Time for tea at 300 year old Twinings
60.2 billion cups of tea are drunk a year, many of them by Nick Harman personally. He goes down to visit 300 year old Twinings Tea in Hampshire to discover more about their take on our national drink.
‘Shlooooooooooooorpppp!’ It’s a very loud sound and seems odd coming from Philippa Thacker who for the last ten minutes has been, dare I say, behaving in a perfectly ladylike fashion. ‘Slurrrrrrp’ she goes again and then accurately directs a jet of brown tea into her spittoon on wheels.
‘You don’t have to spit it out of course,’ she says, ‘it’s not like wine tasting where you’re avoiding the alcohol, but if you don’t spit then by the end of a tasting you will have drunk an awful lot of tea!’
As a Master Blender it’s part of Philippa’s job to ensure that each box of Twining’s black ‘breakfast tea’ or ‘everyday tea’ you buy in the shops is of the same quality and taste as the last and is true to the secret blend, which can contain up to forty separate teas.
Unlike wine, which is a once a year crop, tea is picked every day with the leaf quality varying every time so it’s the blenders’ job to assess each shipment of tea that comes in and create the correct blend for sale. Each blender has his or her own unique tasting spoon engraved with their name, a sweet touch that is so quintessentially British.
With so many types of tea going into a blend at a time Philippa tests the teas coming into the warehouse against a library of ‘control’ teas for appearance, aroma flavour and mouth feel. The ‘slurping’ atomises the tea across her palate to release aromas and allows her to go on create a micro blend that’s perfect. This will then be upscaled in the factory below to create large volumes of blend to be teabagged, boxed and shipped to the stores.
Unlike most other tea brands, Twinings does not own any plantations, instead its expert buyers choose from many plantations to create their above average tea. Of the 165 million cups of black tea drunk daily in the UK Twinings can’t claim to compete with the big names but they don’t try to, they are a speciality tea company family owned since 1706. Once based by the Thames at Tower Bridge, the company moved lock, stock and tea chest to Andover in the 1960s to be nearer the main ports.
‘Of course we don’t actually use tea chests anymore,’ shouts Ian Kavanagh, Twinings Director of
Operations, above the noise of the machines down on the factory floor. ‘They aren’t sustainable or recyclable enough.’ Today tea comes into Twinings factory in aluminium lined paper sacks. The sacks are slashed open by mechanical knives and mixed together according to the tea blender’s instructions already loaded onto computer. This rough mix of tea is then shot up a tube three floors to then fall again, assuring the blend is evenly combined.
From there it moves to the teabagging machines that indefatigably make their little paper raviolis of tea hour on hour, only stopping, Ian explains, for regular service. The process is pretty much totally automated now, the craft skill is in the blending not the actual manufacture. Even so it’s hard not be happily hypnotised watching these clever machines, the conveyors and the robot arms all performing their synchronised dances to create 3.5 billion Twinings tea bags a year.
Of course as a specialised tea maker Twinings do far more than breakfast teas, delicious though they are. Their new product development team works closely with trend spotters around the globe to anticipate consumer demands. Stephen Twining, tenth generation of the family, shows me their development lab where they are creating new kinds of Green Tea to go with the nine kinds already available. They also have seven kinds of herbal and fruit infusions ‘ which are not teas’ Stephen reminds me cheerfully. We sample three of Twinings latest Sweet Green Teas: salted caramel, caramelised apple and gingerbread. Just four calories a cup and more palate friendly than pure green tea, these are aromatic and pleasant to drink and should certainly be a popular summer choice.
Stephen and his team predict more tea being drunk in its various forms in cafes over the next few years, a relaxing and refined
alternative to the often head-rattling caffeine kick delivered by coffee in all its various and esoteric forms.
The only science needed for the consumer to enjoy green tea at home is to stick to no more than two minutes brew time, advises Twinings and to not use boiling water, which destroys the delicate green tea flavour and aroma. Heston Blumenthal’s device would be perfect for this job.
Outside the factory the sun is shining brightly. ‘When we moved from London nearly all
the staff came with us and all but a few stayed,’ says Stephen. Well who could blame them? A fragrant working environment, a product ingrained into the British psyche and the lovely Hampshire countryside. Short of having a biscuit factory next door I can think of no better place to work.
And now, having written this article I think I will do the right thing – put the kettle on and settle back with a nice cup of tea.
Thomas Twining bought Tom’s Coffee House on London’s Strand in 1706. It’s still there:
R. Twinings and Co Limited & The Twinings Museum216 StrandLondon WC2R 1AP