Having spent 15 months in meetings at London's Victoria & Albert Museum advising their senior management on which company should run their café, I was planning to spend more time looking round their magnificent collection once the new operator, benugo, was up and running.
Instead, I found myself professionally drawn to the most intriguing range of teas that I, an enthusiastic coffee drinker, had ever confronted.
Behind the cashiers’ desk in the café were 16 shiny metal tins with eye-catching labels, each containing loose leaf teas of different, appetising flavours and aromas: Earl Grey red baron; peppermint; plump chamomile flowers; lemongrass and, most romantically of all, a green tea named Rose of The Orient. The man behind these teas, I was told by Hugo Warner who runs benugo with his equally food-obsessed brother Ben, is Shamir Shah.
I sought Shah out a few weeks later, having by then tasted several more of his East India Tea House teas, in the somewhat less romantic setting of a small industrial estate off London’s North Circular Road equidistant between the twin towers of IKEA and the nascent Wembley stadium.
Shah, 26, was born in north London to Indian parents of Kenyan origin, and is now determined to make a name for himself in a market which he believes is rapidly opening up in front of his rather sophisticated nose. Even his conversion from management consultant to tea broker was swift.
“I was working in the City for Accenture but I decided it wasn’t really for me. I went off to Brazil and was immediately struck by the fitness and good figures of those around me. I began to wonder whether, why and, if so how, this could be connected to their consumption of mate, the herbal leaf tea that is so widely enjoyed throughout South America. There has been so much discussion about the potential growth of the well-being market and I thought that tea might just be my entrée to this market.” When I asked Shah how long this whole intellectual process had taken, he replied “Oh, about two weeks” he explained with a smile.” Once I had the idea I had to get on with things.”
Initial research revealed that while the tea bag market was closely controlled by the major companies there was still in the UK, despite its long tea tradition, a niche for loose leaf tea, information which initially propelled Shah to the growers of the finest teas in Darjeeling, Assam, China and Japan. While suffering from jet lag en route, a thought occurred to Shah which has subsequently given his company a highly distinctive direction: could he do for tea what Ben’n’Jerry have done so successfully for ice cream?
Shah now has a range of over 500 different tea blends, including black, green, ayurvedic and fruit teas but the only disappointment of my visit came when I started to look round his office for some trace of this Aladdin’s tea cave. There were small sample bags, a few boxes and stacks of boxes of tins for prospective restaurant customers but not the overflowing sacks of sweet smelling tea I had anticipated.
“ I do all my blending in Germany, “ Shah explained “ where I work very closely with two companies near Munich who receive my tea directly from Japan, India, Kenya, China and Vietnam. Germany still has a tradition of loose leaf tea which I think has been lost to a considerable extent in the UK and over there the innovation and technology still seems to exist to create some of the wonderful if slightly wacky blends I thought the market would need. And Poland, incidentally, is the next major tea blending country to watch in my opinion.”
This approach has so far proved successful on several different fronts. The first has been tailor making blends for a growing number of the major retailers including the Conran stores who now, somewhat ironically, ship Shah’s blends back to their outposts in Japan, (retail customers are also being lined up for New York, Paris and Dubai and there is the beginning of a private customer base) as well as supplying cafes and restaurants.
Another has been designing own-label teas for retail concessions such as the Fushi range in Harvey Nichols whose ‘Power’ tea, a blend of rose hip, calamus root, fennel, cardamom, liquorice root, cinnamon, lemongrass, cloves, mate, peppermint, mate and pepper may not appeal to purists but certainly gives as effective, if more gentle, boost to the early afternoon as a single espresso. And finally there has been his company’s increasing involvement with the programmes of ayurvedic spa companies who use certain herbal teas as part of their initial treatment and, in the case of certain detox treatments, include the teas as part of their post-treatment package.
Clever design and labelling have played an important part in Shah's success. “One of the first things I thought of and designed were the plain but rather classy metal tins for my teas because I believe that tea today has to lose that fuddy-duddy image associated with the tea caddy. These tins look good on display in any highly designed cafe or in any modern kitchen." And the photo of an extremely relaxed, besuited young man on the Conran tin of Shah’s afternoon tea (a slightly more restrained blend of China black tea, jasmine, rose petals and bergamot) would encourage any indecisive purchaser to pluck it off the shelf.
But what fuels Shah’s passion is not just the fun he seems to be having blending the leaves of a plant steeped in history into so many new and invigorating modern drinks, but also the response his product range is eliciting from those taking a more holistic approach to health and well being. “There seems to be a growing number of women increasingly susceptible to irritable bowel syndrome who are looking for an alternative to coffee and I have just been contacted by a company which helps women who are finding it difficult to conceive. Green tea is high in polyphenols while white tea - just the hand-picked tips and buds of camellis sinensis, the tea bush and therefore pretty expensive - is extremely high in anti-oxidants.”
My final question to Shah was whether tea bars, so often talked about but yet to succeed in the UK, could ever come to rival the now ubiquitous coffee bar. “I have been approached by a very successful restaurateur to see whether we can get something like this going but we are both convinced that the food offer has to be right and we are just not sure what this should be at this stage.”
But certainly if Shah is involved there will be no shortage of fascinating teas to enjoy.
The East India Tea House, Unit 3a Central Business Centre, Great Central Way, London NW10 0UR, 020-8830 3366, email email@example.com