Why is Rare Tea such Speciality Tea?

When Rare Tea was founded by Henrietta Lovell (the Rare Tea Lady) in 2004, one of the most important aims of the budding tea company was to re-introduce the true value of loose leaf speciality tea; be it to the tea drinker at home, high street cafes or Michelin star restaurants.

Here in the UK, tea is often referred to as one of life’s essentials – something we cannot live without. Sadly, this association has been reduced to that of bagged up tea fannings in the post-war decades rather than the much treasured loose leaf tea that pre-war generations afforded themselves as a luxury. Did you know that we here in the UK used to spend a larger portion of our income on tea than on alcohol?

Not on the dust found in teabags or industrially farmed tea leaves coated with synthetic flavourings – but on beautifully crafted tea steeped in centuries of tradition.

Nepalese Himalayan Black

Genmaicha

Moriuchi Koucha

Direct Trade

At the heart of what makes Rare Tea valuable is the direct relationship we have with the farmers who craft our tea. Most tea is sold at auction to commodity brokers with the farmer having no control over the price (meaning it can drop below the cost of production). Direct trade, on the other hand, means that the farmer determines a fair price. This secures the livelihood of the farmer, the people they employ and in turn the wider local community, creating a sustainable market for tea gardens to flourish and communities to thrive.

Furthermore trading directly with farmers means that their true cost of crafting the tea is honoured; the labour and skill required to gently hand pick tender buds and turn them into the many delicious teas for us to drink. An excellent example of this is the team of women hand rolling the Nepalese Himalayan Hand Rolled of the Jun Chiyabari estate.

Hand rolling in Jun Chiyabari

The finished product

This skilful and time consuming method of crafting exquisite tea means only a very limited amount is produced each year – however in return what we are lucky enough to enjoy is some of the most exquisite tea in the world. What unites the unique farms we work with is a focus on quality over quantity. One small part of a one particular field may create a leaf vastly superior of that a mere ten meters away – limiting the available product to a market that is realising its worth.

Sustainable Farming

Great resources are also required to maintain a tea garden between harvests. Where large scale agri-business will often push the tea plants and the soil to its limits to maximise output, speciality tea plants grown for flavour is more often than not dependent on a fallow period between spring and autumn flushes. This allows the tea plant to rest preserving its precious flavour, but can be costly. There's also the issue of year round labour costs - it's all too easy to lay off staff in quiet times on the farms. Big Tea is not always so careful with people as they are with profits.

Many external factors may quickly impact an organic tea garden grown without the aid of herbicides and pesticides. Extreme weather and the reality of Global Warming may also take its toll on a garden or at least a season’s yield.

This nearly happened to us for one of our most popular teas - Wild Rooibos which is grown in the Cederberg Mountains of South Africa – an area renowned for its diverse flora despite its dry and harsh climate. Henrietta visited the farmer (and local GP) Frikkie Strauss in January 2016 and found him deeply concerned that there would not be a harvest at all that summer – not a single drop of rain in nine months meant that he was worried about harvesting any rooibos at all.

Thankfully this story ended well – the rains arrived just in the nick of time (you can read the full story in Henrietta's book). Uncertainty and vulnerability to outside factors is a constant part of organic and sustainable farming and being able to trust that the actual cost of a harvest will be met is essential to small scale farmers.

Wild Rooibos in the Cederberg Mountains

An arid South Africa in 2016

Desperate for a drink!

Where the big players in commodity auctions may pay less than the cost of production, trading directly means that the farmer gets a fair price on each harvest.

Flavour

Small farmers have the precise knowledge and skill to experiment and making the most of their unique terroir, but doing so can be a great risk that requires nerves of steel when it’s your fragile revenue your playing with. There is great value in tea grown and crafted on such a small scale, not only because of the great effort that the farmer puts in but also in the innovation that comes out; ultimately improving what is offered to us in the world of speciality tea.

One of our close friends and lifelong tea farmer Alexander Kay is based at the Satemwa Estate in Malawi. Tea grown on the African continent has often been brushed off as all grown on an industrial scale for use in tea bags, something Alexander set out to change. Years of costly experimentation with smaller harvests in specific fields for flavour has resulted in some of the most beautiful speciality tea in the world.

One of the most impressive stories is about Malawi Antlers; a truly unique white tea which is technically the delicate stem of the Camellia bush, picked along with the usual “two leaves and a bud.” Alexander found the stem to be packed with complex flavours and sweetness after noticing the unique smell during each pick from one specific field. Being such a distinctive product it quickly got sniffed out by bigger tea companies than Rare Tea – but the uniquely sweet harvest from that first, specific field is reserved for us each year. Our relationship with Alexander’s Satemwa estate in Malawi is so precious to us - you can taste it in every sip of the beautiful tea they grow.

This kind of experimentation is not just confined to Africa - Mrs Moriuchi San in Shizuoka prefecture, Japan boldy decided to sacrifice a whole productive tea field in order to dedicate it to a new variety of Camellia, producing what we now sell as Sofu Blue Wind Sencha. Taking this risk in pursuit of something new and flavourful is only possible if people are willing to pay a price equivalent of the cost to the farmer. It is how beautiful new terroirs are discovered and how small farmers are able to showcase what their fields and craft can produce, and ultimately what we can give to you.

Malawi Antlers

Sofu Blue Wind Sencha


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