"I have several perfect cups of tea every day - and every day they're different"
Firstly, what drove you to set up a tea company?
My drive to set up a tea company happened very suddenly. I was struck by the idea one morning when I was drinking my regular oolong tea, called Pouchong. It was a superb, aromatic whole leaf tea that for years had been sent to us by a Taiwanese friend of my partner's. We were quite unaware that it was a vertiginously high grade tea and only found out how expensive it was when we tried to buy some. It was 2007 and I'd spent many years writing campaigns for The Body Shop and then went freelance, working in brand marketing as a copywriter. Going from a company with such sound ethical credentials to being a pen-for-hire for global banks and cynical multinationals was a shock and I was soon ready to change to something I had control over, was closer to my heart and was just more authentic. Tea was all those things. You can't fake tea; it always shows its true qualities in the cup. And back then there was very little fine tea available in the UK. It was very much an afterthought, even in the best hotels and restaurants. These were places where no expense was spared on good food and fine wines but a cheap teabag in a pot was still the acceptable way to end a meal. We saw that tea was misaligned in luxury food and drink and since we had a direct link to the Taiwanese tea farm, we thought we should import it and share this astonishing world of tea with a new audience. We figured once people tasted the rare, wild and high grade Chinese and Taiwanese whole leaf teas, it would all be so easy . . .how wrong we were! We hit many barriers from loose leaf being 'a hassle' to the price. Why was it so expensive? Well it wasn't. Tea in the UK was (and still is at the low end) criminally cheap!
What sets Canton tea apart?
Canton Tea is special because we've always been fastidious about very careful sourcing, going direct and building those key relationships early on with farmers, producers, blenders and trusted local buying partners. We started with that Pouchong - a tea that really makes people actually notice tea, and it set the bar very high. All our other teas had to be equally high grade and stand-out gorgeous. Another difference is our focus on high end hospitality where we work closely with our partners on training and presentation. We have to be responsive and supportive with the super-demanding hotels and restaurants that we serve - and that's how they ensure their customers are getting the best service. I also think the culture of Canton sets us apart from others; we are a small but dynamic team who specialise in helping to create the best possible tea service across every area, from in-room to afternoon tea and banqueting. Being founder-owned and independent means our culture is still informal and agile so we can move fast when we have to, which is most of the time.
How do your brand values fit in with the Corinthia experience?
We like to say 'we serve the best' and Corinthia is of course one of the very best. We love working with Corinthia because we are aligned with the same high standards that the hotel expects - and delivers. One of our key values is to share our knowledge of the teas and after all the care that has gone into producing them, making sure that they are brewed well. Corinthia also puts a huge emphasis on training which means we are happy to hand over our precious leaves into the team’s care. They are such bright and friendly people who are genuinely committed and open to new ideas. We have similar values on how we treat our own and other people too. With your core philosophy 'Uplifting Lives' your staff can only bring truly fabulous experiences to your guests if they are happy and motivated themselves. From my own experience, Corinthia people are some of the calmest, most professional - and the very best in the business.
Most people are not tea connoisseurs, what’s one thing you would love to be more widely known/appreciated in tea?
If I could share one thing about tea, primarily it is understanding that it is wrong for tea to be such a cheap commodity. It needs to be recognised as a slow grown, hand-crafted, artisan product created by highly skilled people who should be given respect and a fair price. On a more practical level it is that brewing a good tea correctly is the difference between it being OK and utterly sublime! Using filtered water is crucial and brewing the right amount of tea at the correct temperature (cooler than you think) and for the right amount of time is all part of the enjoyment of exploring different teas. And another thing! Oolong is the most underrated tea. Between a green tea and a black tea these semi-oxidised leaves deliver an astonishing range of flavours from floral and delicate to peachy and delicious.
Do you have a ‘perfect cup’? If so, which tea do you go for and how do you brew it?
Outside of that perfect cup of Pouchong that kicked off the whole business, I have several perfect cups of tea every day - and every day they're different. It depends on the season, the time of day, the weather, my mood, who I'm with. But in the morning I like to wake up with a black tea. It's hard to break the habit of a lifetime and our Canton English Breakfast still hits the spot first thing. Steeped for two minutes, always taken black. After that I'm whimsical. Mid-morning could be a Japanese green tea or a moreish Chinese white (Silver Needle) brewed cool about 75°C then moving on to a rich toasty oolong in the afternoon. By the evening my go-to nightcap is simply Triple Mint. Not actually tea so no caffeine but very comforting before bed.
Do you mostly focus on taste or are there other health benefits to some teas?
We have always placed taste and provenance at the centre of the teas we choose for Canton. There are more proven health benefits emerging all the time but for us that's just a bonus. If you have a good quality, superb tasting tea it will not only give you all the benefits of the antioxidants, but will also give you enormous pleasure as you drink and share it - and that has to be good for mind, body and soul. We tend to find that if companies are flagging the health benefits of the teas first, then they care less about the quality of the teas. So, our mantra is to find a company you trust, the teas you love, drink lots of them and keep exploring and learning. It's going to help keep you fit.
Do you have any teas that go particularly well with certain foods? If so what are your favourites?
Many people would be surprised at how well so many teas pair with food. There are the classics like Jasmine Pearls that go so well with Asian food, but you only have to experience an Afternoon Tea at Corinthia to explore how well the teas on the list go with both the sweet and savoury morsels. The stronger, darker teas need to match up to chocolate but green and white teas go beautifully with creamy cheeses and seafood. A cold brew or iced tea is the perfect accompaniment for summer lunches and with a drop of honey make a great alternative for over-sweet drinks for children. Tea cocktails always go down well with adults. I know many British chefs who still love a strong milky English Breakfast tea with bacon and eggs or fish and chips - I'm not judging! Baking with tea is extremely popular, and a quick tip, next time you cook rice add some jasmine tea to the water. Quick, easy and so fragrant.
Can you share some of the ways Canton tea is a sustainable choice?
Keeping the supply chain short and transparent and buying tea direct so the money goes back to the producers is something we have done from the start. As is only choosing small, mostly family-run farms where they grow tea in the traditional way and only produce small batches which we ship over by sea. Many of our herbals come from co-operatives which have transformed communities and given the local people a new and more sustainable income: such as rooibos harvested from the wild bushes in Cederberg Mountains of S Africa, our rose buds from Iran where once they grew opium poppies and both tea and cinnamon harvested from the wild trees in the forests of Vietnam by the H'mong people, who once also grew opium poppies that was dangerous, illegal and poorly paid. We have always kept packaging to a minimum and are developing an entirely plastic-free solution for every line. It's incredible it has taken the packaging industry so long to create a material that has the barrier properties needed to protect the product and keep it fresh, as well as having all the necessary eco credentials. Finally they have woken up to the demand. Our pyramid teabags have always been plastic free and derived from a biodegradable cornstarch. They serve a purpose but using loose leaf tea is naturally the lightest footprint. We never feel complacent about what we do, so we will continue to strive to be as good as it is possible to be."