Jasmine Pradhan interviews Henrietta Lovell (aka The Tea Lady) about her drive to support tea producers in the Himalayas in the wake of COVID-19…
Hi Henrietta, you’re the founder of The Rare Tea Company, can you tell us a bit about the brand?
Rare Tea Company is an independent UK company based in London that I started on my own in 2004 at my kitchen table. These days we are a team, sourcing and supplying the world’s best tea globally. We focus on quality: all our tea is crafted by skilled men and women for quality and value rather than by industrial processes that are focused on cheap bulk.
We travel the world working directly with small, independent tea gardens from the Shire Highlands of Malawi to the foothills of the Himalayas and across Asia. By sourcing directly from the farms, we are able to secure unique harvests and ensure that they are crafted using sustainable practices to benefit both the land and the people who live on it. We donate a percentage of revenue to Rare Charity which supports tertiary education scholarships on our partner farms.
From humble beginnings with just a handful of devoted customers, we now collaborate with many of the world finest chefs and restaurants, including Claridges in London, Noma in Copenhagen, Momofuku in New York and The Edition Hotel Shanghai. Rare Tea Company retails globally in Waitrose and small independent delicatessens and has a worldwide online shop. We are very proud of our reputation for being the very best at what we do both in terms of responsibility, service and quality.
What inspired you to start the company?
Back in 2004, there wasn’t anywhere to get good loose leaf tea except a few very old fashioned places that weren’t very good quality and weren’t benefitting the farms or tea communities, with the profits going to a handful of brokers and vast agribusinesses instead. To this day 90% of the tea we drink in Europe and North America is supplied by 7 companies, they have a monopoly. Most tea communities live in very real poverty. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to that and dunk a bag in a mug because that’s just the way things are, but I have seen that poverty first hand and I can’t be a part of it. It doesn’t have to be that way.
How does The Rare Tea Company support small tea growers across the globe?
We work with the growers directly: we buy from independent farmers, not brokers or agribusinesses. We buy at a price they set, not one set by a commodity market dominated by the big 7. We pay 7- 15 times the price of “teabag” tea for something far, far better, that tastes amazing. Benefitting the farms and our customers.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected business and the communities you partner with?
It’s been very tough. For the farms, lockdowns have closed routes to market, and some communities have been unable to harvest and craft the tea. For us as a business, we have seen a dramatic loss of sales from hospitality. We are still drinking tea at home and our online business is thriving, but not in restaurants, cafes, hotels etc.
At this time you are particularly looking to support Himlayan tea growers in Nepal, what is special about the tea they produce?
This is a wonderful autumn harvest from one of the best tea gardens in the world- Jun Chiyabari. If you think of tea like wine, this garden would be a vineyard in Champagne. However, with a reduced market and reduced revenue, we don’t have the cash reserves to buy it all upfront and support the farm. They really need our help and we couldn’t just walk away, so we decided to ask our customers to directly support the farms and help us buy the tea together. Jun Chiyabari are picking and crafting what we pre-order.
What is the current situation in Nepal as a result of COVID-19?
Lockdowns have closed farms, roads, and borders and as one of the poorest nations in the world, they have very little resources to get by. If we feel we are in a tricky economic situation right now, as one of the richest nations in the world, you can only imagine how it must be in one of the poorest.
How can people help?
They can pre-buy this harvest with us. For every pre-order of tea (available in 300g 600g or 1kg) you can directly impact a community. This support will ensure the harvest. It will be picked and shipped from the farm in Nepal to our warehouse and then onto our customers: no middlemen, just a direct and fair exchange. And this tea is very very good: not an industrial tea bag but handcrafted and high quality. Tea so good it would normally find its way to the best restaurants and hotels in the world.
What is your favourite tea?
The one I’m drinking! I love all Rare Teas – because I choose the most delicious teas I can find in the world. Life is to short for bad tea. To upgrade to the best quality tea is only a few pence more per cup, not hundreds of pounds like with wine. Imagine if you could drink some of the best wine in the world, usually served at the world’s best restaurants, every day for a year for £1 a day, and make a direct positive impact on a community. Wouldn’t you think that was a pretty excellent deal?