Alex Fraser of East Teas talks about introducing wonderful eastern tea to adventurous western palates
Where did the idea for East Teas come from?
A friend of mine, Tim d’Offay, who I had first met while teaching in Japan, approached me to see about setting up a tea business. Initially we were intending to offer other people advice on tea related matters, but eventually the idea arose that we would approach Borough Market as a low cost way of starting a tea importing business. We decided that we would only import tea from East Asia. So we started the business here and Borough is still the only place where we sell directly to the public. While he is still my business partner, Tim is off doing interesting things in Mayfair and I run East Teas myself.
What styles of tea do you sell?
We cover most bases. We sell white teas, green teas and green oolongs, which are in between green and black teas. We also have dark oolongs, which are nearer to black teas on the same spectrum, and a couple of black teas. We have a small selection of Puehr teas that are made to be aged, going from two years old to possibly 30-40 years old. If you get any older than that you tend to get into very silly prices of thousands of pounds a kilo. We also sell matcha—a powdered green tea.
When we started over 11 years ago we had about seven teas, and now we sell about 45. We have large ranges from Japan and China. We also sell teas from Taiwan, which is very famous for its oolong. Also teas from Korea of a quality which are not very common here, and one tea from Vietnam that we are very proud of.
What makes teas different to each other?
The same things that make one wine different from another. There is the varietal of the tea—while Western botany only recognises a few varietals, there are in fact hundreds of them. There is terroir, which is the soil conditions and the climate. Then there are the weather conditions that particular year, the time of picking, the mode of processing, even the storage in some cases. All of these factors have an effect on the final drink.
What tea would you suggest customers try?
I have been a huge fan of matcha since I first tasted it on 6th January 1983. It was the first time I was taken to what you would know as a tea ceremony. Everything about it was wonderful. Obviously at an event like that the ritual was important, the other people there were important, but even reducing the experience down to the tea, matcha is a truly wonderful stuff. It is renowned for good health and is very stimulating. Also, because you are ingesting the whole leaf powdered you are getting all of the plant’s nutrients. Not all of them are water soluble, so they can be lost in some leaf teas.
There is more caffeine per gram in proper shade-grown matcha than in a coffee bean, but it is a different kind of caffeine hit. It was drunk by Samurai and Zen monks in Japan—people who needed to be alert, yet very still. Matcha is a wonderful drink for alertness without shaking you about, so it’s good for studying or reading. It’s also delicious. You need to be careful who you buy it from though—proper matcha is stone ground, whereas a lot of tea sold as matcha has been mechanically powdered.
How do you drink it?
Traditionally it is made in a matcha bowl. You put the powder through a small sieve so there are no lumps, and then pour on the water and whisk it to a frothy consistency using a ‘chasen’ whisk, which is made from a single piece of bamboo.
Do you sell anything besides tea?
Both Tim and I are very interested in tea culture, so the company has always sold the various implements that go with the kinds of teas that we sell. We have tea sets comprising of teapots, cooling jugs and cups. We have tea bowls and whisks for matcha. We have scoops and trays and what we call a ‘chatchan’—it is a Korean word just meaning teacup but it is a cup with a lid and an infuser.
Do you have a favourite tea?
It changes depending on the day or my mood. I’m very fond of some teas from Guangdong in the south of China, made by a tea master known as Master Wang. They are a style of oolong typical of the area around the Phoenix Mountain. He specialises in old trees, possibly 800 years old, but it’s impossible to really be sure. His Phoenix Dan Cong oolongs each come from a single plant, which will yield maybe two kilos per year. These can be fascinating and complex, with references to flowers, often orchids, in the fragrances. They are almost a study in themselves.