Firsts + Lasts: Timothy d’Offay

The rare-tea aficionado dishes on England's shifting tea culture, the pleasures of brewing with loose leafs, and the one cup he'd request on his deathbed.

By / August 2012

Timothy d’Offay, tea importer and owner of Postcard Teas in London, got his first taste of China when he was seven years old. He was at a friend’s house and when teatime came, his friend’s mother served up a cup of lapsang souchong tea. “This family was a large, old-fashioned Quaker family where everyone helped out,” d’Offay said. “They always used loose-leaf tea, unlike my mother. Making it for myself and others was quite an experience.”

The tea, to hear d’Offay describe it, was “fruity,” “smoky,” and “slightly whisky-like,” a far cry from the dull, dusty teabag teas his mother favored at home. The loose leaves filled his mind with visions of the unknown, the unseen, the unimagined — of a world much bigger than his child-sized London. “It struck me that tea is somehow transformative,” he told me recently. “Not glamorous in the traditional sense, but it’s exciting because it has to do with culture, with cultures on the other side of the world. [Tea] is discovery.”

In late June I was all set to have my own “tea epiphany” with Tim in his shop in London. The plan was to arrive in London on the red-eye from Washington D.C., make a quick hotel pit-stop to de-plane and freshen-up, then head over to Postcard Teas in the Mayfair neighborhood for a chat and sip with Tim. But as our agreed-upon meeting time crept ever closer, my well-laid plans came into violent conflict with a five-hour flight delay thanks to a gate announcement of a vague “mechanical issue” with our plane.

After spending a glamorous night spooning my sister on the floor of the Dulles airport, we finally departed at three a.m. (D.C. time) and arrived at our hotel in London with bloodshot eyes, stale airplane croissants in our bellies, and more than 14 hours of travel under our belts. Needless (and sadly) to say, I never made it to Tim’s shop. But luckily for me (and you), staging your own “tea epiphany” doesn’t require a trip to London. You can peruse Tim’s tea collections and other gifts for the tea-lovers in your life on his website and he’ll ship it directly to your door, which you just may be tempted to do after reading this interview.

Last week, Tim and I caught up over the phone for a quick chat. He had just returned from a whirlwind trip to Japan, with a stopover in Cognac, France to consult for Hennessey, and he fought off some serious jetlag to talk life as a tea importer, his world travels, and the first and last sips of his life.

Where are you from originally?
I grew up in London. In fact, where my store is now was my first home. My mother and father lived with me above the shop for several years. [Downstairs] was a grocery store that sold tea and then it ended up as a tea room; a place where you had tea and cake and maybe a light lunch. My family owned the building and that was partly why I opened my shop there because at least the landlord had an understanding and concern for the business, which is hard to find today.

Did you grow up in a tea drinking family?
Not particularly. My mother has a strong affinity with nature; she worked in the Natural History Museum in London, which has wonderful dinosaurs and great animal and plant specimens. My father was involved, and still is very much, in contemporary art. So I grew up with art and artists in my life and I think in one sense tea is that combination of art, science, and the culture we live in.

When did you get interested in tea?
When I graduated university, where I studied Indian and African religions, I wanted to get away from London because there was, unfortunately, another deep recession. My family and friends had ties to Japan, I had Japanese friends, and my father worked with Japanese museums, so he said, “You should go to Kyoto, you’ll love it.” So I went to Kyoto in 1993 and I did love it.

In Kyoto there was tea culture surrounding me with the growers in the mountains and the Matsuo-ryū or Chinshin-ryū tea schools in the city. There was a lot to explore. Kyoto is quite unique in its ability to assimilate cultures from different places and make them its own while also maintaining a continuity with that culture. For example, Geisha and maiko once existed in Tokyo, they don’t anymore, but they do still exist in Kyoto. Lots of crafts, lots of skills, against the odds, survive in Kyoto. It’s a magical, magical place with an amazing, dramatic natural setting, mountains on three sides, a river running through it.

How did you get started in the tea importing business?
I started business for myself. I couldn’t find any tea companies or businesses that I really wanted to work for back then, so I sold a painting by one of my father’s artists and, with that little bit of money, went on a targeted trip to tea growing areas for several months. I’ve been importing tea for 13 years and I’ve been traveling to tea growing places for 15 years or so. Then, seven years ago, I started the shop.

Are there any places you regularly travel to and why?
We are centered mostly on Japan and China just because they are the two real tea cultures. They are the heavyweights. China, even more than Japan, is like the French in the wine world. China and tea is so dominant. At least 65%, or more like 80%, of the world’s great teas come from China. But it’s not as developed so you really have to go there.

How many teas do you carry? How do you choose?
We work with about 35 to 40 different producers in seven or eight countries. We visit them fairly frequently, once every two or three years. I travel up to three times a year, either by myself, with my Chinese colleague Lu, or with my wife and daughter.

We usually try and choose tea makers rather than teas themselves. Although we occasionally work with several tea makers in the same area to ensure we get what we want at a relatively fair price, we choose great tea makers because we believe that great tea makers will always outperform a mediocre tea maker. Then, because we’ve got a good relationship and we’ve built up a report hopefully, we’ll have a chance to buy their best teas. I think I was slightly influenced by my father in working in the arts. I think it’s best to choose great people. The best people usually make the best tea.

How do you go about finding new producers?
Well, because I speak Mandarin, a little bit of Cantonese, Chinese, and German, I often search for them in their own languages and see if there are any noted names associated with that particular area and then I make a bee line for them and try to get to know them very well. Sometimes I’m lucky. In the end it’s relationships that really make a difference for us.

What about environmental issues? What should people know about socially responsible tea buying?
We’re very committed to working with the smallest growers. In one sense the smallest growers are very small, but in another sense they’re not. People misunderstand what a small family estate can be. Most of the people we work with have less than five hectares, which is about the size of Trafalgar Square. Two or three hectares is the normal size of a farm in Japan or China. It’s not odd for us to work with them, but sometimes they’re not used to exporting, not savvy about an export market for their teas.

Most tea is still consumed locally and I think that’s fantastic, but as some of the teas are becoming more famous you see less and less of that. Most of our farmers farm without pesticides and artificial fertilizers and soon it will be 100%, I hope. The best way to buy responsibly is to know where your tea comes from and to buy from small ecological tea producers under five hectares.

Tell me a little bit about the current tea culture in the UK. 
Well there’s been a big change, I think, because of travel. It’s now much more commonplace for people to visit East Asia, which is the heartland of tea. People have tried tea, bought tea, experienced tea and they want to continue doing that when they come back home. People are becoming more interested in tea and with their connection to it. But we’re still a long way off from France, particularly Paris, which has little shops that sell loose-leaf tea everywhere. Parisians are interested in blends; they’re interested in blending tea for themselves. They see it like a wine, either rightly or wrongly, and they’re enthusiastic.

Traditionally, the English drink a huge quantity of tea, but not great quality tea. Only 3% drink loose-leaf tea in the UK and that means 97% drink teabag tea, and often some of the worst teabag tea. That doesn’t mean that all teabag teas are no good, but unfortunately most of the ones we have in our supermarkets, which is where most people buy their tea, are not great. The strange thing for me is that teabags were originally sort of a middle-class product. Teabags were more expensive than loose-leaf tea, the idea being that teabags weren’t as time consuming and didn’t make a mess.

What are the benefits of loose-leaf tea over teabag tea?
You have a much greater variety. It allows you to taste all of the great teas of the world and the great teas of the world are never in a teabag. [Loose-leaf tea] gives you more control over taste and how you make your tea.

What opportunities exist for people to learn more about loose leaf tea? I noticed that you offer tea travel tours?
We’ve only really done [tea travels] on a private scale. We were going to partner with a wonderful company called Walk Japan. They’re really one of the pioneers of walking holidays in Japan. They have a very unique approach to introduce people directly to the culture and showing them what the real side of Japan is and we were going to do a great tea one before the tsunami and nuclear disaster rather halted our progress. We aim to do it next year.

Other than that, we get a lot of people who just come to learn on our Saturday morning tea courses. There are usually no more than eight people and it’s just a good way to introduce people to the links between us and the tea. We use our own pictures and experiences and it usually has quite a strong effect on people. In addition to the courses, we have a table where anyone can come in, sit down, and try a tea. You pay a small amount to try and then if you buy it, you don’t pay the cost to try it.

Any projects or ideas in development coming up for you? What does the future hold?
I just returned from Cognac for a project with Hennessey. Hennessey was already making some cocktails with tea, so they wanted to bring me over to see what the similarities are between cognac and tea, which there are, but there are some big differences too. So it was fascinating to meet everybody, from the barrel maker up to the master blender.

I’m just about to do a big book with the publishers Phaidon and a great friend, Jane Pettigrew, called the World Tea Atlas. We very much want to open up tea knowledge because it’s quite a closed world and a lot of the information you get on the internet is not strictly firsthand knowledge.

If you could have one last cup of tea before you die, what would it be? Why?
I’d probably go for some of the Wuyi tea made by Master Xu. It’s easy to tell you about him because he’s a three-time maker of Mother tree Da Hong Pao. He’s an amazing person, my age or so, and he’s already made this iconic tea three times. The last time it was ever made, the production went to the national museum in Beijing and 20 grams went to the first Chinese athlete to win gold at Beijing [in 2008]. So, the tea has this tremendous cultural symbolism.

But that’s not what I love about it. I love these incredible cliffs surrounding the farm, the incredible people. It’s a very labor-intensive tea, which needs a lot of care, love, and attention to make something special. It is a roasted oolong tea, which has a lovely caramelized taste on top and underneath the taste of flowers and fruit pushing through. They are quite easy teas to drink; calming teas. I rarely make it without thinking of some of the people who brought me there or showed me around.

 

Martha Miller is the food columnist for EthnoTraveler. Her writing and recipes have appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, Smithsonian.com, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

 

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