Thursday, June 7, 2018

Interview: Kevin Gascoyne

Kevin Gascoyne (photo courtesy of Kevin Gascoyne)

When I started diving deeper into learning about tea, Kevin Gascoyne's name popped up regularly. I pored over the book he co-wrote, Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties which basically became my 'tea bible', and read numerous articles he's written over the years. I knew the tea house Camellia Sinensis he co-owns was one I needed to add to my list of places to visit. I've had the pleasure of meeting Kevin briefly at various tea events, and at this year's NY Coffee & Tea festival I realized I needed to ask him to schedule an interview. I was nervous speaking with someone who has done so much, and knew so much. But talk with Kevin and you'll instantly realize he's the guy you want to hang out with; drinking endless cups of tea and chatting about all manner of things. We recently had an hour-long phone conversation where Kevin's passion for tea came through in everything we talked about. We discussed his new collaboration on the Tea Studio project, his favorite tea memory, his opinion on tea education, and so much more. Highlights from our interview are posted below.




The Tea Studio (photo courtesy of Kevin Gascoyne)

I’ve read a bit about the Tea Studio, can you tell us a little bit about it? It looks gorgeous, by the way.
The building was very carefully designed over quite a long period. We put in an original design with an Indian architect and then it was adapted by talking to experts from various tea research institutes and favorite growers that we have from all over the world. We had input from experts from China, Japan, Taiwan, Nepal, other parts of India. It’s very custom and also very specialized.

Can you give us a little background on how the Tea Studio came to be?
The original plan was to simply make a series of boutique style teas for the specialized tea market that’s starting to grow. The ways to make different styles of whole leaf led us to small machines the Chinese make to reproduce their handmade leaves. It’s difficult to get manual workers to do all the manufacturing as it takes a long time to learn how to do it, and it’s harder to find young people to do that so they’ve been very quick in developing machines that do it in the back room. Even a lot of the Longjing on the market now is not panned, it’s made by machine. It’s getting to the point that even the tea from original prestigious mountains of Lonjing is being made on these machines. These are specialized state of the art machines. We bought a few of those, and as we looked into the logistics of how it’s going to work we started to introduce liquid petroleum gas, it’s super clean and we are the first factory in India to be run on liquid petroleum gas. Even though tea has a zero carbon footprint, because it takes so many plants to make a cup of tea, a lot of people make use of coal, oil, or wood for the dryers, even in the industrial world.

We tried to improve things socially by hiring an all-women team as [Nilgiri] is not an area where women get a lot of opportunity. We have a team of very attentive women that are showing quite a lot of initiative. Having spent so much time in tea factories over the years, I feel we have a very nice atmosphere which is quite different from the usual factory setting. 

Photo courtesy of Kevin Gascoyne

We’ve put a fund together to put money into female child education in the village next to where the factory is. A lot of the rural areas of India only educate the male children. It’s a bad habit that needs dealing with, which means often the young girls get married off as young as possible and aren’t always in the best situation with opportunities. We’re offering the girls in the factory night courses, and are looking into an incentive program for those that show the initiative to make decisions in the factory. They can be put on a higher level with better pay. But we’re only in the first few months of operation, so we haven’t seen very tangible results yet. But the ideas are there. It’s in the manifesto.

How many employees are there at the Studio?
One woman runs the shop floor, and she’s in her mid to late 30s. She recruits other girls from the village. Most are in their early 20s quite a few have one or two children. We have about 5 on the payroll which means we can be flexible about family needs.

It looks very peaceful
It’s in a suspended valley that’s 1850 meters above sea level, and it’s completely surrounded by a patchwork of small holder tea-fields, where we get the tea from.

And is that why the founders picked this area in Nilgiri?
Yes- Number one, its high altitude, number two, there is a small farmer set-up, so that means once you get the quality of tea that you want, (we want one leaf and a bud), you can then control the leaf input in the factory quite nicely. We are looking to bring cultivars from other regions and other countries, but that’s phase 2.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Gascoyne

How many teas are you currently producing?
Some are still in the process of being developed. We started off with about 11 teas. In principal we can make 5 different styles of leaf. We can make a Mao Feng style and an Anji Bai Cha style, Longjing style and a pearl style depending on the machines. From those we can make different levels of oxidation. We can do a black tea in the Anji Bai Cha machine, or a green tea. It gives us quite a lot of opportunity to try different things. Four to five of the teas so far are really tasting great, and the others are still being worked on to bring up the quality. Because we’re in the first few months of manufacture there is a lot of fine tuning to do but we are fortunate to have started with a selection of teas that are really enjoyable to drink.  From this point we’re just going to improve the aromatic spectrum and structure and definition. And also enjoy the seasonal differences- once we’ve done a full year we’ll understand what the seasonal variations are.

And the teas you do have available- are they for sale on the Camellia Sinensis website?
Yes we’ve got 4 on the camellia sinensis website, they are all numbered by batch. We are encouraging our clients to enjoy the differences by batch to enjoy the evolution and seasonal differences. I really like the idea that you’ve got this connection- from the beginning of Camellia Sinensis project; it’s been about the connection of us as the intermediary between the producers and the other side of the counter. It’s nice to share this experimental tea factory scenario with our clients so they can live that with us.

Since you’ve travelled all over the world drinking teas, can you share one of your favorite tea travel adventures?
Here’s one of my favorites: I was standing in one of our stores talking to one of our ‘puerh geeks’ (who are very into the date, year, factory, mountains, processing recipes, etc), talking to one of these young chaps on the other side of the counter and he’s telling me about the laboratory-style recipe of how he’s been making this tea he just bought from me: 93 degrees, 6 grams, 120 ml for a minute and a half for the first steep, and he changes the recipe for the second steep and he’s going on and I’m hearing this very technical laboratory style procedure that he’s describing and in my head I’m drifting off to when we bought the tea back in the village. We bought this mao cha where we pressed it into bricks. We sat on tree stumps and this guy just showed us the squirrel that he shot for dinner and they give us each a great big cup and come by with a handful of leaves and the guy comes out with a big saucepan that has been bubbling out on the open fire. Scorching hot water, pours it into the cup so my hands are so hot it’s difficult to hold the cup, and when I drink it it’s burning my lips, and every time I get near the bottom someone comes out and fills it up. It was a nice contrast of our western way of revering tea and the Asian people’s way of living with tea as something that’s just part of their environment.

I’ve read a bit about your tea school, and it seems focused more on sharing a passion for tea; empowering the drinker and not on academic certification. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
We’re not into a tea master certification; we’re much more into, enjoy sharing tea because we like it. Enjoying the taste, sharing our thoughts, not building some sort of strange artificial hierarchy or personal specialness into what you drink. We drink tea because we like it. People who know about it or don’t know about it- they can like it just as much. You can enjoy a tea without knowing anything about it. I taste with people who know nothing about tea and some of them have incredible taste perception. It’s not because they know what altitude it was made at or because they can name six mountains in Yunnan or anything like that. It’s really about this visceral enjoyment of sharing this leaf which has an incredible history with human kind. 5000 years of being something not only good for us, but it makes us feel great and it brings us together, to sit in a circle and enjoy it together. To us it’s a lot more about that. Obviously we have a passion for flavor experience so we’re chasing the rare batches and trying to get stuff that blows our minds but we don’t want to build any elitism. When people start working for us it’s very clear that everyone is welcome, whether it’s a little old lady from the suburbs or a student from college or some snooty tea expert from Paris, they’re all welcome and hopefully we can all sit around the table and drink tea together.

If someone came to you and said ‘I sort of know the basics about tea’, what would your advice be to take their skills to the next level?
Gaiwan- the gaiwan is cheap, it’s not the investment of a gongfu cha or senchado teapot. Easy to use, it’s very visceral to use because you can open it, smell it, and it gives you a nice sensitivity and connection to infusion. And you can do multiple infusions. It’s the first step into exploring the depth of a tasting experience. It creates a ‘tea space’ you have to sit down and be there. It brings you into the moment of infusion. You have to be there at least for the 30 seconds of infusion time. Rather than a teapot that you can drink while you’re doing other things this creates a physical space and a space in your head to have that focus, and really get into the depth of the flavor profile that you’ve made in a concentrated way instead of a teapot.

During your day do you have any person tea rituals?
I usually drink about 3 liters of Darjeeling before lunch and I try to vary between 3-4 different ones. Then I’ll often drink Wuyi oolong after lunch, and late afternoon varies, could be different things. In the evening I like to sit down with 4 gongfu cha pots. I collect the pots and I like to sit down with four of those in the evening and just do different infusions of 4 different teas. It’s a nice way to finish the evening for me. I share them with whoever is around or just on my own.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Gascoyne

Do you get a lot of people asking about health benefits of tea, and if so how do you approach this?
We've done a lot of lab research so it’s easy for us to show people the amount of tea antioxidants, and caffeine levels. We got a big table printer in the shop and on the website with all that information. But what I try to do is when people come in what our usual story is ‘once you walk into a tea shop that is full of tea, you are in a healthy place’ the best tea is the one you’ll drink a lot of. That’s the one you want. When all the original Japanese sencha research came out in early 2000s and everyone wanted Japanese sencha and a lot of people didn’t like it. it’s not what they wanted to drink. People were coming in, spending a lot of money on sencha and gyokuro and not enjoy it and not taking up the tea drinking habit. So I always say the best tea is the one you’re going to drink a lot of, because this is a health tonic. We don’t need to worry about which one is more healthy. The one we want is the one that gives us pleasure. Pleasure is really good for your health, don’t forget! No one has ever proved being stoic is good for your health…as soon as you are in a tea shop you’re in the right place. You can travel through the world of flavors and aromas. It’s way more interesting to approach it from a gastronomical point of view, and an epicurean point of view instead of some sort of pharmacy dispensary.

You were raised in England and were a tea drinker from an early age, was there a specific moment that opened your eyes to the world of tea?
I grew up in Harrogate so I was lucky to have Betty’s, the Taylor’s tea room. They had a tea room where I could buy single estate Darjeeling and Assam in my youth. As a teenager I got into buying bags of this and enjoy it at home. At 19, I went to India backpacking and tasted fresh Darjeeling, and it was like something I knew but in a much higher form. I got very excited about that, started writing articles about it for different magazines in the UK and in Japan. And then gradually became this hobby/passion obsession.

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Thank you so much Kevin for finding time in your busy schedule for this interview. Readers, If you’re attending World Tea Expo, Kevin will be conducting a few different seminars. Be sure to say hello if you don’t know him, he’s a pleasure to talk with.

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