My lack of tea-making skills is legendary. Even workmen choking on brick dust refuse to drink it. It doesn’t matter how much gourmet blend and organic milk I throw into the cup – it always has the slight undernote of a licked battery. In short, if I want people to drink my tea, I get my son to make it.
I blame my parents. They were both of solid Northern stock and liked their tea as strong, dark and brooding as the skies. You could stand a spoon in my mum’s tea, and if it was anything lighter than dark shoe polish brown, it was condemned as ‘ribby’.
In the UK, making good tea does matter. It’s the first thing offered to a visitor, someone in shock or a stressed colleague. Just as there are an infinite variety of teas – it pays to know your Assam from your oolong – there are as many fuss-pots who claim they’ll drink your tea ‘as it comes’ before laying down a few unbreakable rules about bag shape and brewing times. And it’s wise to establish if your guest is a Mif (milk in first) or someone who thinks this is an abomination on a par with putting trousers on before your underpants.
Naturally, when the subject of how to make tea can drive mild mannered people to boiling point, it’s wise to turn to an expert. In tea terms, James Pogson is an undisputed connoisseur of char. As director of the award-winning Northern Tea Merchants, James and his father (David) and his father’s father (Albert) have been trading in quality tea for 60 years.
Someone overseeing the production of 100 million tea bags a year must be able to help the likes of me and the four out of five Britons who, according to research by University College London and the British Science Museum, are doing it wrong when it comes making our favourite brew.
“For me, there’s no right or wrong,” smiles James Pogson (47), which is a refreshing opening statement from a man who claims that, if you cut him, ‘he bleeds tea’.
“If you want to drink your tea out of a wellington boot with clotted cream and brown sugar I really don’t mind – as long as it’s my tea.”
James agrees to give me a master-class on tea-making after giving me a potted history of tea at the company’s base on Chatsworth Road in Chesterfield. His office is packed with testing bowls and tiny pots – it’s where much of the testing and blending takes place – which explains why James can sample a 100 cups a week with a further 37 slurped purely for pleasure.
“Our kettle is never cold,” he jokes.
“If we’re testing tea, we do spit it out otherwise we’d have caffeine over-load. Even so, I bet my father, who is 82, has drunk in excess of half a million cups in his life-time. We both still enjoy tea, it’s just so nice.”
James’ devotion to tracking down the world’s finest tea not only has him tasting samples, but travelling to estates and plantations around the world.
“Tea isn’t just about the liquid in the pot. I think you appreciate tea so much more if you understand the person behind the process,” he explains, showing me some photographs of a 2017 trip to Hubei tea estate in China where the firm buys some of their black tea for their Keemun Mao Feng.
“All our tea is touched by human hands. I like to have a personal relationship with the growers and I enjoy trying the local tipples. In Morocco, tea is made in front of the guest and poured from a height of more than a foot in the air. As the saying goes the taste changes over the course of three cups from ‘as bitter as life, to as strong as love and the third is as gentle as death’.”
While tea accounts for a third of his sales, (the firm roasts 250 tonnes of coffee per year and pack 120 tonnes of cocoa and chocolate) James laughs at the suggestion that coffee could take-over as our national drink.
“Let’s put it this way, we drink 165 million cups a day in the UK which makes it the most popular drink excluding water. Around 95 per cent is consumed in the home but people tend to go out for coffee – hence all the coffee shops. We’re the fifth biggest consumers of tea in the world,” he says.
“Although we think it’s our traditional drink, tea was only imported to Britain in the 1700s and there was such a high tax on it so only the nobility could afford it – that’s why they had lockable tea caddies with the key worn around the neck. It was Queen Victoria who started the fashion for afternoon tea and this habit spread to the middle and lower classes when tea became more affordable.”
At this point, James introduces me to his dad David, who tells me his own father started out in in 1926 working for the Ceylon Tea Growers Association going from door to door in Nottingham trying to convince house wives to buy tea for ‘economy and health’.
“Tea was promoted as good for the digestion, ‘PG’ in PG tips is short for pre-digested as it was supposed to help dyspepsia,” explains David who also sold tea on the doostep when he established the company in May 1959.
“Typhoo is Chinese for doctor.”
Even today, James says there are always fresh claims being made about the health benefits of tea – last year green tea was linked with a reduction in the risk of heart attacks – and many of these are investigated by The UK Tea and Infusions Association; an independent body for whom James has been both president and vice president.
James is convinced tea gives people a lift; “It’s a treat and the brain registers this and you get a rush of dopamine and oxytocin because you’re doing something you enjoy,” he says.
“Psychologically, the ritual of making tea is comforting and if we’re away, tea reminds us of home.”
James orders from Pekoe café – based within Northern Tea Merchants – for our refreshments and, sure enough, the tea is finest quality loose leaf and served in a traditional, pre-warmed, tea-pot. But James insists he is not sniffy about how his tea is served.
“If it’s good quality tea, a tea-bag in a mug is fine,” he smiles.
“Tea-bags saved the UK tea trade. Dealing with pots, leaves and strainers would have been too much of a faff for modern day life.”
James is happy to see people spending a bit more on their tea; “As with most things, the more you pay, the better the quality. There’s a world of difference between high-quality South Korean Chunbo Myung tea, which costs £75.90 for 50 grams, and a box of tea costing £2.49 for 80 tea bags,” he says.
“It’s surprising how brand loyal we are as, in blind tests, not one in a hundred can distinguish between leading brands of black tea. It’s frustrating because there are so many different types of tea and flavours and blends. I could make you a cup of tea every day for five years without exhausting the list of distinguishable flavours.”
With the world of teas under his roof, it’s intriguing to know what James prefers to drink.
“For every day, I like our English Breakfast blend as it’s a flavour to please every palette,” he says.
“If it’s a treat, I’ll go for something special – like Tianfu Spring Tea presented to me by my Chinese hosts at the Sichuan Tea Group. I drink it as a reward for doing something onerous like jet-washing the patio or mowing the lawn. It’s a masterpiece.”
James’ guide to preparing a perfect cuppa : Select a good quality tea; “You do get what you pay for,” says James. “A good tea should appeal to your senses – smell, sight as well as taste. Tea tasters tend to judge tea on colour, strength, pungency, brightness and ‘bounce’ of flavour – which means it tastes zingy or fresh.”
He smiles; “Choose tea which makes you slap your lips together and, once you’ve drank it, helps you to have a better day.”
Find the right tea-pot; “If you’re using loose leaf, go for earthenware or China,” advises James. “Metal is popular but leaves a metallic flavour in the mouth.”
Always warm the pot; “Use some boiling water from the kettle before you add the leaves,” says James.
Add tea: “One heaped teaspoon per person and one for the pot,” says James. “But it’s a rule of thumb as it’s all down to personal taste.”
Water temperature; “I have a kettle which has a temperature control,” admits James.
“That’s because different temperatures suit different tea. Small leaf black tea requires 95 degrees and above but Japanese only 65 degrees which is why it should be drunk straight-away.”
Brewing: ‘Allow two to five minutes,” says James. “Stirring will reduce the brewing time.”
Serving: “Milk first – or last? Only you can decide,” says James. “In the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford describing someone as very ‘milk in first’ implying they were old fashioned and boring, but it really doesn’t matter.”
As for my own tea-making dilemmas, James offers a packet of his tea and some reassurance.
“Tea is such a personal drink – everyone will make the same tea slightly differently,” he smiles.
“It all depends on their tastes. The best person to make tea for is yourself – everyone can make their own cup of tea just right.”
Northern Tea Merchants
193 Chatsworth Road
Phone: 01246 232600