Since founding the Rare Tea Company, Britain’s Henrietta Lovell has been propelled by an evangelic zeal to reintroduce people to the joy of loose-leaf tea steeped from the highest-quality crops.
In doing so, she has traveled from the highlands of Malawi to the foothills of the Himalayas to find small tea farms cultivating truly organic crops that she can harvest for her customers. For the ceaselessly intrepid Lovell, it is more than a mere mercantile exchange, as she takes time to assess the practices of the farms and taste profiles of their leaves, staying on the properties and counting the growers among her dearest friends.
The idea for her business was born during her former life in corporate finance. On a company trip to China, she observed how businesspeople would take immense pride in serving pots of rare and exquisite teas. Tasting flavors unlike anything she had enjoyed before, she began to dream of bringing a similar reverence back to her homeland. Since then, she has become the prime mover in the rising cool factor of loose-leaf tea.
It’s no small paradox that despite being one of the great tea-loving cultures of the world, Britain consumes some of its poorest-quality blends. As recently as the late 1960s, however, the situation was very different, with only three percent of households using teabags. But a demand for prepackaged convenience steadily inverted that statistic, as the public turned to cheaply made, low-grade varieties encased in nylon.
“It was no longer that you went into the grocer and said, ‘Oh god, you’ve got some of the muscatel Darjeeling that I love so much, and you’ve got that keemun from China I’ve been looking for,” explains Lovell with measurable enthusiasm, nursing her first cup of the day in her London home. “People used to buy what they could afford like you would in a wine shop today.”
With her considerable charm and single-mindedness—and a good dash of English eccentricity and wit—Lovell has helped forge a newfound appetite for loose-leaf tea in the UK and beyond. Sourcing her leaves from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, China, Taiwan, South Africa and Malawi, she sells her products to a broad assortment of customers and has crafted blends for Noma in Copenhagen, Eleven Madison Park in New York and Claridge’s in London.
“People already are changing,” she says of shifting tastes. “Young people care about provenance, story and flavor. They drink craft coffee and beer, they’re not going for the cheap Budweiser, they’d rather drink less and better. Coffee consumption is going into that completely artisan area too, with people wanting to know where it comes from.”
Why did people stop drinking loose-leaf tea in the first place? Well, teabags were invented in New York City in about 1901. The trader, I think he was making sample bags and then someone actually put one in hot water and thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’ But loose-leaf tea was something that the British stuck strongly to. But in the 1970s it was the time of innovation and modernity—we had the man on the moon and TV dinners and bread in a plastic bag that stayed good for a long time. This seemed very modern and innovative, but there was no concern for health or wellbeing, it was just cool and cheap.
How do you get people drinking excellent tea again? It is absolutely about flavor first. No one’s ever disappointed when they try a really good tea. It’s like giving an Italian who’s only ever had Nescafé a really good cup of coffee. Or a French person who’s only ever had industrial Jacob’s Creek a bottle of Château Lafite. I’ve never come across people going, “Well, whatever.” It just doesn’t happen.
I gather you’re soon to publish a book? Yes, it’s called Infused and contains the stories of my adventures in tea. It will hopefully make people fall in love with tea through the people, the places, the adventure of it, the exoticism, and the great, amazing, incredible people who make tea.
Was tea a big part of your life growing up? I grew up in a really formal, aristocratic English family where the food culture was not highly developed, but the ritual was, so there was definitely tea and cake served in the afternoon. On holiday you went to your great aunt’s house and had afternoon tea in the drawing room from the special china.
What are you other passions? I started the tea business partly because I love to travel and didn’t want a job that kept me in one place. I wanted a job that got me out into the world and I realized that through tea I could find a way into people’s lives, their cultures, their families and their whole rich life. When I travel I don’t go into a hotel or looking at people from a taxi window or the back of a tuk tuk. I’m in people’s lives and some of my best friends are tea farmers. I suppose my passions all tie in: food, people, travel and taste. I’m also obsessed with sake. I think it’s one of the most nuanced and subtle and delicious drinks. If I wasn’t a tea lady, maybe I’d be a sake lady.
Your next act, perhaps? I don’t know, all this traveling around can be exhausting. Maybe at one point I’d like to grow tea and be settled in one place. If I’ve achieved my revolution, that is, and I won’t ever feel like I’ve achieved anything until it’s not surprising to think of buying tea like wine for quality, for people to understand it as a valued crop rather than just a cheap commodity. The effect on those around the world who grow tea would be extraordinary. Then I could sit down on some mountaintop somewhere and grow some good tea.
Where was your last vacation? Sri Lanka.
Where will your next vacation be? Ethiopia.
The thing you can’t travel without? Noise-cancelling headphones for the flight. They are painfully expensive but essential. Planes are deafening. You’ll arrive so much happier and rested if you can achieve some quiet.
Plane, train or automobile? Any. I love all modes of transport. Even buses bumping over unsurfaced roads, they can be so full of fascinating people and stories, and views.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? A quantum physicist. The only thing I find more enthralling than travel is the nature of reality at a sub-atomic scale.
What is your in-flight ritual? I often bring my own food onto the airplane. Just simple things like some decent tomatoes, figs, nuts, good dark chocolate, an orange. I like to sit quietly with a notepad, and munch and think. I dread wi-fi becoming commonly available.
The language you wish you spoke? Mandarin.
When were you happiest while traveling? Impossible question. I’ve written a whole book about that! (Infused: The Adventures of the Rare Tea Lady, to be published by Faber and Faber in June 2019.)
Desert island or downtown? Downtown. I love people, meeting them, watching them, being among them. And when I need to be alone, it’s easy to get lost in a city.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Claridge’s, without question.
What is your room service indulgence? Laundry.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? Looking for some rare herbs I got lost on a pre-Inca trail high in the Andes, Bolivia. Really lost and really in trouble. My Bolivian friend and I were saved by an old man, living in the middle of nowhere, far from any path, with a garden full of roses. He had a stable for a donkey. We slept there, under the donkey’s rug.
What is your favorite market? Any one where food is being cooked in the street. I love the food markets of small towns in Mexico for fresh tortillas, and queso fresco, and the abundance of fruit and vegetables I don’t recognize.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? Maybe the court of Catherine the Great. But as a woman, there has seldom been a better time to be alive, in terms of the freedoms afforded us. I still run into tricky patches of the globe, but generally a woman can travel independently, without a male entourage to keep her safe. I would have hated to be sequestered away from the action.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? The top of Primrose Hill or Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. From there the city is laid out for you to marvel at. And what a green and wonderful city it is. The best in the world. I travel so much, but I love coming home.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
Week: The Scottish island of Colonsay.
Month: Buenos Aires.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Whisky.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Staying high in the Nepali Himalayas at the Jun Chiyabari tea garden. The manager’s wife made a simple dinner every night of a couple of vegetable and lentil dishes, but a huge array of pickles. Even though the dishes were plain, every mouthful was scintillatingly different.
Travel hell is? Jet lag.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Greece.
Three favorite stores on earth? I’m really not keen on shopping.
Most treasured travel memento? Tea. I only treasure it until I can share it.
Why do you travel? Because I have ants in my pants.
Christine Muhlke has over two decades of experience and connections in the food, travel, fashion, culture, and design worlds. The founder of Bureau X food consultancy, she has been an editor at Bon Appétit, T Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine.