Kim Havelaar

Who Wants a Cuppa?

19th April 2019

It’s not all just about chocolate this weekend – this Sunday 21 April is National Tea Day: a time to celebrate the UK’s favourite drink. Lisa Botwright chats with tea sommelier Kim Havelaar, founder of artisan tea brand Roqberry, about the nation’s obsession with a nice, hot brew…

The day my grandmother died, I must have been asked if I’d like a cup of tea at least half a dozen times. From the doctor who broke the news, to the wonderful nurses on duty, to the funeral directors – all were keen to offer their condolences and demonstrate their empathy in the universal language of a hot, comforting drink. When we make ourselves tea – something we do on average 2-5 times a day, according to a recent survey – the ritual of waiting for the kettle to boil, assembling the ingredients and taking that first sip is a similar act of self-care: we’re giving ourselves permission to take time out of our busy days.

“There is something very calming and comforting about a warm cup of tea, and in the British culture there is an acceptance that everything will be a bit better with a cuppa,” agrees tea expert Kim Havelaar. “It’s also a very social experience, as it often accompanies a catch up with a friend or a colleague.” What is interesting though, as Kim explains, is that science can back up the ‘feel good factor’. Tea is one of the few sources of L-theanine – an amino acid that reduces stress and calms the mind – in the world, and for most people, the only one included in their diet. It’s the presence of L-theanine, combined with a little dose of caffeine to elevate the spirits, that explains why we do genuinely feel better after a cup of tea. Nutritionally-speaking, the hot brew is packed full of antioxidants, and if you’re a fan of herbal infusions, these come with additional health benefits depending on the ingredients.

Kim is an accredited tea sommelier – a term we usually associate with wine. She’s a specialist who uses her knowledge and experience to advise on food pairings. A hot drink is something that we typically enjoy after a meal, rather than during; do different brews really hold up well with different kinds of foods? “The variety and versatility of tea lends itself perfectly to pair with meals. It has a fantastic ability to complement food dishes with a variety of flavour profiles,” she enthuses. “The hint of citrus in earl grey works well with smoked salmon, for example, or try the spice in a chai with a Caribbean goat curry,” she suggests. Another good choice, she tells me, is “raspberry fondant black tea with confit duck and blackberry puree.” Kim’s rule of thumb is to make sure the meal and the tea are balanced and don’t overpower one another. She proposes lighter blends like green tea with dishes like chicken and fish, and stronger teas like an Assam black with bolder dishes like beef or chocolate. She points out that restaurants and bars are seeing a significant and increasing demand for alcohol-free drinks, especially during lunch time sittings, when people have to head back to work or have busy afternoons ahead of them.

Kim has channelled her expertise into a new artisanal tea company, Roqberry, producing ‘big flavour teas, aimed at foodies.’ I’m intrigued to know what’s happening in the world of tea: what’s trending? What’s most popular now? “Alternative forms of tea are on the rise,” she tells me. “Iced tea, cold brew and kombucha – which is likely due to an increased focus on health.” Higher quality wholeleaf is becoming popular again, and at the same time, standard black tea is giving way to more novel specialities.

Kim is also keen to minimise plastic use: “About 96% of teabags currently still contain polypropylene, a synthetic resin, which is added during the sealing process. High-quality, 100% biodegradable pyramid teabags (made of cornstarch) like the ones used by Roqberry, have entered the market and the pressure is now on the large tea companies to change over to plastic-free teabags.”

When tea was first introduced to the UK, it was a luxury whole leaf product that only the very rich could enjoy. After the teabag was introduced in the early 20th century, and as demand grew, the production of tea expanded and purpose-built tea plantations were introduced, mainly in Africa, often using machine harvesting and what is known as the CTC (cut-tear-curl) method. The quality of the tea inside the teabags was of a lower grade, also known as ‘dust’. For decades, this lower grade paper teabag continued to be popular across UK households, and, in fact, still is today as a budget choice. Artisan tea brands, meanwhile, focus on keeping the fragile whole leaf intact. “It is important not to confuse whole leaf; the tea leaf dried whole without being broken, with loose leaf; tea not in a teabag,” she explains. “As long as the tea is whole leaf there is no inherent quality difference between loose leaf and high quality pyramid teabags, since the pyramid shape still allows for proper infusion in the cup.”

She concludes by marvelling, “Growing a good tea is an absolute art, something that is usually perfected over many generations.”

Kim’s passion for tea is evident, and she’s given me a lot to think about. There’s only one thing for it; it’s time to put the kettle on…

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