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Bringing Tea Culture Into The 21st Century

By Joie Goh

At the TWG Tea Institute, members of the company don't only learn about tea, but the methodology of preparation and service.
 
At the TWG Tea Institute, members of the company don't only learn about tea, but the methodology of preparation and service.

As a modern woman living in a multicultural world, with a penchant for all things historical and quaint, I have consumed tea in myriad flavours and multiple ways. With my Cantonese grandmother, I sipped bitter bo lay black tea in bustling dimsum restaurants. Kneeling on tatami mats, I painfully endured pins and needles in my legs while an elegant retired geisha delicately whisked thick, frothy matcha with all the grace and speed of a slow-blooming flower. At home, while watching reruns of Regency chick flicks like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility”, I nibbled on scones and drank Earl Grey to fully immerse myself in the era of bonnets and balls. However, the most common way I’ve partaken of the beverage is the careless dunking of a single tea bag into my office mug, to be refilled over and over again with hot water throughout the day until no discernible flavour remained.

However, at a TWG Tea Salon, an original and contemporary tea ceremony is practiced. Far removed from my experiences of drinking tea, which have ranged from whimsical to slapdash, this ceremony is devoid of sentimentality or cultural beliefs – in fact, it’s less of a ceremony and more of an experience, and it’s centred around the whole reason why anyone would drink a cup of tea: the flavour of the beverage itself.

It’s at the TWG Tea Institute, a trim and cosy space within the brand’s global headquarters, that this ceremony was conceived and instructed to the staff of the TWG Tea family, which stands almost 3000-strong globally, and in turn is passed on to the customers who step into any TWG Tea Salon worldwide. It’s also where, over cups of exquisitely smooth Gnawa Tea (a blend of green, black and mint teas), I meet Maranda Barnes, one of the company’s co-founders, and the chief architect of the TWG Tea ceremony, which has evolved to its current iteration over past 10 years of the brand’s development.

“First of all, we have to look at tea at face value,” says the perpetually-chipper Barnes, who currently holds the title of director of business development and communications. “We asked ourselves, what is the absolute best way to bring out its flavour, craftmanship and all the work that have gone into harvesting and processing it. Then we delved more deeply into the manner of which tea is prepared.”

That resulted in a very pared down mode of preparation, free from all the rules and rituals that characterise the tea ceremonies of the major tea-drinking cultures like Japan, China and the British Commonwealth. “We wanted to create a neutral method that only requires a teapot and a tea sock, which incidentally is a very Singaporean method of preparing tea and coffee, and one of the best ways of preserving and transferring the flavour of the leaves into the water in the teapot, and into the cup,” Barnes says. “And there’s the water, temperature gauge, timer and scales – all elements that are pretty standard. It’s how you nuance them to make sure that the tea tastes really exception.”

All tea, with the exception of extremely rare ones, are served out of simple white cups made of very thin bone china. Barnes explains that it’s to allow the delicate flavour of the tea to be immediately transferred to the largest surface of the palate, for maximum impact.

This no-frills approach is also necessary because of the vast variety of teas on the TWG Tea menu. “We source our teas from 42 different regions around the world, and each one of those regions have their own ceremonies, so we can’t have our barman showcase a ceremony with every single type of tea,” she explains with a burst of laughter.

Thus, the TWG Tea ceremony strips tea of its cultural and historic elements and brings the focus back to the tea itself. However, Barnes is quick to clarify that it’s not a rejection of tea’s history and culture. “We love these elements and showcase them in our tea accessories, but we don’t want to bring them into the service of the tea,” she adds, referring to the large selection of accoutrements available for retail, that ranges from earthenware Chinese teapots to gleaming Russian samovars, Japanese bamboo matcha whisks to delicate Turkish tea glasses.

Barnes theorises the current sentiment of tea drinking being considered stuffy and effeminate as a result of the democratisation of tea that began many centuries ago. “Before, tea was something that was only drunk by the elite, but now it’s drunk by everyone, and it was due to the lowering of the quality of the tea,” she says. “However, the ceremony that accompanied the degustation of very fine quality teas remained, because everyone wanted to be like the Queen, or the upper classes who could afford to drink good tea.”

 

Therefore, while tea became cheaper and less palatable, the rituals of preparation and consumption became more and more important, eventually eclipsing the actual product itself. According to Barnes, who prefaced her observation with the caveat that she’s only speaking very broadly, men preferred to enjoy quality tea, while ladies wanted the occasion to chat about it, so when the occasion became more than the tea itself, it led to the belief that tea drinking was a feminine pastime.

“We’re trying to bring back the quality, so everyone can sit down and say, ‘Wow, this is a fantastic cup of tea,’” she adds. “While I’m not saying that the experience isn’t important, I believe that it shouldn’t outweigh the quality of the product you’re drinking.”

This also translates with the overall experience of dining in a TWG Tea Salon. Barnes explains that the use of dark wood and brass is meant to recall a grandeur that’s not overly effeminate, in order to bring gravitas to the product, which are the teas offered. Waitstaff, both male and female, are dressed in a professional and neutral manner (“No frilly aprons!”). “It’s to showcase to everyone that this is a serious product and we take it seriously,” she says.

However, Barnes notes that with the brand expanding to so many countries, and most of them with deeply-entrenched practices towards the preparation and consumption of tea, the TWG Tea ceremony does face some initial resistance when entering foreign markets. For example, she observes that a common complaint from Asian customers is the removal of the tea leaves from the teapot prior to table service.

“It’s a big point of contention in Asian where people feel that they’ve bought the leaves, therefore they own it and if they decide to re-infuse the tea, it’s their call,” she says. “However, at TWG Tea, we want to show you the very best of what those leaves can deliver, and it’s our understanding that apart from very, very few teas, re-infusing is not the best way to savour the true flavours.”

Barnes continues: “There’s a beautiful Chinese poem that I love, which talks about how you can re-infuse pu’erh tea seven times, and each infusion generates a new state of philosophical being. But that’s a cultural experience, not a culinary one, because the cup of tea you get after the seventh infusion is almost unbearable.”

This universal culinary approach, rather than cultural, is why the TWG Tea Institute is so vital to the brand’s operations. “When we go into a new country, we do encounter staff who are dead set on their country’s method of preparing tea, and that’s when we realised we needed this institute and this level of instruction, because if our staff aren’t convinced, how can we convince our customers?” she says. “So, we created this global curriculum where we can tweak examples to suit different countries, so that people from those countries understand that we’re not trying to critique their local traditions.”

For such a tea aficionado as Barnes, she is an unexpected defender of coffee and modern cafe culture, which has made tea culture appear fussy and antiquated in comparison. “All teas and coffees are exceptional products when sourced and prepared properly,” she declares diplomatically.

Still, she is aware of their differences. “There are certain brands that have established coffee as a ‘cool’ beverage that you can consume on the go, or when you’re going to work, or when you need a caffeine high,” she says. “But there’s no sense of the experiential, the practice of just sitting and really enjoying a cup of coffee. It does happen, but that’s not what comes to mind when people talk about coffee.

“But with tea, there’s this tradition of tea drinking in high society that has created a cultural experience that still remains, and I think that’s why a lot of mass market tea experiences (mimicking café culture) haven’t worked, because people don’t associate tea with coming in, getting it, and leaving,” she continues. “They want a place to sit down and enjoy it.”

It’s also the staggering diversity of tea that contributes to the more leisurely pace of tea consumption and sets it apart from coffee. “There are two to four times as many countries that produce tea compared to coffee,” Barnes says. “It’s just so varied in colour, aroma and origin.”

She cheerily shares that in her daily lunchtime repasts at any one of the TWG Tea Salons, she often eavesdrops on her neighbouring diners. “It’s very, very rare that anyone sits down at TWG and doesn’t talk about the tea, at least for a minute, before they commence eating, drinking or talking about other things,” she says emphatically. “Whether it’s two ladies, or a couple on a date, or a whole family, they would all order different things and their teas would all come out looking differently from each other’s, and without fail, they’ll look at each other’s teas and sniff and talk about the aromas and colours. You just don’t get that with coffee – we could both order espressos but we don’t gush about how beautiful they look, because they both look the same!” 

Barnes laughs heartily before composing herself again. “I mean, you could go to a different level with coffee too, especially if you’re a coffee lover,” she says thoughtfully, fingering the delicate white teacup before her. “But with tea, you don’t have to be a tea lover to recognise there’s something different with all the varieties of tea.”