An oolong tea so fragrant, intoxicating and moreish, it changed her life.
Back in the 1990s, Jennifer Wood was the copywriter for The Body Shop. For many years she had been drinking a tea called Pouchong (Bao zhong) from the mountains of Taiwan. It was an oolong tea so fragrant, intoxicating and moreish that it changed her life: in 2007 she founded Canton Tea.
"Wow. That Pouchong: big, fat, juicy, whole green leaves with heady notes of honeysuckle and soft ripe fruit. It was sent to us each season from a family friend with a tea farm in the mountains of Taiwan. It was the top grade award-winning tea, reserved for government ministers, close family and a few very fortunate friends. We had no idea we were drinking one of the most expensive teas in the world. To give you an idea, if served in a five star hotel a pot of this tea would cost around £500.
It was 2007 and the UK was by no means ready for tea at this level, but I had decided it was time to wake people up to this astonishing tea and I wanted Pouchong. There were other grades (also outstanding) from the same garden so we bought them. We travelled to small farms in China and chose some superb classic teas, and we built a website. Canton was born. We got a few things wrong in the beginning, but we always got the tea right. Always."
Edgar Thoemmes, another family friend, a dedicated gourmand, financial analyst and intuitive entrepreneur joined Jennifer at the start. He takes up the story . . .
"It was 2007 and the start of a big recession, so if you can get through the first few years things should get easier - right? We got though but they didn’t get much easier! We had no idea just how reluctant people were to pay a fair price for this incredible tea and most people in the trade figured loose leaf was a hassle. We persevered with our vision and now at last the market is beginning to catch up. That’s why we’re at the forefront of the sector and experienced in supplying discerning partners with great teas. We thought the world was ready for us in 2007. It is now.”
Tea should be mesmerising, surprising, romantic.
Real tea isn’t cheap and dusty, stacked high in the supermarket. It’s truly beautiful. Steeped in ancient history. People who drink Canton know this. They understand tea the way we do. Canton is served in some of the most exclusive hotels and restaurants in the world. Luxury doesn’t do it justice. Everything is high grade. It’s beyond premium. It’s a work of art.
Our vision is for people to have the same love of handcrafted tea and as much respect for the artisan producers as they do in the tea-drinking cultures of Asia. We want to convey the ancient skills and dedication that have gone into creating these teas and we do this through sharing our passion. Some call it training. We call it Teach - and prefer to see it as inspiring everyone who comes in contact with Canton to want to keep exploring.
We buy fresh tea each season, direct from small, traditional gardens where tea bushes have grown for hundreds of years.
Buying fresh tea, direct from the farm is an important point of difference for Canton as many tea companies buy from wholesalers with general region and vague season. We know the provenance of every leaf we sell. We have established relationships with the farmers where the leaves are handpicked and handcrafted to tease out the sweetest notes and the most complex flavours. Most of our teas are beyond organic, some are biodynamic, several are from tea farms abandoned many years ago with trees allowed to grow untamed, others are from wild native trees in the forests of Yunnan.
We know the provenance and production behind every leaf and the harvest date of all our teas.
We have long term relationships with our producers and support small, traditional, farming communities.
We only use genuinely natural ingredients. Our blends have cocoa nibs, vanilla pods, high grade herbs and spices and we use pure 'from the fruit' oils such as organic, cold pressed Calabrian bergamot oil in Canton Earl Grey and blueberry, strawberry and blackcurrant fruit oils in Canton Berry and Hibiscus.
Our teas are brought over in consolidated shipments by boat, we use couriers to deliver in the UK and 90% of our staff cycle to work.
We are committed to using minimal packaging and this was a key objective with our new branding initiative. We have introduced larger pack sizes, recyclable wraps for our individually wrapped tea pyramids, kraft paper bags with reduced plastic and robust display/storage tins. We are always looking at ways to reduce waste and are pushing the industry towards developing better reusable, recyclable and biodegradable materials.
Agility and change
From 2018, we are focusing exclusively on supplying wholesale premium tea into the F&B sector. We will not have a consumer website so will be winding down our retail products and the smaller bag sizes. Without serving direct to end customers and no need for gift wrapping or retail, it will enable us to be more agile when introducing improved packaging changes as they are developed.
We were the first tea company to be an accredited supplier of the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
We are a long-term member of the Ethical Tea Partnership.
We invest in training for all our customers. We want to ensure that everyone who severs, brews or talks about teas from Canton understands the difference and has the confidence to do it right.
Canton director Jennifer Wood, is also a founder of the UK Tea Academy.