chinese tea buying, yixing zisha teapots and saying ‘no!’ to flavored tea with jennifer wood of the canton tea co.

The Canton Tea Co. are a specalist Chinese teas retailer, based out of the UK.  I had a chat to Jennifer Wood, one of the co-founders about choosing not to sell flavored teas, her favorite tea-ware and learning from the best in the tea business.

Jennifer also worked for many years as a copywriter – nine of them with the late, great campaigner Anita Roddick. She has been drinking fine Chinese tea for many years, ever since her partner started bringing it back from his trips to China and Taiwan and was kind enough to share her thoughts on all things tea.

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You guys are Chinese tea specialists, can you tell me a little about why you set up Canton Tea and how the journey has been so far.

tea tasting session at canton tea

It was an accident. We set up Canton because for many years we had been drinking the Pouchong green tea that my partner was always given in Taiwan. He works in publishing and has a customer, Dr Lin, whose family included tea farmers: Dr Lin is a big figure in the book trade and a very generous traditional Chinese gentleman. He always gave us big tubs of wonderful fresh mountain Pouchong, which is still one of our signature teas. We realised it was impossible to find in the UK and other people might enjoy it so as I was ready for a career change, I thought it would be easy to import some great tea and build a website. It was fantastically hard work – a real kitchen-table start up.

The journey has been exhausting and exhilarating: we have made a few classic errors such as over-stocking and under-financing – you can’t expect credit from a traditional tea farmer so all our stock has to be paid for up front. But we learnt a lot very quickly and had the benefit of two key partners: Our COO Edgar Thoemmes,  is young, energetic and an extremely talented e-commerce operator and epic foodie.  Also our buying partners in China, Jing Lu and her French husband Seb know as much if not more about high end Chinese tea than anyone else in the business – except perhaps their Tea Master.

Even after many years, they are still mentored by this venerated 5th generation Master whose family has been tea trading in Guangzhou since the 1800’s. By having these guys on the spot, as part of our business, it means we don’t have to rely on a couple of buying trips a year. We can concentrate on what we’re good at here and leave the choosing of outstanding teas to the professionals.

Everyone involved in Canton Tea Co has a very different role and personality but we are driven by three simple principles:  to have clear and honest marketing, utter integrity of sourcing, and excellent customer service. I think this has set us apart from the many new tea companies who launch with fancy packaging first and foremost.

puerh bricks, nests and cakes

The Tea School on your website is amazing, it’s so simple but has so much information, I love that you mention an area is grey if it is. What do you think are the most common misconceptions about tea.

Well, thank you. We need to keep updating our Tea School as new research comes out on health benefits. But this is the area where there are the biggest misconceptions – and one that produces the most confusion. Tea is good for you, for sure. It is full of antioxidants so if they mop up the free radicals as it is claimed then the health benefits are plain. However, we don’t flog the health benefits or the weight loss guff that is bandied about. In fact we feel the more a website claims their tea is a miracle weight-loss cure-all, the more obscure the provenance story of the tea and probably the lower the quality of the product.

We are always asked about which tea is better for your health and our stock response is find you a tea you love to drink. If you enjoy it, drink it regularly and share it with friends, then the health benefits are a bonus.

The other big misconception about tea is that it should be cheap…

Do you have a favorite tea myth, fable or story.

There are many myths and legends around all teas (it is from China!) but my favourite true story is probably the production of a beautiful Taiwanese tea called Oriental Beauty.  It starts with the tea Jassid: a tiny grasshopper-like insect that at a certain point in the growth of the tea plant comes out to nibble the edges of the young leaves and buds. That is when the tea farmer knows the leaves are ready to be harvested. It is the plant reacting to defend and recover from the jassid bites that causes a partial oxidation of the leaf and this helps produce the distinctive citrus notes of Oriental Beauty. It is a perfect illustration of symbiosis and the tea farmer working in tune with nature. No pesticides. Just a weather eye on the leaves and prompt picking to stop the little critters getting more than their fair share.

You have full-time tea buyers in China and Taiwan, I would normally ask what a ‘day in the life’ would be like for a tea buyer but given that tea is influenced by the seasons can you tell me what some of the yearly highlights are for a tea buyer.

In the UK, we spend our time enhancing the site, planning marketing, running tea tasting workshops, serving our customers and tasting teas that are sent over.  Our buyers Jing and Seb spend weeks during the spring and autumn harvests at the tea farms. When in Guangzhou, they visit their farmers at the Fang Cun tea market, seek out the best  handmade traditional Yixing teaware for us and every Friday they spend an epic nine hours tea-tasting in the Tea House with the Tea Master in Guangzhou.

The Master, who I talked about earlier is one of the foremost tea experts in Southern China.

Achieving mastery in tea in China is similar to the way in which mastery in martial arts is acquired.

The term ‘Gong Fu’ (or Kung Fu), means ‘skill deriving from hard work’ and is still used in tea to describe the correct way to produce and brew tea.

The yearly highlights for us all would definitely be tasting the new season teas – in the early spring the new green and white teas come in, then later in spring is the delicious Dan Cong harvest. Autumn brings most of the oolongs and blacks. They all excite us.

What challenges have you come across when promoting teas as fair trade or organic – these can mean different things (& are regulated as such, or not!) in different countries.

Like the health and weight loss ‘banner’, we don’t major on fair trade and organics because they are not particularly relevant to our product.

We buy limited quantities of high grade teas from small artisan producers who have grown, harvested and hand produced their teas in the same way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

They are mostly family-run farms with a fantastic local reputation and the tea is bought up quickly by the domestic market at a fair price dictated by the farmers. We are buying in an incredibly competitive market and often we just buy on allocation. The cost of labour for skilled tea-pickers has rightly increased recently and as every leaf is picked and processed by hand I think these teas still offer remarkable value. Because we meet our producers we know they are genuinely proud of their skill and are happy and prosperous.

canton tea's pouchong tea growing on mr xu's mountain tea farm, taiwan

Likewise our teas are grown according to organic (and often biodynamic) principles, and most have organic certification in China or Taiwan. But the cost of getting European or US certification is prohibitive for our producers and nor do they need it – they sell their entire crop anyway.

What’s your favorite type or tea-ware.

That would have to be Yixing Zisha teapots,  beautiful handmade ‘purple’ clay pots that make drinking tea a very special experience. In China they refer to these small teapots as ‘little pet’ and I’ve seen our Tea Master cup a favourite pot in his hands and caress it lovingly.  It builds up a patina on the outside and each one is used for a specific tea.  Antique pots are very valuable and they are handed down through the generations. Because they are unglazed and porous, they must never be cleaned with a detergent, just rinsed in water or tickled inside with a Yixing brush.

one of canton tea's yixing teapots

We’re kind of picky about glass teapots too, having destruction-tested about 50 different pots: our range now is really excellent and borosilicate glass is the only one that will do!

On a separate, but related note, what was it like working with Anita Roddick – she’s such an icon and really did develop one of the brands that defined my youth (being the social and human rights campaigner and natural ingredient champion that she was).

anita roddick

Anita was incredible to work with – energetic, engaging, extremely brave and inspirational. A lot of the stuff I wrote for her for The Body Shop campaigns would be considered extremely litigious now and never get to print – back then it was to hell with it – name and shame the bad guys.

Her passion for the people she worked with in the developing world was genuine, and her integrity of ingredient sourcing certainly inspired me. I spent a few years in Europe since university so working with her was my first serious job – and it didn’t feel that serious. It was great fun and it’s only looking back I realise what an extraordinary time it was, to be part of such a sea-change in the way business operates. Back then, just having a social and environmental policy was extraordinary in the UK.

It’s very sad she died young – she had a lot more to give.

And lastly, on a personal note, I love that you don’t sell flavored teas, it brings a smile to my face.

We don’t like them – so we don’t sell them.  The astonishing range of flavours you can get from the different teas in all their purity is enough to excite us. However – as a complete departure, we have just hand blended a winter tea for one of our customers (the beautiful Petersham Nurseries in Richmond SW London) and it is unbelievably good on a cold wet day in London. It is made from 2 black teas Bai Lin Gong Fu and Keemun Hao Ya with a mix of ground organic spices including ginger, cardamon and cinnamon. It has great depth and a rich, sweet, spicy flavour – a little like a sophisticated chai.

It is robust enough to add a dash of milk and sugar to bring out all the warmth and deeply satisfying characteristics. Like all our teas, it can be infused several times – and I have to say from being rather skeptical, I was transported! Still all natural stuff of course.

If anyone fancies replicating their own at home the ingredients of the Petersham Winter Blend are:

  • 2 black teas:
  • Bai Lin Gong Fu
  • Keemun Hao Ya
  • Organic spices (crushed or ground):
  • Cinnamon quills
  • Orange peel
  • Cardamon
  • Ginger
  • Bay leaf

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You can find the Canton Tea Co. on Twitter as @cantontea; and online here.

enter promo code TRAVEL for £2 off!

They also have a great offer for tea and travel readers – just enter the promo code TRAVEL to save £2 off one of their best selling tea packs.

This set contains two of their most popular teas: Silver Needle White tea and Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea, both famous, classic teas that make a wonderful introduction to whole leaf, high grade Chinese tea.

If you like what you are reading here, please support tea and travel by subscribing to the RSS feed, or by following tea and travel on Twitter. And last but not least, you are of course very welcome to leave me a reply below.  Thanks!

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