Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Heroes of Canton

Over the years I’ve been writing (or failing to regularly update in the case of this past year) this blog, I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I work for a company called Boston Tea Party, a small, independent chain of coffee shops in the south-west (and slightly in the Midlands now too). I have taken the time to explain in one whole blog post my journey into the world of tea. But I’ve never taken the time to talk about where Boston Tea Party gets all of its wonderful teas. Until now.

The range of nineteen loose leaf teas are supplied by Canton Tea Company, based in Long Ashton outside Bristol. When Boston changed tea suppliers in 2012 to Canton...I was giddy with all kinds of joy and excitement. First off, the geeky part of my brain was happy because they’re called Canton and it always makes me think of Firefly and the episode “Jaynestown” (leading often to renditions of the song, “The Hero of Canton”). Secondly, because they are amazing. Admittedly, I didn’t know precisely how when I first heard we were switching to Canton, but the little booklet that my head barista showed me gave me hope. A tea supplier serious about providing great quality, proper loose leaf tea that they can actually tell you about. Where it came from, how best to brew it, how it was made...all the things we missed with our previous tea supplier. Who shall remain nameless.

But the brilliance of Canton Tea doesn’t stop there. Oh no. They hold a very special place in my heart now. Not just because they have provided me with such good tea, but because they are all such lovely, lovely people.

Up until last week (exactly one week ago today in fact) I had only met Edgar and (if my memory serves me correctly and I hope it does because they’ll be reading this I really, really hope) Shelley. It was a training day for all of Boston Tea Party’s head baristas. My head barista dragged me along...well, I say dragged. I pretty much begged to be taken because there was going to be some serious tea stuff at this training day, being held at Extract Coffee Roasters, our wonderful Bristol-based coffee suppliers. At this day we were introduced to Canton’s Chocolate Blend. Yes, dear readers, a tea blended with chocolate. It is AWESOME. Oh and we serve it in all Boston Tea Party stores now. Check out this link for the locations.

Then last week happened. It was Canton’s second internal tea training day. The illustrious Head of Drinks for Boston Tea Party, Simon, asked if I would be interested in going along to learn more about Assam. Now Assam is a tricky one for me. I’ve never liked it. But I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to gain tea knowledge and see if I was being unnecessarily judgemental about it. I very quickly said yes. I am very, very glad I said yes.

So I walk to Long Ashton (yes, walk. I don’t drive and didn’t trust the busses as much as my own legs, plus it was a pretty pleasant walk) and find this cosy little building in the Long Ashton Business Park that serves as Canton’s headquarters. For some reason (probably thanks to my visit to Extract those many Moons ago) I expected something bigger, warehouse-sized. Like a Warehouse 13 for tea. I was pleasantly surprised by the surrounds, but that is not to imply disappointment. When surrounded by people who love tea and can give me more knowledge of tea, one can hardly be disappointed. And since I’ve been babbling about these people, let’s do a little run-down.

First off, I’ll start with Phil. Dubbed their “rare tea hunter”, a title I gather bestowed for his many years in the tea industry and his extensive travels to source the tea Canton sell, not only to trade clients like Boston Tea Party, but also to the general populace through their website. See that link? Click it. Go on. So I can talk about Phil. Click it...

Digression aside, Phil was the lovely chap leading the tea training session. Thanks to his wisdom and knowledge of teas, I have discovered that actually, there are varieties of Assam that I could kick back and enjoy. I was simultaneously astounded and vindicated in my belief that in the right context, I would like Assam. He also brought along some Chai he’d brewed up himself and gave me a cup to try. Served the traditional way, with milk. Again, an eye-opening, potentially converting experience. Traditionally, I do not drink tea with milk. But this one might just change all that. All thanks to Phil.

Next up is Ali. She is the brilliant mind behind the Chocolate Blend. For this I have dubbed her “a legend”. Yes, I may have tipped over the point from mid-twenties into late twenties, but those early twenty-isms aren’t going anywhere yet. Why? Because this delightful lady blended an amazing tea. Seriously. Black tea, diced vanilla pod and cocoa nibs. A beautiful, beautiful tea. I can still recall Edgar telling us about its development at the Extract session, how they were sceptical about adding chocolate to tea. The legendary Ali made this happen in an incredibly beautiful way. Did I mention she’s a legend? Good. Just checking.

What would be the quickest way to my heart? Delicious confectionary? A shared affinity for brewed leaf? Writing? Quite possibly all three are contending factors, so put them into one person and you get the lovely Louise. For Canton’s tea training day was also their Cake Day. It was a pleasant surprise to discover, especially when Louise produced a box of Rice Krispie Squares. As I had observed to a friend two days before, I observed again: “It is dangerous to put snackables in front of a D&D player. They don’t tend to survive long”. I restrained myself, but at the same time indulged. This was the first big tick in the “Louise is Awesome” Column (right next to the awesomeness columns for everyone else, all receiving big ticks). The second (or possibly zeroth, because it would have to come before the first as a given) factor is the obvious appreciation of tea. Then writing. Well, when someone turns to a currently unpublished writer who decided when he was fifteen that it was what he wanted to do in life and asks if he wants to guest write the blog’s kind of an unfair of advantage, but...she gave me a writing opportunity. She kind of might have to be my favourite...

Oh yes and I totally did guest write the blog entry and you can read it here.

There is a neat twist, at least I’ll call it a twist, next up. Sophie, who was my point of contact for directions to Long Ashton and the precise temporal mechanics of the day, is one of ours. Or at least, was one of ours. By ours I mean Boston Tea Party. I can dimly recall crossing paths with her in 2011, when I first did a shift at Boston’s headquarters in Park Street. She was pretty cool then and no less cool when she opened the door to Canton Tea and beckoned me in last week.

I met another lovely lady that day by the name of Kate. Alas (and I do feel ashamed of this), I did not learn much of her awesomeness on the fateful Assam Training Day. With any good fortune (and providing they actually like what I’m saying right now) I will be invited to go back to Canton to gain more tea knowledge and get to know these lovely people even better. What I can say now is that she works for Canton, which is instant awesomeness. And that I sense much awesomeness potential.

Finally, I round off my unending ability to ramble with the brains behind the entire operation – Jennifer and Edgar. The latter I have met a couple of times before and I did manage to mildly impress him at the Extract session by knowing that all tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant and anything that doesn’t come from that plant is an infusion, not a tea. Yeah. I know stuff. Anyway, Edgar has proved his awesomeness before and as the first person I knew was associated with Canton, he became the immediate standard of awesome to judge all Canton awesomeness in future. But Edgar isn’t the only brain behind Canton. Reading the About Us section of their website, it tells the reader that Jennifer is true mastermind behind the company. She was quite surprised when I told her that I had walked to Long Ashton from Bristol Temple Meads and insisted I take another Rice Krispie Square before I left Canton for the walk back to Bristol.

Phew. So there we are. Hopefully they approve of the ramblings I have made about them. These wonderful, delightful people of supreme tea wisdom. The Heroes of Canton, the people they call Edgar, Jennifer, Phil, Ali, Louise, Kate and Sophie (plus others I haven’t met yet or spent any extended time chatting to).

No comments:

Post a Comment