Interviews

Henrietta Lovell

Founder and Director of The Rare Tea Co.

Ben Somerset-How

Client Director

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Tom Holmes talks to Henrietta Lovell who in 2004 left behind a successful career in corporate finance to go and source fine teas across the world’s most remote estates, many of her friends thought that she was crazy.

What they didn't predict was that a few years later her unspoiled varieties imported to the UK from small farms in China and Africa, would serve to supply chefs like St John’s Fergus Henderson and The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal.

 

Creativebrief: Why is tea so exciting?

Henrietta Lovell: Because it is at once familiar and yet unexplored. 

People in Britain drink an average of 6 cups of tea a day but of the plethora of teas we could drink we mostly drink just one type – industrial grade black tea. It’s a bit like Italians only drinking instant coffee or the French making do with wine from a cardboard cask.

 

Creativebrief: Why Rare Tea?

Henrietta Lovell: It’s not that there is anything wrong with what we drink – it’s just that there is so much more out there. The incredible complexity of oolong, for example, amazes even Michelin starred chefs.

And this exhilarating new world of flavour isn’t restricted to exotic teas. My greatest love is making “ordinary” English tea into something extraordinary. English Breakfast doesn’t have to be a bland blend. It can be both reassuringly recognisable and surprisingly delicious.

What we think of as “normal” tea can hold such exquisite subtleties as to make you weep for the wasted years.

Where once we had only had granules we now have fragrant coffee beans. Beside malt vinegar in cupboards across the country there is wine, cider, sherry and balsamic. Where there was only vegetable oil the nation has embraced olive, sesame and groundnut.

Now it’s tea’s time.

Creativebrief: What does the Rare Tea Co. brand stand for?

Henrietta Lovell: First, please suspend your cynicism. We are very used to brands talking about passion when they mean pale enthusiasm and quality when they are really referring to passable mediocrity. 

Rare Tea is not that kind of company. 

Rare Tea stands for unparalleled tea.

I don’t believe there is another company anywhere selling better tea. I know that sounds like hyperbole. Of course I would say that, but I am willing to put my words to the test. You just have to taste it. 

Tea can be produced and bought for a few dollars a kilo or for thousands. Just like wine it depends on the varietal; the terroir; the season; the growing conditions; the pH of the soil; when the sun first hits the bushes in Spring and, of course, how it is produced. 

But unlike wine, where knowledge and expertise are often required to identify the good stuff, with tea we can all get it immediately. It just tastes better.

Rare Tea stands for our farmers.

Again you’d be forgiven for hearing marketing spieI here. It does sound a bit like spin, I admit. However, I travel the world to seek out independent tea gardens and farmers who still grow and craft their tea for its quality, not for volume or the lowest price.
 
We work with men and women who have inherited generations of workmanship and are fiercely proud of what they do. We deal with them directly and pay the price they need for their farms, and the people who live and work on them, to thrive.

I interviewed one of the farmers we work with for BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. This explains direct trade in greater depth:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pn410

Over the years we have built up a loyal following, often described as cultish.

Once you’re hooked on the good stuff there is no going back. Our customers believe in what we do and they love what they drink. I’ve been known to meet jonesing customers on street corners – desperate to replenish their stash.

Creativebrief: What are you doing that’s so different?

Henrietta Lovell: Almost everything.

The most obvious thing is that Rare Tea Company does not sell tea-bags. When I started the company in 2004 it seemed like madness to most people. With only about 3% cent of tea drinkers using loose tea why wouldn’t I sell bags?

But in 1968 only 3% of British households didn’t drink loose leaf. Things can change quickly. You just have to dare. And I do dare.

Rare Tea is not industrial grade teas stuffed in bags. There is no silken (read: plastic) pyramid nor a tag hanging menstrually from a string.

I would never compromise on flavour so I can’t sell bags. It’s not just effete snobbery – it brews better that way. Good leaf tea needs room to swell and unfurl as it infuses. An oolong, for example, might increase in volume twelve times as it brews. That would need a very big tea bag. 

It’s not complicated to pop some leaves in a pot. We’ve been doing it for about 5000 years.

How to make a good cup of tea

It famously took the arrival on our shores of the cafetière to make people drink ground coffee at home. Most of us already have a teapot at the back of a cupboard.

It may take a minute or two more to brew a good leaf. You do have to pour the tea into a cup rather than fishing around with a teaspoon for a soggy bag and then dripping it to the bin. But that moment is a small ritual of pleasure.

A minute is not a burden even in our hectic lives. And if it is a minute that brings intense pleasure it must surely be worth it. I made a short film for the Guardian with a Buddhist nun explaining this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/video/2009/nov/27/tea-lady-cheese-buddhist-nun

Another point of difference is that I don’t buy from a broker. There is a proliferation of small tea companies that have mushroomed in the last few years. There are some excellent brands but the vast majority buy from the same international brokers. It’s a sensible policy in terms of stock control – you only buy what you need – but knowledge of farmers, processes and conditions is scarce. Buyers who use brokers are in those brokers’ hands when it comes to quality, while farmers are at the brokers’ mercy in terms of pay. Either end can get squeezed and very nasty.

I buy our tea directly from farmers. In this way I guarantee the tea from plant to cup. I can ensure quality and decent environmental and social conditions. But it does mean we have to buy whole harvests. Tea is a plant, of course, and it produces its best leaves at certain times of the year. We need to buy harvests from particular varietals, particular fields, harvested at particular times. We need to buy a year’s supply and guess on our growth margin (Restaurant sales in the last year rose 100%).

And no chemical flavourings. Not ever.

 

Creativebrief: Where did the idea come from?

Henrietta Lovell:  think the first inkling I had that I would start my own tea company was during a visit to the Springbank whisky distillery on the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland.

This is my favourite whisky and I was interested to see where it came from and how it was made. The distillers cut their own peat and steep their own barley and a handful of men take care of every stage of the process, right through to the barrel. I asked why they didn’t have more men so they could make more whisky. I remember very clearly that they smiled at me and said they concentrated on making their whisky very good, and that seemed to work for them.

At the time I worked for a huge US multinational and this concept came as a surprise.

And they do get by very well, doing what they do very well. Where all the other distilleries in the area folded long ago – or have been bought by the huge multinational drinks groups – Springbank remains an independent distillery.

Rare Tea won’t ever be on the scale of Tata (Tetley, Tea Pigs) or Unilever (most of the rest) but we will always sell the best tea – and hopefully get by very well. 

Creativebrief: What major issues have you faced building your business from scratch?

Henrietta Lovell: My own stupidity. I though a good product would sell itself. I didn’t realise I had to persuade people to try it first. 

Creating a market. It’s much more fun, exciting and, of course, challenging to create demand where there was none, but it’s not a quick process. 

Bank lending. As we grow rapidly it hasn’t been simple to borrow to fund that growth. Banks have chuckled as they tell me they would have insisted on lending me triple what I asked for a few years ago – and now will lend nothing. 

It’s made us canny and meant we’ve had to look at different routes. I’ve used seed funding, for example, from my most loyal and valuable customers.

Creativebrief: What are the main challenges for your sector/category over the next 12 months?

Henrietta Lovell: “Is it aw mouth and nae troosers?” 

Customers can only be fooled once by packaging or empty promises.  

Tea can be an affordable luxury, but it must be luxurious.

The brands that are offering ordinary tea bags in pretty packaging – “all mouth and no trousers”- as they say in Scotland, are already finding it tough. As we become more careful with our spending we look for real value. And really good leaf tea is actually quite thrifty. You need 3g of oolong to make a cup of tea. But you can infuse it 5 times. You can make five cups of tea from the same leaf and it actually gets better as it infuses. I’m not talking about the grey water you would get if you went for a second dunk of a tea-bag. An oolong unfurls over repeated infusions and as the water penetrates deeper into the leaf different subtleties are revealed. 

A 50g tin of our Oolong costs £6.50 – and yet it works out at under 8p a cup. It hardly breaks the bank but the flavour is sublime.

Creativebrief: How important is design to your brand?

Henrietta Lovell: At first I thought it was all about the tea, but I was naïve. I am very fortunate to work with Studio H who have done an incredible job on the presentation of my tea. Without them Rare Tea would be rather slipshod where now it is quite lovely.

Creativebrief: Who are your main customers?

Henrietta Lovell: They fit into three main sectors:

Restaurants and Hotels

We work with some of the world’s best restaurants, including:

  • Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental 
  • Gordon Ramsay – Royal Hospital Road
  • David Chang – Momofuku New York
  • Angela Hartnett’s Murano
  • The Ledbury
  • The Square
  • Chez Bruce
  • Pied á Terre
  • Tom Aikens

Our hotel clients include:

  • The Firmdale Group: Soho Hotel, Charlotte Street, Haymarket Hotel etc.
  • Zetter Townhouse
  • St. John Hotel
  • Old Course Hotel, St Andrews
  • St Pancras

Retail partners – from Waitrose and Selfridges to award-winning independent delicatessens such as Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh and Melrose and Morgan in Primrose Hill.

Direct internet customers through our website: www.rareteacompany.com

I also create bespoke blends for private clients. They include:

  • Angela Hartnett
  • Alfred’s Club, Mayfair
  • Mark Hix
  • Fergus Henderson (St John)
  • Gresham Blake (bespoke tailor)
  • Royal Air Force

 

https://www.rareteacompany.com/places-to-find-us

Creativebrief: Who does your marketing?

Henrietta Lovell: Watermill – London. The most stylish and the some of the kindest gentlemen in London. They have a motto: “we do the fun stuff so that you don’t have to”, which I admire more than I can say for its ambition. However it’s not true. I have never had so much fun - or success – working with anyone.

Creativebrief: How important is the internet to your business model?

Henrietta Lovell: In the beginning it was our main shop – it is still how most of our global customers order from us. We ship everywhere, from Afghanistan to New Zealand, from Peach Tree City, Georgia, USA to Tbilisi, Georgia. With the internet we have global reach without a distribution network.

The website is also our showroom. The product on the shelf can never tell the story like this:

 

Creativebrief: Along with celebrity chefs you work with some famous brands: Jo Malone, Grey Goose, Selfridges, Sipsmith, Bompas and Parr. What is it you deliver?

Henrietta Lovell: I’m known as the tea lady. What I don’t know about tea can fit into a very small sock.

I understand something of the great variety and complexity of tea so I have been extremely fortunate to work with chefs and bar tenders to pair flavours. It’s exciting to see people who are as enthusiastic about flavour as I am using my teas as an ingredient. Better still is discovering new combinations of flavours. 

And then there is the art of blending. There are very few people around the world who create bespoke blends.

It’s not enough to blend leaves. You have to understand the customer’s unique flavour profile and use your expertise and empathy to put together exactly what they are looking for. I will follow particular flavour notes rather than simply adding a certain tea from a certain farm, because harvests change season to season and year to year. It’s a complex process and blends will need to be reworked with the new season. I keep detailed notes on each customer and take my work extremely seriously so that each year their blend will be their tea – their ideal tea.

One of the greatest challenges I have ever faced was creating a tea for Fergus Henderson at St. John that would go perfectly with their afternoon ‘little bun moment’. There are three buns: anchovy, prune and chocolate. This was not an easy blend to create, but please do go to the St. John Hotel just off Leicester Square at 4pm and try the St. John Afternoon blend with your buns.

Afterwards you might try the Prune Tease cocktail that Fergus and I created together. 

Creativebrief: Are there any other brands you’d really like to partner?

Henrietta Lovell: Yes, brands that also make beautiful bespoke things. Often we swap. I’ve always thought swapping was far superior to shopping. At the moment I need a customised case to carry my tea accoutrements in. And there are certainly chefs I’d like to work with. And tired afternoon teas I’d love to enliven.

Critically, we are in the process of setting up a charity to give a percentage of revenue from a new tea to tertiary education scholarships on the farms we work with.

I really admire what Ark are doing and how they do it. 100% of donations go directly to their programmes for children while their trustees and patrons ensure that central administrative costs are met.

I’d like to run our program like this – perhaps even with Ark. If you’re reading this Ark …

Creativebrief: What about country of origin and fair trade?

Henrietta Lovell: We pay many times the Fairtrade minimum price for our tea. Because we buy the finest, handcrafted leaves they cost more to produce and they are worth more than industrial leaf. It’s a better deal for our famers and a better tea for our customers.

We deal directly with our farmers and work closely with them. I believe this is a fairer trade than any other label can promise.

I would dearly love to see the tea farmers thriving like vineyard owners. When Malawi is as rich as France and we are drinking tea to parallel the flavours of the finest wines I’ll be very happy.

Creativebrief: What support has Rare Tea Co. found as it’s grown?

Henrietta Lovell: I’ve had so much help from so many people.

In the early days when I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall it was encouragement like this that kept me going:

https://www.rareteacompany.com/customer-feedback

Alexander McCall Smith offered to write short stories to tuck inside my tins of Lost Malawi to encourage customers to try them. This also encouraged Waitrose to stock the tea. I didn’t ask him to do it.  He suggested it because he is extremely kind and he wanted to help promote something wonderful coming from Africa.

He also wrote about me in Corduroy Mansions:

Just inside the doorway as she went in, an elegant, dark-haired woman was dispensing small cups of tea to arriving customers. Jenny took the proffered cup and sipped.

“Jasmine,” said the woman. “Can you smell it?”

Jenny nodded, glancing at the open silver packet of tea on the table. The Rare Tea Company.

“White tea,” said the woman, “Scented with jasmine. And this is oolong. Would you care to try it? I’m Henrietta, by the way.”

I’m more famous in fiction that I am in fact. 

Alexander Armstrong made these films for me, with Watermill, again from pure kindness and a desire to help. I did give him a cup of tea, but it was cold by the time he got to drink it. 

And of course I would be nowhere without the support and custom of the chefs who work with my teas and serve it in their restaurants. There are too many to thank but chef Mark Hix was the first to champion my tea – and the sommelier Katie Exton at the Michelin starred London restaurant Chez Bruce was the first to stock my tea and encourage me to knock on the doors of people who care about flavour.

Most recently, Heston Blumenthal and Fergus Henderson have introduced me to new flavours, new worlds and lots and lots of fun. 

Lastly, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with experts from the other world of drink (who have also championed my teas), the great cocktail makers Tony Conigliaro, Nick Strangeway, Joe McCanta and Jared Brown. 

 

Creativebrief: What is your next big project?

Henrietta Lovell: We are making 4,000 cups of tea for WW2 veterans; their families and VIPs attending the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park on the 28th June.

During the War, pilots and crew would be provided with a penny wad and a char. The char was a decent cup of tea and the wad was a bun. Fergus Henderson and St. John are providing the buns and we are making RAF tea – a bespoke blend I created for a Battle of Britain veteran which I now make for the RAF to raise money for RAF charities. It’s an old-school English Breakfast blend – the kind of which we were once proud. Fortifying in times of national peril, calming when courage is required. 

Life expectancy for Bomber Command crew during the war was 2 weeks. These men were insanely brave and yet this is the first time they will be honoured. The least we can do is give them the very best tea we have and a very good bun.