Thursday, August 14, 2014

Gentleman's Tea at London's Athenaeum Hotel

Jane Pettigrew chats with Bruce Richardson over tea at The Athenaeum.
I had the opportunity recently to preview the new Gentleman's Afternoon Tea offered at London's 5 star Hotel Athenaeum, located in fashionable Mayfair on Piccadilly Street across from Green Park. Afternoon tea unfolds here every day in the sunny Garden Room, enclosed on one side by the hotel’s unique ‘Living Wall’ – home to 260 types of plant, many of which are rare. It's as if you were having tea beside a botanical garden.

Sara Loy enjoys her first
London teatime.
The stylish room is divided into comfortable seating areas that lend a sense of intimacy where you can sip tea and gossip without fear of being overheard. I think it is one of the most unique and beautiful settings for tea in all of London – tasteful without being pompous.

Straight off the plane after an overnight flight from Atlanta, I met my London writing companion Jane Pettigrew for a three-hour editorial meeting over tea. We were joined by Benjamin Press intern Sara Loy. It was three o'clock and we were all famished!

The Athenaeum staff knew ahead that I wanted to try their new masculine tea menu while my female guests enjoyed the traditional Evergreen Tea. We were very happy to see the traditional three-tiered server arrive with all the usual crustless sandwiches, scones, and sweets. But when my manly afternoon tea plates began to appear, my fellow diners wanted to know if they could switch genders for the afternoon.

The savory first course presented on a slab of slate.
My savory first course was presented on a slate slab. Hearty food needs a solid stage and these creations would have made George III envious. There was a very handsome Suet Pastry Crusted Miniature Beef Steak and British Ale Pie, Wild Boar Sausage Rolls, and a homemade Paté that could have fortified a London lorry driver for a full day's work. Chili Cheese Straws sat crisscrossed at the center as they waited to be dipped in a bright copper mini-pot filled with Decadent Welsh Rarebit Dipping Sauce.

What gentleman's tea would be complete without a dram of whisky? The Athenaeum employs one of only two whisky sommeliers found in London. And since I am from Kentucky, I understand the beverage. The sommelier perfectly paired a dram of 15 year old highland malt to balance this savory feast. And it complimented the malty pot of Assam tea I had already consumed.

Soon two Crispy Bacon Scones, dripping with warm Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar, appeared. I decided anything so poetically named had to be delicious. They were small and easily devoured in two bites. I resisted the urge to add a dollop of Sara's clotted cream because that bit of extravagance would have rendered the pastries unhealthy!

While my fellow diners enjoyed their sweet course of tarts, meringues, and syllabubs, I feasted on Sticky Toffee Pudding, Whisky Fruit Cake, and homemade Whisky Truffles. Do you see a theme emerging here?

Alas, man does not live by whisky alone. Endless pots of Assam, Ceylon. and blended teas continued to flow while we shared tidbits of food, took notes, and remembered teatimes in exotic locations worldwide. It was an afternoon feast of delights. We accomplished a good bit of work as we discussed current and future tea book projects. All work meetings should be so pleasant.

After two hours, the dessert trolley arrived. Not wanting to disappoint the server who pushed the calorie-laden cart especially to our table, we politely agreed to try just a few more bites before calling it a day. 

The dessert trolly at The Athenaeum Hotel, London.
Our appetites satiated for the moment, we waddled into the bustle of Piccadilly Street and headed toward the Green Park tube station. Sara and I decided to walk back to our hotels in hope of burning some of the calories we had consumed. For a moment, I thought I might not need to eat again during my weeklong stay in London. Then I remembered - we were scheduled to repeat this repast at the Langham Hotel in less than 24 hours! 

I decided to walk the long way home.

Bruce Richardson, Jane Pettigrew, and Sara Loy enjoy tea at The Athenaeum Hotel, London.

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson is the author of several tea books, including THE GREAT TEA ROOMS OF BRITAIN..

Monday, July 21, 2014

Who Sells the Most Tea in the US?

As Americans become more health conscious, they continue to shun sugary carbonated beverages and turn more often to alternative drinks - such as tea. That is one of the reasons for the steady growth in sales of both loose and bagged tea, as well as canned and bottled ready to drink teas known as RTDs.

Celestial Seasonings packaging line at their Boulder, Colorado plant.

I look forward every year to the July edition of Beverage Industry magazine because it contains statistics on what Americans are drinking and what companies are supplying the most beverages in categories such as wine, beer, water, coffee, spirits and tea.

Here is a chart compiled by Information Resources Inc. (Chicago) which shines light on USA tea sales for the 52 weeks ending April 20, 2014.


Market Share  Company               Dollar Sales             %Growth

21.7%             Lipton                      $278,873,000            4.5

9.2%               Bigelow                   $117,893,800            -0.8    

7.9%               Twinings                 $101,681,800           15.7

5.0%               Luzianne                 $64,664,300              4.7

4.1                  Celestial Sea           $52,302,720              5.1

2.9                   Tazo                        $37,758,590             1.7

2.4                   Keurig                     $31,093,650           -13.1

2.3                   Stash                      $30,034,700            1.6

2.3                   Tetley                     $29,554,930            -0.2

This statistics do not include the hundreds of smaller specialty tea purveyors who have sprung up across America over the past 25 years, such as Teavana, Harney, Adagio, Republic of Tea, etc. Sales by those gourmet tea packagers are also rising with the tide. I've witnessed this scenario firsthand because I've owned one of those smaller tea companies for over two decades.

And who are the top five RTD tea producers in America?

In order they are: 1. Arizona, 2. Lipton, 3. Snapple, 4. Gold Peak (Coca-Cola) and 5. Pure Leaf (Pepsi.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dressing a 700-Year-Old Tea Jar

A centuries-old tea jar has taken center stage this summer at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The revered Chinese jar has a personal name—Chigusa, an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry meaning “thousand grasses” or “myriad things.”

The story of Chigusa is the remarkable tale of how an ordinary Chinese storage jar, over the course of several centuries and generations of connoisseurs, rose to become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu, or “art of tea.”

Chigusa as it was made without adornment.

Chigusa began as a utilitarian storage jar made in the kilns of thirteenth- or fourteenth-century China and eventually rose in status to become one of the most celebrated tea utensils of sixteenth-century Japan. Tea men reverently presented Chigusa its own textiles to both emphasize its beauty and to allow the jar to have its own possessions. The jar was now clearly valuable and an entity by itself. Tea masters would show Chigusa to their guests before displaying it, with honor, in an alcove. Their guests would greatly admire such a beautiful and practical object: tea-leaf storage jars like Chigusa were valued as much for their practical qualities as they were for their beauty. Each spring, Chigusa was packed safely into protective nesting boxes and carried to a garden in Uji to be filled with new tea.
Nesting boxes protected the revered jar on its journey to the tea garden.

Over the course of the next year, this ideal storage jar would enhance the flavor of its tea until its seal was broken in an autumn ceremony to present the tea to guests.

These guests would have known of Chigusa by its reputation and been eager to see it. Once having viewed the jar, they would have recorded their impressions, physical details, a brief history of Chigusa’s past owners—all the notes a great connoisseur would take (or the notes of a modern-day museum curator).  Tea men in the late sixteenth century wrote about seeing four formal signatures written by admirers in ink on the jar’s base. That bit of ancient graffiti is still visible today.
Past admirers left their signatures on the jar's base.
According to sixteenth-century tea diaries, when Chigusa was displayed for guests in the tearoom, it was dressed in ornamental silks of specified types—a mouth cover made of antique Chinese fabric and a net bag that enclosed the jar’s body. In later periods, sets of thick silk cords were added to the repertory of accessories, to be fastened to the jar’s neck and lugs and knotted in elaborate forms, and the jar was placed on a mat made of Chinese silk. These high-quality accessories were chosen to honor Chigusa’s prominent status and their colors complemented its tawny glaze.

By the mid-1600s, tea-leaf storage jars were not much more than practical vessels, if they were used in the tea gatherings at all. In the early seventeenth century, Chigusa passed to a Kyoto family, where it remained a personal treasure until it went to an industrialist in 1888. Chigusa disappeared in the twentieth century.
It wasn’t until 2009, when Chigusa went to auction at Christie’s, that the jar—and its impressive pedigree—again came to light. The Sackler Gallery arranged its purchase and today, Chigusa is restored to its former glory and on view in the West for the first time.

Upon acquiring Chigusa, the museum commissioned a new mouth cover and cord from Tsuchida Yūkō XII, whose ancestor had prepared the storage bags for the jar’s textiles a century earlier. The Kyoto-based chanoyu textile specialist used new gold-brocaded fabric woven in the same design as Chigusa’s fragile antique mouth cover.

The Sackler Gallery places Chigusa, larger than life, in the center of a gallery. The surrounding cases hold its textiles, storage boxes, and accompanying notes. Chigusa rises to a regal height of just over 16 inches. Its broad, round shoulder has a diameter of over a foot, and it holds an impressive six-and-a-half gallons (that’s a lot of tea leaves!).

Here, Chigusa on full display at last, it is easy to understand the reverence it once received, to understand how a simple jar could become so celebrated. Chigusa holds its history as well as it once held tea leaves, and that, today, is worth celebrating.

The exhibit at the Sackler Gallery is open until July 27, 2014, after which it moves to the Princeton University Art Museum for display October 11, 2014 to February 1, 2015.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W. and the Freer Gallery of Art is located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W. both on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Dec. 25. Admission is free.

Read more about the Japanese art of chanoyu in The Book of Tea, edited by Bruce Richardson (2011) Benjamin Press. 

Sara Loy, research intern at Benjamin Press, toured the exhibition and contributed to this post. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Suffragette Movement Begins with a Cup of Tea

While the Boston Tea Party is often the most common story of tea’s role in rebellious acts, the beverage found its way into the homes and lives of another group interested in revolution: the American women’s suffrage. 

On July 9, 1848, five key members of the American women’s suffrage movement met for tea in Waterloo, New York: Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and hostess Jane Hunt. Over tea, these women expressed their views so passionately that while their meeting had probably started as a calm affair, it quickly became the launch pad for nothing less than the Seneca Falls Convention; this convention was the first women’s rights conference in the Western world, and it had started with a simple tea party. 

The Chinese Tea Pavilion at Marble House
Just over half a century later, tea again linked itself to women’s suffrage. One of the legendary hostesses of Newport society was Alva Vanderbilt Belmont; she and first husband William Vanderbilt set the standard for grand homes on fashionable Bellevue Avenue when they opened Marble House in 1892 at a cost of $11 million. The couple divorced in 1896, and Mrs. Belmont kept the mansion. 

She had a Chinese tea house constructed in 1913 on her great lawn overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The red and black lacquered building seated over 100 guests at fundraising teas benefiting her new passion, women’s suffrage. 

In 1914, Mrs. Belmont hosted the Conference of Great Women at Marble House, where she and her daughter Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, gave speeches to those assembled. J. Maddock & Sons produced sets of porcelain tableware bearing the “Votes for Women” theme as part of a luncheon service for the event. 

The dishes were also used at a tea party held at the mansion in July of that year. Both events raised money to support the suffrage movement, and guests received Votes for Women teacups and saucers as favors. 

Mrs. Belmont worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage, which achieved its goal of votes for women, the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920. Without the establishment of the Seneca Falls Convention and Mrs. Belmont’s efforts, the women’s suffrage movement may not have found the fire it needed to succeed as it did. Tea once again proved to be the catalyst needed to spark a revolution.

Read more about tea's influence on British and American culture in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

John Harney Inspired America's Tea Renaissance

John Harney and Bruce Richardson at World Tea Expo 2009
The tea family lost one of its patriarchs this week with the passing of John Harney. John was the founder of Harney & Sons and one of the pioneers who helped light the fire beneath America’s tea renaissance beginning at the end of the 20th century.

Monday morning, John - in typical fashion - stopped at a roadside stand and bought all the fresh strawberries available before heading to the office. Like Santa at Christmas, he doled them out to employees before returning to his Connecticut home that afternoon. He died quietly later in the day.

Anyone who has a vocation in specialty tea should thank John Harney for a portion of their success.

San Francisco writer Norwood Pratt collaborated early on with John. Norwood described the proliferation of the teabag as “the race to the bottom” for contemporary tea drinkers. “Tea had been drained of its romance,” he recalled. Norwood was the author of one of America’s first books on wine, The Wine Bibber’s Bible. He eventually set forth writing The Tea Lover’s Treasury, a collection of tea essays steeped in the romance of tea’s colorful history and its influence on art and culture. 

The book appeared in 1982, just before the dearth of good tea in New York City finally came to a climax with this New York Times editorial, Tea Snobs and Coffee Bigots, from November 30, 1983:
“…four-star tea is hard to find. Even when found, it can be elusive, as we’re reminded by a tea drinker we know: ‘Once, after lunch in a nice midtown restaurant, I got my tea, in a nice china pot. I poured it, lemoned it, sugared it and sat back, content. After a few minutes, with my cup now half empty, a solicitous bus boy came over and refilled it - with coffee.’”

The Times article was read many times over in Salisbury, Connecticut by John Harney. The former Marine and graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Management had recently bought a small tea business, Sarum Tea, from his mentor and local English ex-patriot Stanley Mason. Mason and his father had apprenticed themselves to the London tea trade at an early age, and Stanley’s brother had been president of England’s renowned Brooke Bond Tea Company. John was sure that Americans could rekindle their love for quality loose-leaf teas.

With the Times article and a copy of Norwood’s Tea Lovers' Treasury in hand, John made a call on the food and beverage director at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. He convinced the hotel that he could train the staff to make proper tea, as they had done decades ago, and serve it on Saturday afternoons in the lobby lounge. For years, he made his way to New York to speak with guests and encourage the afternoon tea staff. Before long, his success at the Waldorf sparked interest from other hotels across America, and the renaissance of afternoon tea in America quietly began to flame. 

Shelley Richardson, John, and Jane Pettigrew. Philadelphia 2012
By 1993, John took notice of the first telltale wisps of hope rising from a new tea revolution smoldering across America. Shelley and I met him at a benefit tea in Louisville where I was put in charge of preparing Harney teas for a tasting session hosted by John. He was impressed that someone in Kentucky actually steeped his teas properly and we became fast friends. He organized a tea summit in Salisbury, Connecticut, and invited everyone he knew who possessed a love for specialty tea. Forty people joined him for the inaugural event, including Nancy Lindemeyer, Jane Pettigrew, Norwood Pratt, Pearl Dexter, Joe Simrany, and Marcus Wolf. John asked me to be one of the speakers. I look to that event as the beginning of my tea career.

Those ranks of tea lovers doubled with the next meeting and attendance eventually swelled to nearly 300 jubilant teaists in 1996 when the weekend event was held in Rye, New York. Encouraged and energized with the knowledge that there were others across the country who shared their passion for tea, these dedicated disciples spread the new tea gospel to the four corners of America, and the modern tea movement was launched.

Meanwhile, Harney & Sons continued to grow. John loved to tout the fact that he supplied tea to the Buckingham Palace gift shop and London’s grand Dorchester Hotel. It was his way of letting the British know, “The Americans are coming and we’re serious about tea this time!”

John greets Dorothea Johnson in an illustration
from the book Children's Tea & Etiquette.
More than a professional acquaintance, John was a dear friend. Phone calls from John – often out of the blue – began with him saying “How’s it going, Reverend?” (He took great delight in knowing I had a seminary degree.) He would say he was fine and ask if I had seen Norwood Pratt, Jane Pettigrew, or Dorothea Johnson lately. He usually called them as soon as he hung up the phone with me. The conversations were positive, encouraging, and always filled with laughter.

I still remember details of many of the meals and meetings I was fortunate to share with John: seated with the Harney clan following a tea summit in Rye, eating Chinese food in San Francisco along with Norwood and sons Michael and Paul, sharing a quiet dinner in Atlanta with Jane Pettigrew and Dorothea Johnson, or hugging and laughing as we greeted each other at World Tea Expo or a Fancy Food Show. He loved to introduce me by saying “This guy sells tea in Kentucky. If you can sell tea in bourbon country, you can sell tea anywhere!”

Well, John, I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t encouraged me all those years. If you can sell tea to the British, I can sell tea to Kentuckians. 

After Norwood and Valerie Pratt called today to tell me of your passing, I kept up your ritual by immediately calling Jane, Dorothea, and a few others in our long-standing tea family.
They were all sad but soon chuckling as we recalled your jovial spirit over the years. And we all agreed - you are fine.