Sunday, May 16, 2010

London: Chatting with Stephen Twining

My first encounter with Stephen Twining was indirect. A colleague visited Epcot Center and chanced upon Twining signing autographs; he sent me a signed tea cup. When I met with Twining a couple of weeks ago during my exploration of London tea, he was fresh off a plane from Singapore. He'd been glad-handing business associates there and tea farmers in Java. This is what Twining does. He's a 10th generation member of the family business, but he doesn't run the company. Associated British Foods handles that. ("I wouldn't have gotten into the family business if I'd thought I had to run it," he says.) Twining's title is "director of corporate relations," meaning he doffs his very British smile and talks up his company's product, whether he's talking to growers in the gardens or drinkers at the mall.

"My job is to teach people about this marvelous gift of nature," Twining says. "Whether I'm speaking on television or one at a time at places like Epcot, I'll get to them."

Twining delivers the company line, no doubt about it. But he's a font of historical data and anecdotes, as well as current tea trends and business predictions.

He spoke with me about Twinings' blending process. "Our products are blended, so that if you like our Darjeeling, that's how you like it. We provide that constancy." That means that a cup of Twinings darjeeling poured right now, yesterday and tomorrow will have the same color, the same leaf size and the same taste. This is accomplished by phenomenal skill. The flavor of tea coming from the farms can change week to week, so blenders and tasters select teas from a variety of locations and keep mixing them so that all those factors reach the same balance in every tin of tea. It's the goal of the industrial age: everything is manufactured the same.

Trends that Twinings is following: the company has just expanded its green teas and its range of chais. (They just added a Brazilian tea. Not great reviews thus far.) And he thinks the flavored blacks are the way ahead. "New drinkers, we find, are coming to the flavored. It's the old human factor. 'Mum and Dad drank classic teas; I've heard tea is good for me, but I want to do my own thing.' So the new generation is getting into flavors and greens. It remains to be seen if they'll then graduate to the classics." Fruit flavors, too, he said, add sweetness without sugar. "I preach the gospel of no sugar in tea," Twining said. "There's no right or wrong way, I just think sugar in tea is barbaric. It's like putting a blanket over a beautiful sculpture. So much effort goes into the growing and processing of this wonderful product, but when you add sugar you only taste the sugar."

Our chat took place in the Twinings shop in London's Strand. As you walk along the street looking for Twinings, it's a bit of a surprise when you find it — because it's a tiny, tiny shop. That's because in 1967 the company moved its headquarters into the suburbs (to Hampshire), part of a mass exodus of industry at the behest of the city council, which wanted to reduce the number of "heavy lorries" in the city. The London shop is the site of Thomas Twining's original coffeehouse, where he began offering tea as a way to make his spot stand out.

Here's Stephen explaining the backstory behind a painting of Thomas ...

1 comment:

  1. This Britishness which Twinings exhibits is just a complete sham. They're closing down their factory in North Shields, England with the loss of 400 jobs and building a fsctory in Poland.
    The Poland factory has plenty of room so it won't be too long before the other factory in Andover endures the same fate. Twinings of LONDON? Think on!