The first interviewee for 'Behind the Cup' is Robert Godden, aka The Devotea. One tea-related site is not enough for him; he has a video blog, a 'teaconomics' blog, and also designs tea shirts (how good is that?).
How did you become enthused about tea and what is it that you like most about it?
I come from a tea drinking family, but that means Lipton’s tea bags I’m afraid. I do remember every so often getting ‘real’ tea at an ‘eccentric’ aunt’s place. I married into an English family, which meant more tea bags, millions of them.
Over the years, my cooking went from sauces in jars to making my own, and tea more or less went down the same path. I love the extra time it takes – you feel you are contributing to the quality of the end product. Take your time and make it with care, and the care is rewarded in the cup. I feel the same way about coffee, but only drink 1-3 per week, whereas I drink 6-12 cups of tea.
A few years ago, we bought a tea shop, and the venture did not last. But being around 162 teas bought me into contact with a whole new community, and once I got on-line, that’s just grown immensely. I used to laugh at my kids for having all these “friends” they’d never met, but now I’m the biggest Twitterer of the lot. For centuries tea has connected people across a table, and now it does so across the world.
How would you define Australian ‘tea culture’ based on your experience and observations? Have you noticed any changes over time (including your own tea preferences) and what do you think has driven these changes?
The Australian tea culture is quite prominently tea bag driven, to the extent where Bushells ads actually seem to suggest you’re not a real Aussie if you like good tea in a nice cup. Our shop had 162 teas and 40 coffees. Both were outstanding quality. On that same block were 7 other coffee shops; yet we sold 95% coffee. Often tea was “English Breakfast” when it was consumed.
The small but vibrant group of tea lovers, though, was a very determined group. You’d see 5 blokes with long blacks and a guy the end with a Wild Cherry Green Sencha, and they’d be giving him a hard time; but nothing would stop his enjoyment of the tea.
Lately I’ve strayed much more into greens and whites, and I think that reflects tea consumers as a whole. I get mildly annoyed at people who prattle on about health benefits – just enjoy the tea, and why not have that biscuit?
Any thoughts on the direction that tea is headed?
It’s clear that quality tea is undergoing a massive resurgence ion the US. It will be a shame if we end up getting “tea culture” coming back to us via US movies and TV, but whatever it takes. It does seem that tea drinkers in the US are far fussier that US coffee drinkers, which is a great thing.
For me, the real worry is that quality tea plantations are being ripped out or taken over by multinationals with little interest in quality. I hope the counter to this is that new plantations, dedicated to quality, spring up as the value of great tea rises through demand.
What do you think the greatest challenges are for Australian tea consumers and/or businesses?
It’s impossible to go into a supermarket and buy real quality tea. The best you can hope for is a fair quality CTC black. It’s all about effort – you have to make the effort to find the tea, then the effort of making it. I’ve never bought tea on-line. I like to poke, prod, smell and feel tea before I buy it. I buy the best tea I can from whatever is in front of me. I realised that tea bags in the house – basically tea with training wheels – need to be gotten rid of before you really make a commitment to tea.
As far as businesses, it’s a hard call. In Adelaide’s Deep South, where I live, there’s one shop that has about 40 teas. Now, some of them are a little stale – probably because I’m the only person that has bought them in a long while. I feel for them, and I have given them a deservedly good review and try to promote them.
I think one issue is that the difference between the quality of tea from a bag versus real loose leaf tea is not as obvious as say, instant coffee versus a cappuccino. So when people go out, they have a cap because it’s so much better than what they can make at home.
And I think we should support Australia’s three tea growers. But they need to engage more with the discerning consumer. I’ve actively tried to contact them all with no response.
Any other tea musings you would like to share?
I can’t drink a cup of tea without having at least one of these thoughts:
• Who picked this tea, and what is their life like?
• When did I last have this, and who was I with?
• Why was I stressed a few minutes ago? I now have tea and the world is a better place.
Thank you so much Robert - I really appreciated your thoughtful responses and, as it turns out, we think quite alike on a number of points (especially about the having of biscuits).
I hope to have further Behind the Cup posts to share with you all soon!