Monday, 8 July 2013

Respected, revered and admired - Henrietta Lovell and Rare Tea Company

Leaf tea, like cake is one of life’s true affordable luxuries. Inexpensive and easily attainable, yet artisanal with a vast kaleidoscope of flavours and fragrances there really is a leaf tea for every occasion, from rich and satisfying to fresh and invigorating. Yet still a relative novice, I have loved my recent tea adventures and have enjoyed sampling outstanding teas from some of the wonderful tea shops and suppliers from around the country. However to date one stands head and shoulders above all others. That is Rare Tea Company.

Founded in 2004 by Henrietta “The Tea Lady” Lovell, Rare Tea Company sources some of the finest teas from around the world and supplies some of the most esteemed and high profile customers, including The Fat Duck and Noma. As the name suggests they source tea from small independent producers and work directly with farmers to ensure they achieve not only the highest quality of product, but do so both ethically and sustainably. They are wholly invested in the process of creating the finest leaf tea and the finished product reflects this spectacularly.

Recently I managed to track Henrietta down to chat all things tea and despite being halfway up a Chinese mountain she kindly obliged. Here’s what she had to say...
Why should everyone drink leaf tea? 

I'd like to democratise the good stuff - loose leaf for everyone. Tea bags are fine - but loose leaf is better than fine- it's wonderful and we all need a little wonder in our lives.

You will never find really beautiful tea leaves stuffed in a bag. Paper generally hides very cheap industrial tea. The 'silken' bags are not made of silk - they are plastic (which you put in hot water and then drink) or GM corn.

No one who really loves tea would seal it in a bag even if it was made of real silk. They don't give the leaf room to infuse properly. 

Leaf tea can expand and unfurl in the tea pot. Nothing is hidden. All the amazing flavours can be revealed. And good hand-crafted, leaf tea only costs a few pence more a cup than an industrial teabag. 

What is the biggest misconception people have about leaf tea?
That it's difficult to make. All you need to do is pop a teaspoon of tea per person into a teapot and a cup of water for each teaspoon. Wait a moment and pour. It's no more difficult than using a Cafetiere/French Press.

It requires so little effort and time and yet you can derive so much pleasure from leaf tea. And those moments of intense pleasure are what makes life worth living. A tea-bag is only fractionally labour saving and yet the tea it makes is significantly less pleasurable.

For just a moment longer it takes to pour the tea from the teapot into your cup instead of extracting a squelchy bag and making the dripping dash to the bin, wouldn't you increase your pleasure? 

What tips do you have for making the perfect cup of tea? 

Use water under the rolling boil - you only need boiling water to extract the flavour from industrial grade tea. Good leaves infuse to a richer, sweeter more complex cup below 100 degrees. 

Getting the leaf to water ratio right is crucial. One teaspoon (2.5- 3g) of tea for each cup (200ml) of water. And make sure there is no water on the leaf between infusions. Then you can infuse you leaves many times.

There is more detail on my website ( 

What has been your proudest achievement? 

Getting tea from the most wonderful farm we work with in Malawi, Satemwa, on the menu at the Fat Duck and Stone Barns in New York.

We need the taste-makers like Heston and Dan Barber to make the revolution happen. Rene Redzepi is also behind us and soon you will be able to get Malawi tea in Noma. If it's good enough to be served by these chefs, it must be pretty good tea. And if people around the world appreciate how good tea can be - and that it's possible to buy extraordinary tea for quality - just as we do wine, then people on tea-gardens can thrive like those on vineyards.
Cheap tea is cheap because someone is getting it in the neck- those on tea gardens in Africa, Sri Lanka and India. Good leaf tea costs a bit more but it tastes infinitely better and provides a much better price for the farms that craft it.
What does the future hold for Rare Tea Company and what challenges do you face.
We are working with a lot more restaurants outside the UK. We have some big projects lined up to work with chefs and restaurants around the world. I want to make this a global revolution. The tea drinkers of the world deserve far better tea and the tea farmers and those who work on the farms deserve far better standards of living.

The Challenges are manifold for a small business like RTC with just a handful of people sitting around my kitchen table. We work so hard and never get everything done. But if we can get people to try our tea there is no going back. 

You can't compare a cup of deeply delicious Lost Malawi black tea and a big brand tea bag. If you do compare them side by side the difference is so striking that you might weep for all the lost years you have missed out on. --> The challenge is only to get people to take their first sip.

Britain has seen a recent resurgence in the popularity of afternoon tea. Why do you think that is?

Hmm, not sure. But it's often more about cake and champagne than tea.

What cake flavours work best with different teas?

That's too long an answer to give you on this very bumpy mountain round. My fingers are dripping with humidity and my blackberry is sliding in my hands. Forgive me. But flavour pairing is very close to my heart. Every tea has its perfect match.
How much tea do you drink every day?

A lot. But never enough.

Which tea is your favourite?

I really don't have one. The one in my cup. All the teas I bring back from around the world are my favourites. That's why I chose them.

Do you drink coffee?

Of course. I love all delicious flavours. But I am about as fond of instant coffee as I am of tea-bags...

For more information, or to purchase Rare Tea Company teas please visit


  1. Interesting interview - thanks! The rare tea twitter comps converted both me & my husband. I do still drink tea bag tea - but I love Lost Malawi & Jasmine silver tip :)
    Would like to try a Rare Tea Co smokey tea - Russian Caravan maybe, or a Lapsang Souchong.

    1. Well their Russian Caravan is lovely if you can find a tea room that serves it. I know there's a couple in London that do.