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Why it’s time to try loose leaf tea and change the world

4th June 2020

We’re all looking at ways in which we can help the planet, and often at times it’s the little changes we all make that have the biggest impact. Rare Tea Company’s founder, and author of Infused- Adventures in Tea, which was published by Faber & Faber and won 2020 Fortnum and Masons award for Best Drink bookHenrietta Lovell, gives an insight into the world of, and the benefits to loose leaf tea.

Loose Leaf tea isn’t something new. What is new, relatively, is the industrial bag. Loose leaves have been drunk around the world for millennia and for many centuries here in the UK.  Indeed, we got pretty obsessed by tea, here in Britain, and traversed the globe and paid king’s ransoms to get our hands on the best stuff.   

Here is a bill from The Isle of Bute in Scotland from June 1712 that shows 3lb in weight of black tea from China was sold to a grand lady for £4 and 1 shillings. 

Tea bags were invented in the USA around 1901.

In the UK we stuck to our lovely leaves until 1970’s (in 1968 only 3% of people in the UK used teabags).  And then came the moon landings in 1969 and a huge desire to be modern and a dive into the future like space men, man.  People started eating freeze dried potatoes; and slices of cheese wrapped in plastic that never ever went bad; and drinking instant coffee and teabags. Ah, the future!

Thank heavens we don’t really have to eat like astronauts, squeezing goop from tubes.  Thank heaven for real fruit and vegetables fresh from farms. How wonderful that we can fill our cafetieres and pour-overs and aero-presses with coffee ground from freshly roasted beans.  Oh the joy of a cheese crafted by a cheese maker and the pure delight of a fresh loaf of sourdough. And yes, for real tea.

Somehow we have mostly jettisoned the rest of that stuff as a bad lot, but kept the teabags. We have hung onto tea harvested by machine instead of plucked by hand as though it was somehow a bit too posh.  (I’ll come back to posh tea in a bit.)  We have been filling our mugs with tea cut and torn by vast industrial machine (the teabag machine process is actually called CTC for Cut, Tear, Curl). 

Good leaf tea is made in small batches, carefully, lovingly, by skilled men and women.  It’s not torn and cut but pressed and rolled and roasted.

And why stuff your tea in a single use bag – an unsustainable use of trees or corn or plastic (even the biodegradable “silken” Plastic bags are made from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.) Think of the wasted resources and how many forests are destroyed each day from Britain’s insatiable appetite for bags.  And “silken” or paper bags don’t happen by magic-  there are solvents and bleaches and glues and nano-plastics involved in their manufacture.  They seep into the soil, into the rives, and into our cups and into our bodies.

Leaf tea isn’t any more complicated than a cafetiere.  And a teapot can last for generations of pleasure.

Let’s go back to the future- a sustainable future.

I truly believe good tea should be good in three ways:

  1. First it has to be good for us.
  2. No chemicals, no bleaches, no bags and no strings hanging over the side of your cup.
  3. The second good is taste.  It has to taste amazing.  There is no comparison in the taste between a loving crafted loose leaf Earl Grey with real bergamot oil from a bergamot fruit and an industrial  teabag with natural “flavourings” and maybe some blue, completely  tasteless cornflower petals to make it look natural.

Lastly and most importantly it has to be good for the people who make it.

There are many labels and stamps printed on packaging that do a good job of green washing.  But the harsh reality remains:  the vast majority of people who live in tea growing communities live in very real poverty.  Most of the tea we drink in the UK does not come from China, or Japan (where they pay high prices for quality tea.) It doesn’t come from Yorkshire.  It comes from India, Sri Lanka and East Africa.  It comes from places where life expectancy in tea can be as low as 40s and rarely exceeds 50s.  It comes from people who barely survive so we can have a cheap cuppa and the vast multinationals can maintain vast profits.  It comes from exploitation of marginalised farming communities and relies on us turning a blind eye.

So when people call decent leaf tea, bought for quality over price, direct from a farmer “posh” you have to wonder where class comes into this?  Is decent wine posh? Or cheese? Or bread? Isn’t the good stuff just a bit more expensive for a reason?  When it comes to tea we only have to pay a few pence more, cup for cup.  Not pounds like wine.  And when you think what we used to be happy to pay for a high street coffee on our daily commutes, a few pennies is hardly unaffordable?  Posh?  Isn’t the real betrayal not our class, but our brothers and sisters in India and Africa?

We can be complicit in that or we can help change the world, a little bit for the better.  Our choices matter.

 I have spent the last 18 years travelling the world to work directly with farmers.  I don’t dictate prices.  The farmer sets what is fair for their farm and their community to flourish.  We pay 12-20 times commodity prices for better quality tea.  A fair trade.  We return a direct percentage of our revenue (not profits that can be fudged) back to the farms through Rare Charity – supporting educational scholarships.  We are trying to do things differently.  And like the farmers who craft our tea we don’t expect you to support us just out of the goodness of your heart.  But because their tea will flood your life with pleasure.  It’s a pleasure revolution. 

You can buy Rare Tea Company’s loose leaf tea here.

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