Whether it’s tea, chai or chă, there’s no doubt that tea is one of the oldest and most popular drinks in the world. From steaming mugs of hot tea in the winter to iced and bubble teas in the summer, rarely does a day go by that I don’t consume tea in some form. But I’ve never really given much thought to where it comes from or how it’s made, which is why I was so excited to sit down (over a cup of tea, of course) with John Hales. John has been working in the tea industry since he was 19 years old and is currently a level five tea master at Metropolitan Tea.
BZ: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in the tea industry?
JH: I guess you could say I was born into tea. My dad was a tea buyer and I got my first job was preparing teas for the tea tasters when I was 19 years old. I would weigh the teas by hand, brew them and flick the leaves into the lid for the taster to inspect. Then I became the guy that was tasting, blending and buying the tea. After a few years of doing that, I took on a new role where I was the middleman between the tea growing estates and the tea buyers. That job took me to Mombasa, Kenya, where my eldest daughter Rosie was born. After we moved back to the UK, I started working for a tea broking company, which closed in 2004 after we realized that the internet made it easier for buyers to have direct access to growers. I heard about an opportunity in Canada with a company called Metropolitan Tea and moved my family here in 2005 and that’s where I am today.
BZ: Wow, that’s quite the journey. How has the world of tea changed since you first started out?
JH: It’s really changed a lot, both in terms of the what and the how. When I was working for the specialty tea company as a 19 year old, specialty teas were pretty much jasmine tea, lapsang souchong and Darjeeling. Then Earl Grey was introduced as a flavoured tea, followed by lemon flavoured teas and all of a sudden, people realized that you could flavour all these teas. In the last few years, the doors have just blown off on specialty teas. Now, we can even do pina colada flavoured teas! It speaks to this movement away from traditional tea as I knew it growing up. We still see good sales in black, white, green and yellow teas, but herbal tea is where all the expansion is taking place.
From a process perspective, there’s also been a lot of changes in how teas are packaged and manufactured. For example, food safety was a very minor consideration when I started in the industry. The thought at the time was that you’re going to put boiling water on it and it’s going to kill everything anyway, which it does. But now we have to test our teas for things like E. coli and Salmonella. Traditionally, tea leaves have always been plucked by hand. Some countries have started using shears to pluck the leaves and in other countries where the terrain is flat enough, we see combine harvester types of machines being used. But the best tea is always going to be hand plucked because you can be much more selective. Climate change is also driving changes in the industry. Seasonality is not quite as predictable as it used to be and extreme weather is more common, which causes problems with how the teas grow and taste.
BZ: People who really appreciate for wine and coffee often talk about the importance of where and how the grapes and coffee beans are grown and processed, and how that affects the flavour of the final product. Is that true for teas as well?
JH: Absolutely. Wine and tea are really similar in many respects. The way they taste has a lot to do with the geography of where they’re grown—the terroir, so to speak—and the technique. For example, teas that are grown at a low elevation tend to grow more quickly but they don’t have such a good character. On the other hand, tea bushes that grow on hillsides are under a lot of stress. They don’t get as much sun during the day, water will drain off, and the temperature tends to get much colder at night. So the tea grows much more slowly but as a result, the flavors of much finer. The classic example of this is Assam teas from northern India. They taste strong and robust and are what we call “full body teas”. You compare this to Darjeeling tea which is grown 6,000 feet above sea level in the Himalaya mountains. The difference is phenomenal. Darjeeling is bright and very aromatic with astringency and a muscatel character. A lot also depends on the husbandry and the processing. Take a standard black tea, for example. The leaves are plucked and taken as quickly as possible to the tea factory where they go through a wither on these big troughs with air blowing up from the mesh bottoms. The tea leaves will lose about 75% of their moisture over the course of a day or so. You can then put the leaves through a series of cutters and choppers and after that, it’s left to oxidize or ferment. Finally, the leaves go into a firing chamber to be fired and dried. All those stages can affect the final character of the tea. If the oxidation is too short, the tea may be too green. If they overfire the leaves, the tea will taste burnt or smoky. All these things come into play.
BZ: That’s so interesting. I’ve never thought about all the things that go into making a tea taste the way it does. Tea has been around for a long time and features prominently in many cultures around the world. What do you see as the cultural significance of tea?
JH: I think it’s all about getting together. Every country has its own take on tea and prepares it in its own way. In Tibet, it might be with yak’s milk and salt. In China, there are ornate ceremonies. In Japan, you go to a tea house where you have to stoop down. In India, it’s all chai. If you go to the Middle East, it’s drunk in a little glass with some sugar. If you go to North Africa, it’s drunk in a glass with some sugar and some mint. You go to the UK and it’s this thing you drink with sandwiches and scones while crooking your little finger. Somehow tea brings people together.
BZ: That’s so true. I love catching up with friends over a hot cup of tea. One of the biggest trends we’ve seen in the food industry in the last few years is this growing demand from consumers for locally grown and ethically sourced foods. Obviously, we don’t grow tea here in Canada, but how is that trend affecting the tea industry?
JH: Ethical sourcing is hugely important. We are members of the Ethical Tea Partnership. They send auditors to monitor what’s happening in the tea estates and ensure that the standards are met and everyone is earning a fair wage. A lot of the estates are communities that support as many as 3,000 to 4,000 people, including families and children.
BZ: What do you think is an underappreciated tea?
JH: Probably Kenyan teas because so few people know about them. Kenya has been producing tea for the last 50 years which makes it a relatively a new country in tea terms. They now produce something like 450 to 500 million kilos of ready-to-consume tea each year, which is more than Sri Lanka.
BZ: I don’t think I’ve ever tried a tea from Kenya before but I will definitely be on the lookout for one now. Where do you see the industry going in the future?
JH: I see the herbal teas continuing to gain popularity with new herbal teas and more unusual flavours coming out. I think that’s where the demand will be. I also think that we’re seeing the definition of tea shift from a drink brewed from a specific plant to anything that you can infuse in hot water and drink.
BZ: Final question, why should we care about tea?
JH: From a human point of view, it provides a lot of jobs for a lot of people. From a climate perspective, it’s green, it absorbs CO2 and pumps out oxygen. It’s good for you. It hydrates you. And it tastes great! You come around for a cup of tea or you go and meet someone in a café for a cup of tea. It brings everyone together and it’s something worth looking after.
For more on the history of tea, John recommends reading Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire.