Alex Fraser, owner of East Teas, looks back over 15 years at the Market
Words: Viel Richardson
“East Teas actually started at Borough Market and in some ways, I can’t believe we have been here this long,” co-owner Alex Fraser says, as he contemplates 15 years of trading. “Starting up does seem a very long time ago. The Market was a very different place then and I have been here through the years, as it has grown in to what it is today. But in other ways it seems like no time at all.”
When East Teas first opened for trade at Borough in December 2000, it was the end of one journey for Alex, and the beginning of a new one. Alex first encountered tea from the Far East as an eight-year-old in Manchester, where his mother would take him to Chinese restaurants. He has been fascinated by the drink ever since.
“Eastern teas are often linked to myths and legends and as I discovered more about the tea culture, as well as enjoying the flavours, I became fascinated by its exoticism—even though I was undoubtedly making them very badly,” Alex laughs. “I suppose given the amount of time and energy I have spent immersed in that world, setting up East Teas was fulfilment of a lifelong passion.”
Way of tea
It was not, however, a simple or easy journey. Alex previously worked as an artist and taught at the same time as a way of paying the bills. “The opportunity to go to Japan to study chado, the ‘way of tea’ was serendipitous really. I was teaching at Southwark College and had a technician who was also deeply interested in Japanese tea culture. He took me to an event as a birthday treat,” Alex recalls.
“That event changed my life. I was completely entranced by the whole experience. All the work I had done in the area seemed to come together, and made a deep impression on me. I began studying the way of tea more seriously and bit by bit, it became a full time thing. Eventually I gave up being an artist, which was when I decided to see if it was possible to make the trip to Japan.”
It was. It took an enormous amount of hard work in terms of delving more deeply into Japanese tea culture, but it paid off. Alex was granted a scholarship to study in Kyoto at the Urasenke Foundation by Sen Sōshitsu, the 15th generation grand tea master.
A formal affair
Life at the foundation was a formal affair. "The first half of each day was spent studying the history of the tea ceremony: the history of tea utensils, how tea is grown and made, aspects of calligraphy, Zen Buddhism, flowers. food. All of the different elements of a full chado ceremony,” he explains. “In the afternoon we would do practical things, mainly tea making procedures.”
The tea ceremony is not just about making the tea. Actually, it’s almost accidental that tea is at the heart of chado. “If history had been different, the event could have centred on something else. The real significance of a chado event is its role as a ritualised form of hospitality—at the very centre of the event is the relationship between the host and guest.”
When he returned from Japan, Alex had no wish to go back to his old life. He wanted to share what he had learned and having returned qualified to teach at a fairly advanced level, he began running presentations at the British Museum, where there is an authentic tea house.
The perfect place
“My business partner Tim d'Offay and I met in Japan,” Alex continues. “Tim had been studying Japanese. We met on a train near Kyoto and became good friends. After we had been back in Britain for a while, Tim got in touch to talk about actually selling east-Asian tea in Britian. We used to meet at Borough Market, and thought it was the perfect place to set up.”
But for Alex, the business is about much more than simply selling tea. Having studied the culture and mythology surrounding Japanese teas in real depth, he believes that if his customers absorb some of the history, their experience will be greatly enhanced.
“There has always been an interest in what we do, even from the very beginning. This interest has increased over the years as food knowledge in general has grown,” Alex says. To keep up with this the range has slowly expanded, and you will now find tea from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and China on the stall.
“But our work on the stall is more important than ever—despite this increased interest, unfortunately, there is so much misinformation being put out by some of the larger retailers of eastern teas,” he laments.
“They don't always understand the deeper culture that underpins what they are selling, therefore mistakes creep into their explanations. Quite often what I am doing on the stall is correcting the misconceptions customers arrive with. In many ways, my relationship with my customers is very much like it was with my students.”
Having achieved the goal of a lifetime, Alex has found that the most rewarding aspect of the job is the relationship that he has developed with his customers. “It’s very important to me. In fact, I have people working with me on the stall today who started out as customers,” he reveals. “They enjoyed coming for a chat and would say, ‘this looks like fun’. When I needed some help, they gave it a go.”
The Far East
It is a connection which continues even with customers who are not in a position to come to the Market every week. Through a combination of regular customers who have moved abroad and regular foreign visitors to London, East Teas has developed a small but steady international mail order business. Alex even ships tea back to the Far East.
“What Tim and I are trying to do is maintain tradition and quality,” Alex explains. “We are trying to set high standards for this part of the tea industry. We are intent on trying to keep not only the culture of tea, but the production methods that make it so special in the first place.”