British tea scion hopes India will embrace the bag
Stephen H.B. Twining, the 10th-generation descendant of the Twinings tea-making family, is an unimpeachable brand ambassador. It is early afternoon and he is already on his 12th cup of the day.
Monday 11 June 2012, 10:42AM
“My usual daily intake is about 15 cups, so I’m a little ahead of myself, but tea drinking is a huge passion with me,” he says, sipping a light infusion of green tea in New Delhi.
Twining, director of the British company which opened the first tea shop in London over 300 years ago, was in India to promote his range in a country where Twinings buys a lot of tea – but sells very little.
Like every other global company, Twinings is seeking growth from India’s 1.2 billion people, whose tastes are becoming more upmarket and sophisticated.
“There’s huge potential for growth in places like India and China – throughout Asia,” Twining says.
The easy part in India for Twinings, part of the giant Associated British Foods conglomerate, is that people all over the country drink tea every day.
The tough part is that teabags, which are Twinings’ core product, are not used much by Indians, who like their tea boiled loose in a strong, milky brew.
Instead, Twinings is aiming at the upper end of the market by packaging each teabag in an air-tight individual envelope to keep the tea fresh for months.
At 600 rupees (B340) for a box of 100 bags, the price of one teabag is roughly equal to that of a freshly-made streetside cup of “chai” served in a small earthenware pot or plastic cup and often spiced with cardamom or ginger.
“We are unabashedly a premium tea and our customers seem to appreciate that fact,” Twining says.
Twinings has secured 35 per cent of India’s teabag business since it entered the country in 1997 but without divulging figures he concedes it is still a risibly small market – less than one per cent of the company’s global turnover.
Twining says the firm does “tweak its blends to suit local tastes”, but creating the perfect cup of tea is a tricky and capricious enterprise for varying national palates.
Indians, for instance, prefer a mellower version of Darjeeling tea than some other countries, he says.
“Wine drinkers accept different years are of different quality but tea drinkers are a finickety lot – they want the flavour of their favourite cup of tea always to be the same,” he says.
The difficulty is that, like wine, tea’s flavour changes with the weather.
The taste of tea leaves still on the plant can even fluctuate from week to week, depending on influences such as moisture, wind and sun.
The higher and drier the area and hotter the wind, the less water the tea bush absorbs, making the taste of the leaves more intense.
“We have to assess the tea’s characteristics and decide how best to use it to create the flavour, body, colour and the brightness of the blend,” Twining says. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw to get a consistent taste.”
The company’s nine tea tasters undergo five years of gruelling training at the company’s Hampshire headquarters before becoming master tea tasters and deciding what goes into Twinings’ more than 200 blends of teas.
They may taste up to 3,000 cups a week to achieve “just the right taste”, Twining says, juggling blends from over 30 countries from India, China, Sri Lanka to newcomer Brazil, whose teas have a mild “coconutty overlay”.
Twining, 48, who sports distinct bright ties, has worked in many jobs at Twinings from manager of the famed shop in London’s Strand – the first tea room opened by his ancestor Thomas Twining – to being a tea taster himself.
“Look at this tea,” he says, pointing to his cup of green lemon tea. “Look at its appearance and brightness. Give yourself an olfactory workout, breathe it in – it should be fresh and grassy.”
He dismisses the notion that teabags are inferior to loose tea.
“Teabags do have an image problem,” he admits. “But the tinier the leaves (in the teabag) the quicker flavours get released.”
And he has some words of advice for teabag users.
To get the perfect cup, the teabag must brew for three minutes – longer than most tea drinkers realise “so they aren’t getting the best taste,” he says.
Use a thin porcelain cup and it is traditional to put the milk in first, says Twining, though he adds that in the end there are no strict rules or etiquette to be obeyed.
“Don’t add sugar in your tea – but if you like it sweet, forget that rule,” he laughs.