Stephen Twining makes a strong case for tea, though he doesn't brew the idea too aggressively. He tells Bhumika K. why you shouldn't just ask for a cup of tea
It's his ability to talk rather passionately about tea in terms of relationships, about sharing it, personalising it, and about the sensuality of it all, rather than just talk picked-and-processed cut and dry Oolong, green or Darjeeling that makes a conversation with Stephen Twining interesting.
“You should never just ask for a cup of tea,” warns Twining, the 10 generation of the Twining family that is credited with introducing tea to the British (from China) way back in the 1700s. Since 1837 they have been official tea suppliers to Queen Victoria and since then, every successive British monarch! He explains why you should never simply ask for your cuppa — the current trend of coffee cafes springing up and the varieties of coffee available should open up people's eyes to the fact that tea too doesn't need to be of one kind.
He should know best. He tries local varieties of tea wherever he travels and recalls with great amusement Taiwan's “Bubble tea”. “It has sago in it,” he says, his eyes dancing, and pauses for reaction, before delivering the punch: “You're supposed to sip it with a straw and the sago goes into your mouth ‘Gloop!'”
Settling down for chat on a hot Bangalore afternoon, Stephen, who's now director of corporate relations at Twinings, says the weather's perfect for a light and refreshing green tea, with lemon, maybe. He drinks anywhere between nine and 15 cups of tea a day — a different tea for each time of day, and depending on his mood. He also dispels the myth that Indians are almost the only ones who drink their tea with milk. “The average cup of English tea does have milk. So does it in Australia and New Zealand. But in Europe and America, it would be drunk without milk,” he says. “But that's one of the beauties of tea — it's a very personal drink. We can both share a pot of tea, yet have two very different cups of it!”
Stephen, now 48, who was probably very familiar with his Earl Grey and English Breakfast much earlier than most tea-drinkers would, remembers that one moment he decided he would join the family business — he was all of eight and made his first presentation on tea from India in a geography class. It had quite an impact on him when he realised many of his classmates hadn't even seen green tea!
While we often hear people proclaim that he or she is a “tea person” or a “coffee person”, Stephen says most people are both. “People go through different stages in life — coffee is seen as a sexy and happening drink…it's like the courtship period in a relationship. But when you're looking at a long-term relationship, it would be tea,” he explains his metaphor. “There are more dimensions to the sensuality of tea.” He drinks two or three cups of coffee a week, and visits some great coffee-drinking nations, he says. “I don't stop them from drinking coffee; I only encourage tea-drinking,” reflecting a surprisingly peaceful promotional strategy.
Amazingly, for a company that sells more than 200 kinds of teas in over 100 countries, they don't own any tea gardens! It stems from their philosophy that they want to buy the finest quality of teas, wherever it's available. In India, they source from tea gardens in Assam, Darjeeling and the Nilgiris region. The tea they market in India is packed right here in Kolkata.
While the East India Company first brought tea to Britain from China, and Indian tea first arrived in London in 1838, a big chunk of the world looks upon tea as the drink of the coloniser foisted upon the colonised. “Well, there are many countries that drink tea in the Middle East and have nothing to do with the British,” says Stephen, adding, “I hope to think it's a nice legacy!”
He hadn't yet tasted the Indian “chai” and hoped to get out of the five-star hotel set up for his first tasting. “I have heard how you make it. And it's my theory that since you continue to heat it, the leaves give out a bitterness and therefore you add sugar and spices to it, to counter that taste.” Later, at a tea tasting organised by Twinings in association with The Leela Palace, he says emphatically, wrinkling his nose: “Adding sugar to tea is barbaric!”