Yes, this woman really does sell tea to China22nd Feb '16
Henrietta Lovell left a well-paid job to scour the globe for the finest teas. She’s brewing up quite a success, says Hazel Davis
Company: Rare Tea Company Trading in: China Sector: Food and drink
“The middle classes are burgeoning and they believe British brands stand for ethical business practice”
Henrietta Lovell started the Rare Tea Company in 2004. She’d been working in logistics for a corporate finance company in the late 1990s, spending a lot of time in China and drinking a lot of tea. China was just starting to open up – a fabulous opportunity for a tea aficionado.
Ms Lovell says: “Imagine you were interested in wine and France had been closed down and you couldn’t visit any rural places. But suddenly you got the chance to visit the Loire or the Champagne region.” She began travelling to some of the old agricultural areas. “It was like going back millennia. I just fell in love.”
On her return Ms Lovell became frustrated at the dearth of loose tea available in Britain. “Sure, you could go to a couple of department stores,” she says, “but it wasn’t well stored or very well considered.” So she set about doing it herself.
Ms Lovell, who now employs 12 staff, spent five or six years researching her market. “I had a really good, well-paid job and a nice flat in Manhattan,” she smiles.
But left she did and then spent a year visiting farms all around the world and negotiating contracts. She now sells her teas – such as Silver Tip white tea, the most prized of all white China tea, or the rare African Satemwa “antlers” white stem tea – globally.
There is an elegant circularity to her business. Ms Lovell is now famous for her “English” teas in China – from rare blends from the world’s best gardens to unique herbs from ancient botanical gardens.
In China particularly, Ms Lovell is in demand from mostly high-net-worth individuals, some of whom buy a year’s supply of tea in advance or ask her to create bespoke blends.
“There is such an appreciation of tea in China,” she says. “They spend a higher proportion of their income on tea than they do alcohol, and you can buy tea for thousands of pounds. A rare tea from Nepal or a really great Earl Grey with a Calabrian bergamot has great value.”
This is good news for those at the top end of the market, but less so for the others. “People have tried to import industrial stuff,” she says, “but they don’t recognise it as tea.”
The Chinese are fascinated by classic British brands, “but it has to be on the quality end of the scale.”
“They spend a higher proportion of their income on tea than they do alcohol, and you can buy tea for thousands of pounds. A rare tea from Nepal or a really great Earl Grey with a Calabrian bergamot has great value”
But there is yet more circularity. The Rare Tea Company is so well respected that it’s now, bafflingly, even selling Chinese tea to China. “They trust my brand,” she says, who sips a Silver Tip white tea every morning.
Rare Tea Company tea isn’t always labelled as organic, though they only buy organically grown harvests, because this, Ms Lovell feels, would disadvantage the smaller farms she most admires. The company tries to ensure it works only with farmers using sustainable practices that benefit the land and the people who live and work on it.
Moreover, because the cost of organic certification is so high for smaller farmers, Ms Lovell takes on the cost herself and gets her teas tested in Switzerland. “So people know our teas are clean and pure and unadulterated. It can be hard to know in China if you’re getting pure tea.”
Rare Tea Company teas are offered in places such as the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen and Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont. The company also works with Bill Granger’s restaurants in Japan and the exquisite Belon in Hong Kong.
About a third of the Rare Tea Company’s business is with the US and the company is undergoing a careful expansion into Asia. But, says Ms Lovell, “the pull is here but we are careful to spend time understanding the market needs. I am invited across Asia to create bespoke blends and work with chefs to create tea-pairing menus. My knowledge of ‘new world’ teas and the more esoteric terroirs is drawing the most focus.
About a third of the Rare Tea Company’s business is with the US and the company was planning a careful expansion into Asia. But, says Ms Lovell, “the pull is here so we’re speeding that up with a salesperson starting later this year so we can operate in a more wholesale manner.”
Some of the farms the company works with only produce a few precious kilos a year, says Ms Lovell. “I just bought a harvest of marcona almond blossom from Taragona in Spain that is just a few exquisite kilos.”
Import duties can be crippling, she agrees, “and for us to do retail it has to be at the higher end of the spectrum, but that’s OK. The middle classes are burgeoning and they believe British brands stand for ethical business practice. And we’re selling really, really good tea…”