Magazine article | Newby Teas
When Art and Tea Collide
With such a broad and diverse range of teas available on the market these days, interest in the perennially popular beverage appears stronger than ever. But has our appreciation of the traditions and cultures which add flavour to its fascinating history kept pace? Based in London, UK, luxury tea purveyor Newby fears not. And it’s on a mission to change that.
Many of us – possibly even most of us – don’t think too much about our tea. A quick dunk of the bag, filled with something from, er, India – is it? Our ill-informed modern-day ways would have Newby founder Nirmal Sethia, a tea expert since his teens, quivering with despair. As for your milk and sugar, don’t even go there. To Sethia, and adopters of the Newby philosophy ‘tea is an art’, the world’s no.2 drink (second only to water) deserves respect – from the moment the leaves are picked until we sit down and enjoy all the hard work which happened in between. But a whole lot more took place before that…
Historians will often point to a number of pivotal stages in tea heritage, which can be traced back as far as 59 BC in China, although archaeologists have found evidence of its existence for thousands of years prior to that written record. Later, China’s Tang and Song Dynasties were pioneers of elaborate tea culture between the 7th and 13th centuries, taking the utmost care in their brewing and preparations and bringing the involved concept of the ‘tea ceremony’ to life.
Tea’s arrival in the west is attributed to Portuguese and Dutch traders in the 16th and 17th centuries, but at that time it was still a precious commodity only within the means of the nobility. Over the next 200 years, cultivation expanded through India, Ceylon and East Africa, and its ubiquity was to increase to the point where it became commonplace. Purists would view the accidental invention of the tea bag in 1908 as the point where it all started to go wrong. Convenience won out over quality, ceremony had become an arcane history-book concept, and it was all downhill from there.
It was this lamentable state of affairs which led Sethia, with decades in the tea trade behind him, to establish Newby around the turn of the century. Knowing how good tea could be, but rarely was, he decided to do things differently. But the tea itself was only half the story. This was tea culture reborn. One ardent man’s quest to revive the grand traditions and shake up an industry.
In the intervening decade-and-a-half, Newby has been quietly but steadfastly doing just that, positioning itself as a veritable authority on all things tea. If that sounds like big talk, its Chitra Collection – a huge curation of tea antiques featuring royal tea sets and the painstakingly intricate works of artisans through the centuries – would leave you in no doubt this is a company driven more by passion than profit. Of almost inestimable value, viewings are by invitation only, but you can catch a glimpse of some of its precious artefacts on Newby’s product packaging, often accompanied by a mini history lesson to bring the days of tea as an event rushing back.
The company sets great store by preserving the character of each of its teas, the diversity of which Sethia likens to that of the human race itself. ‘If the character is not retained through the concept of preservation’, he asserts, ‘even a good tea will become a bad tea’. Reason enough then to build a production facility so technically advanced Newby’s competitors can only admire it from afar.
Pollutants, smells and other undesirables are kept at bay in conditions controlled to the max. Thoughts of the past and present are never far away, but the boss always keeps his eye on the future. Multi-layered packaging has been conceived to ensure the tea’s original freshness is maintained right up to the point of consumption which, should you so choose, could even be years away. In the age of the sell-by date, Sethia is keen to point out that a well-preserved tea, kept in conducive conditions, can last for decades.
For a company which began life with just a handful of varieties, Newby’s current offering is impressively eclectic. Taking pride of place in its premium range is the Gourmet Collection, a ‘best-of-the-best’ selection of loose-leaf variants including Taiwanese Formosa and superior-grade Assam and Darjeeling. Demonstrating that the artistry is not confined to the teas, even the caddies they come in have won a design award.
While Newby doesn’t eschew the tea bag completely – a successful range has been launched containing the same high-quality blends as its loose-leaf products – its receptacle of choice is undoubtedly the Silken Pyramid, a suspended mesh bag of goodness causing such a stir in UK tea circles that high-end supermarket Waitrose recently made room for the pretty boxes on its coveted shelves. You could look at a Silken Pyramid as the tea bag for grown-ups: tear open the artistic foil sachet and the satisfyingly hefty mesh sack bounces out, packed with premium whole leaves… yes, beauty can be found in the most unexpected places. Quality and convenience reunited, and it feels so good.
So, you’re ready to do this properly. You have your perfectly preserved tea to hand, raring to go. But how best to prepare it? The good news is that the art of making tea is still, ultimately, a simple affair – you just need to know what you’re dealing with. Firstly, make sure you’re keeping your tea in an airtight container, with no exposure to light, and at a temperature neither too hot nor too cold. Nothing will relegate your tea to the second division quicker than poor storage conditions.
You will find that Newby products include brewing instructions tailored to the specific blend. Water temperature and infusion time can vary depending on the leaf – and the right temperature results in a better infusion. White tea and specialities like oolong and pu erh all have their own needs. The quality of your water makes all the difference: filtered or spring water low in minerals is preferable, but if it is out of the tap do make sure it’s freshly drawn. The water sitting around in your kettle will lose oxygen when it’s re-boiled, resulting in that dull, ‘furry’ taste (and an accompanying sense of disappointment).
For green teas, the water may be left to cool slightly and require a shorter brew than a robust black such as Assam, while a fruity tisane like Strawberry & Mango has a recommended wait time of 6-8 minutes. Patience and self-restraint may be a pre-requisite, but the results bring ample reward.
If your teapot hasn’t seen active service for a while, and the cups and saucers are looking less than regal, you might find inspiration for an upgrade at the Newby website. The ornamental treasures of The Chitra Collection are truly awe-inspiring in their complexity. While most do date back hundreds of years, this craftsmanship is not quite a lost art yet – several newly commissioned pieces have recently joined its ranks. The jolly elephant teapot, one of Nirmal Sethia’s own designs, would give a mighty kick of grandeur to any afternoon tea.
Just one last thing to bear in mind: all this refined supping could serve as a wake-up call to your palate. Before you know it, that jaded old brew you used to call tea will be consigned to the back of the cupboard… along with the milk and sugar.