Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Interview: Ali Silk from Tea Horse!

A couple of weeks ago I posted a look at the British tea company Tea Horse. The founder Ali Silk kindly agreed to do an interview so we could learn more about the company. Ali is quite interesting and insightful. I love that she shared an after-school tea ritual with her family growing up! Here is what she has to say...

TH: Tell us about your journey to open a tea business. Why did you decide to start a subscription based company along with selling tea in a more traditional way?

AS: It’s been a fantastic journey to get to this point! I’ve always been a big tea drinker, growing up with a mother and two sisters and an after-school ritual of a cup of tea and a catch up. But it was in my adult years when my appreciation of the wonderful varieties of loose tea began to grow, and after tasting my first cup of Phoenix Oolong I couldn’t believe that not everyone was drinking such deliciousness! But instead, settling for poor quality teabags that have become our staple here in Britain.

I did find, though, that as someone who knew very little at the time about the different types of tea, the effect of terroir or growing region on the flavour, it was extremely difficult to know what to buy – a tea shop with hundreds of teas to choose from is a daunting place, like a wine shop before we knew the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Grigio! I found myself nervous to spend money on an unknown tea, for fear of a tea cupboard overflowing with teas I didn’t like (I’d bought a couple of expensive teas that I thought were not nice!), or daunted in a tea shop or online, as if I didn’t belong because I didn’t know what I was doing. But I wanted to know, and to share great teas with as many people as possible.

So I learned all I could about the market, took classes, met experts and picked their brains. I discovered that there were many other people out there who felt as I did; they’d like to know more and try more teas, but didn’t really know how to. So the solution was a monthly subscription, or ‘tea club’, through which people could sample small amounts of tea at low risk and low cost, and discover lots of different flavours they’ve never tried before. At the same time, each month, through the booklet we include with information on the origins, cultivation, production, tea garden and brewing of the teas, people could learn a little more with each taste. So eventually they’d know the difference between a Darjeeling and an Assam, a first and second flush and for just £11.95 a month, they’ll have had the chance to taste some of the world’s finest teas that they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to.

Thus Tea Horse was born – a tea discovery service, doing the hard work of sourcing and tasting all the teas on offer, and delivering only the very best tea to people who want it. After reading books about the ancient Tea Horse Road, I fell in love with the stories of the tea porters who risked their lives to deliver tea to Tibet and thought it would make a great name for our tea delivery service. We now offer international delivery so can send our teas anywhere in the world and the monthly boxes make the perfect gift for any adventurous or curious tea lover, or those new to tea.

How do you decide on the monthly teas to feature? What can the recipients expect to see in each monthly box?

The teas we choose are based on quality; so Tim and I spend lots and lots of time tasting teas from gardens all over the world, many direct from the growers, and choose the best of the selection. We do start with an idea of what we’d like to feature, a tea type that’s very popular or one we’ve not featured yet, but it can sometimes depend on what we’ve tasted that season. We curate four that make an interesting story together that we can tell (for example, World Teas, a selection of four teas from more unusual growing countries like Nepal, Tanzania or South Africa, or Chinese Greats, four of China’s top ten great teas) or that complement each other for flavours. In each box you’ll find variety – it’s inevitable that some people will love black tea more than green, or prefer unscented teas to blends – so we try to ensure that there’ll always be something for everyone, and at the same time encouraging people to try something outside of what they’d usually drink. Those are the times when you really discover something unexpected and wonderful! Each month there’ll always be a black tea, and something that can be enjoyed with milk, as well as a green, white, oolong, blended or sometimes, herbal infusion.

We love to experiment too, so our Master Blender relishes the chance to come up with new and unique blends. In June we ran a competition encouraging people to come up with ideas for their own tea blend, and August’s box features one of the winners: Pistachio Rose, a gorgeous blend of green tea, rose petals and pistachio. A bartender friend of Tea Horse loved this combination of flavours so much that he’s creating a bespoke tea cocktail recipe especially. It’s great to find ways to encourage people to use tea beyond simply a hot cup, and tea cocktails are a favourite way for us.

When did you first discover your love for tea? 

I’ve been a tea drinker my whole life – it was just part of the family and I never knew anything different. I suspect it’s the same for millions of people, who’ve grown up with parents and grandparents who drank tea every day. I’d have at least two or three cups of black tea on school days and then treat myself to a little Earl Grey on the weekends! There were always a few varieties in the cupboard, but nothing too adventurous, occasionally some Jasmine and loose leaf for special occasions.

I’ve also always had a fascination for ancient and traditional Chinese culture, even writing a dissertation on China at University and studying (quite beginner!) Mandarin. So when I began tasting wonderful loose leaf teas from China, it just became a passion straight away. Chinese teas tend to remain my favourites. And to have a job that incorporated my interests – a dream!

Can you describe some of your own personal tea rituals?

My tea rituals are quite varied. As someone who loves trying new flavours, I find I rarely drink the same tea twice in a day (except when re-infusing) because I love variety. I also get the chance to taste so many wonderful teas, that only drinking the same, forming a habit, is unthinkable for me, because I might be missing out on something delicious.

I start the day with a large mug of tea, occasionally black tea but often I opt for the higher caffeine of a green tea to wake me up. I make it in a pot and use a strainer, so the leaves can roam free, and feel comforted knowing that around 10am I can re-infuse the leaves for another cup. The next cup I have will be something different, usually oolong in the afternoons, brewed gong fu style. I also taste a few teas in the office, using our tea tasting sets, and if there’s something we discover that I love, I’ll have another cup or two that day, you know, just to test it!

If I go away on holiday, I always take some loose tea and a pack of our paper tea filters, because it’s unfortunately very rare to find a really good cup of tea in hotels. And if I haven’t had a really good cup of tea that day, for whatever reason, I really notice how I feel, not as relaxed and healthy as usual. Perhaps that’s all in the mind, but I certainly miss tea when I can’t have it.

I feel extremely lucky to have the chance to be working with a true tea master taster, Tim Clifton, and for my job to involve sipping on great teas from all over the world every day. Hopefully other people will enjoy the fruits of our labours and learn to love the variety of tea as much as we do!

Thank you Ali for your time and writing such well though out responses to my questions!

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