really appalling and then you call yourself a tea sommelier but what sommelier means is master of all drinks… It makes me a little crazy. Let’s educate all people in tea along with all the other drinks.
In Taiwan, there are some very famous terroirs in the high mountains and I thought that was where the good Taiwanese tea was coming from. I was sent some tea from a tea garden and I didn’t know the geography of Taiwan that well, so I went to visit these guys and when I first got there I realized that Taitung was very low and thought “there’s no way that they can make nice tea”. Pineapples are growing nearby, how can you have tea and pineapples in the same terroir?. I mean tea is a mountain plant, not a tropical plant! but these guys broke all my expectations.
It’s a small farm with lots of experimental plots. They are trying different varietals all the time because climate change is really impacting them and they are always trying to improve what they are doing and trying different techniques. They are organic, all the plots have to be organic in the area because otherwise, it would impact everyone else. They make this amazing Oolong! I was watching them, I watched these super respected guys. These are guys who are picking the tea, they are making the tea and they are doing it all by smell and touch and understanding and they’ve been doing it generations after generation. There’s no formula, it’s completely done by understanding, taste, smell, a lot to do with aroma. Understanding every day, different humidity, different temperature, different cycle on the tea pick…All these are manual changes they make every day batch by batch. They all work together and they know. I’ve never seen anything like that before and I think that the only way to learn is to go there.
The Milk Oolong in LAU is a varietal, not a production technique. There is a production technique to bring out the aromas; so it is about craftsmanship too but it is predominantly a variety and terroir. This is a very unique low grown Milk Oolong, very very low altitude for tea, the lowest we work with.
What about Satemwa, the farm producing the Malawi Green and White peony in HIRU?
In Malawi, tea is the second biggest export after tobacco and one of the really important things about Satemwa is employing people. It would look better if there was a nice big machine taking the tea but these marginalized rural communities really rely on tea.
Alex [Kay] (MD of Satemwa) could have made his farm much more mechanised. He also tries to give people work all year round, because it’s about giving them a house and a place in the school. I never met someone who cares and feels more responsible for his community in my life. He could sell that farm to Eastern Produce right next door, a big PLC, who would really like it but he’s too concerned that they’d ruin the community.
I think that’s really important and that’s the way I choose the farms I work with, people who really want to support their communities. Also, Satemwa was making speciality tea before there was any market for it. Nobody was buying any speciality tea but Alex saw it as the only way out of the situation. “I see commodity tea as a race to the bottom and we have to start building what we had, a value market,” he said. We are a lifeline, Ama is a lifeline!
Thanks to Henrietta for chatting with us! Stay tuned for part two of the conversation where we go more in-depth about responsibility in sourcing, changing the status quo and her initiative, Rare Charity
You can find out more about Henrietta, Rare Tea Company and all the wonderful varietals they have here: