Friday 12 March 2010

Purveyors of Fine Tea

Purveyors of Fine Tea

To quote C.S. Lewis again "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me." I truly do love tea, in many of its varieties and forms. I love a nice big mug of hot tea or an iced tea to cool things down. Most of the time I drink my tea neat, but occasionally with honey. But until recently finding high quality loose leaf teas in Ontario was often a challenge. It was usually small independent sellers, or retailers who imported a few varieties from different purveyors. Yet with that said, here are my favourite manufacturers of tea in a very specific order. I will provide some history and info on each.

Teaopia is a Canadian company founded by David Bellisario and all stores are currently corporately owned. Teaopia opened its first store at Erin Mills Town Centre (Mississauga, ON) in 2005 and have been opening up Teaopia locations across Canada ever since. Teaopia sells more than a 100 varieties of premium loose leaf tea, and herbal blends. Their famous teas and custom blends are perfect for any tea connoisseur or the first time tea drinker. One item that makes their teas so convenient is the Tea Master, which provides a simple and effective way of brewing any variety of tea, and rebrewing it a second or third time. One sales associate told me in store that some teas actually release more antioxidants on the second steeping. Teaopia really is committed to providing the best products at a reasonable price and with convenient locations. The staff seems to be knowledgeable and friendly. The only inconsistency I have noticed is the price of bar drinks, if you ask for extra Matcha or a custom blend. Also because the stores are so popular, I have yet to receive a stale product. The other great advantage is that with the chain expanding so quickly you can find a store near you and try a cup before you buy if you are uncertain about a specific tea; also every store I have been to has either 2 or 4 teas of the day brewing with free samples. Some even have more brewing right at the counter for you to try.

Republic of Tea
The Republic of Tea is a company that markets organic and exotic teas from around the world. The Republic of Tea was founded in 1992 by Mel and Patricia Ziegler with Bill Rosenzweig. The company is based in Novato, California, but with its major production facility in Nashville, Illinois. The founders of the company authored a book detailing their exchanges while conceiving the company. In 1994, the founders sold the company to Ron Rubin under whom the company has grown into a leader in specialty tea sales. Even if you do not purchase often, their mail order catalogues are wonderful.
The Republic of Tea designates its employees as ministers, customers as citizens and retail outlets as embassies. It was one of the first companies to specialize in retail varieties such as red tea, white tea, and tea seed oil to American consumers. I find that the teas from the Republic are wonderful but without mail ordering across the border harder to find in Canada. I have dealt with a few different retailers who carry them for a time, but all seem to stop. The other disadvantage is you have to buy full tins of either loose leaf or bagged tea, and if you don't like it, pass it on to someone else to try.

Stash Tea
The Stash Tea Company is a privately-held tea company which is now headquartered in Tigard, a suburb of Portland Oregon. Stash Tea originally operated out of a Victorian style house, and specialized in supplying loose herbal teas and herbs to natural food stores; it was founded by partners Stephen Lee and Tom Mesher. However in 1972, the company started to sell bagged teas and then began to market a full line of teas through an order catalog. Then in 1993, Stash was acquired by the Yamamotoyama Tea Company. Stash Tea has been enjoying steady growth and has become one of the largest specialty tea companies in the United States that markets its products through foodservice, grocery stores, tea and coffee shops, natural foods stores, mail order and over the Internet. It has a mail order catalog with more than 200 teas.

Twinings UK and Twinings Canada
For many years Twinings of London was my favourite purveyor of tea, but two factors changed that, and though I still really enjoy a few of their teas I do not go out of my way to get them or to try new offerings. First, finding their tea in a loose leaf format, other than 5 or 6 common varieties at the grocery store, has become harder and harder. Second, even though they state that some of their blends have not changed, many bloggers and commentators say they have; either that or their quality has eroded. But back to the
Twinings Company. The founder of Twinings, Thomas Twining, opened the first known tea room, at 216 Strand, London, in 1706, which is still in operation today. The logo originally created in 1787 is one of the world's oldest in continuous use. Twinings is a holder of a Royal Warrant, and has been owned by Associated British Foods since 1964. Twinings sells a variety of regional and flavoured teas such as Irish Breakfast, Lady Grey and Darjeeling, as well as herbal infusions, coffee, and hot chocolate. It is claimed by the company that it was the first to blend Earl Grey in Britain during the premiership of Charles, 2nd. Earl Grey, however this is disputed by rival tea merchants Jacksons of Piccadilly, which is wholly owned by Twinings.

Jackson of Piccadilly
Jackson of Piccadilly is owned by Twinings, but operated as a separate business line, much as Starbucks owns and operates Seattle's Best Coffee. Jacksons of Piccadilly is a longstanding London tea house, founded by Robert Jackson in 1815. It has earned an impressive collection of Royal Warrants, from Queen Victoria, King George V and various other royals through the 19th and 20th centuries. The company also claims to have invented the "original" recipe for Earl Grey tea. When I was at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, I frequented two shops for many of my tea purchases, Cooke's Old World Shop, and Tara's Health Foods. Both carried an impressive variety of bagged and loose leaf tea from manufacturers and custom blends. I especially like to keep on hand Russian Tea from Jackson's selection and often tried other varieties. I liked the tins and found the tea worth the time. I have not seen any of their loose tea in years. But it was once among my favourites.

The Tazo Tea Company was founded in 1994 by Steve Smith (who retired from Tazo in 2006) along with his business partners Stephen Lee and Tom Mesher. It is stated that Smith used his corporate connections within the food services industry to convince many restaurants, food stores, and tea houses to carry the new Tazo Teas. Smith approached Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in 1998, seeking further investment partners, and was very successful, for Tazo was purchased by Starbucks in 1999 for $8.10 million. In Canada Tazo teas are available at a variety of locations, Starbucks included. The interesting thing is Starbucks does not carry the full Tazo line, and some of the varieties carried at Starbucks are not available in other retail or grocery stores. About 5 years back Tazo was my favourite tea, even though it meant drinking mostly bagged tea. But 2 years ago right around the time I was introduced to Teaopia, I had numerous issues with Tazo teas including 4 bags bursting while steeping, in 2 days. I have not bought any of their teas since, except when in a location that serves it, so as much as I like their teas I just do not keep any at home or work anymore.

Articles in this Series:
0. Tea Tea Everywhere - Teaopia Mad Hatter Tea Party
1. Tea an Overview
2. Red Teas
3. Green Teas
4. White Teas
5. Black Teas
6. Matcha Tea
7. Yerba Mate
8. Fruit Blends
9. Wellness Blends
10. Herbal Teas
11. Purveyors of Fine Tea (my preferences.)
12. Custom Blending
13. My Favourite Teas
Top Ten Teas of 2010

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