Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Postcard Teas, London


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: In this essay, UK correspondent Aeyal Gross continues his engaging series on 'The Best Teas in London.' His previous offering at CHA DAO took us on a virtual visit to Teasmith.]]

Oxford Circus is known for many things: people come here to buy their iPhones, iPods and accessories at the Apple store; to find clothes at the many high street retailers; to shop for high fashion at Selfridges, which is also home to one of London’s finest wine bars (the Wonder Bar); and for tea. On a small side street, only a few minutes walk but in what feels like miles away from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street, is Postcard Teas. While Dering Street starts at Oxford street, it curves to the right just before Postcard Street only to become parallel to it, which makes Postcard Teas not only an oasis of tea, peace and quiet in one of London’s busiest areas, but also (literally) The Shop Around the Corner.

If the previous institution reviewed in this series of posts on The Best Teas in London, TeaSmith, is a tea-house-and-bar which is also a tea shop, then Postcard Teas is the opposite: it is a tea shop which is also a little bit of a tea house. Most of the business done here is in packaged leaf to take home, but at the same time each of the 40 or so teas on sale here is available “to try,” in a single serving prepared to order, and all for a reasonable price, which is actually waived if you buy the tea that you have tried.

Timothy d’Offay is the man behind Postcard Teas, and although he has been in the tea business for over a decade, Postcard Teas has been operating in its current location for only the past three and a half years. D’Offay sources most of his teas directly from growers. In the few cases that he does not, the tea is bought from a local merchant in the country of production, who in turn is sourcing the teas directly from the grower. He takes pride in his special relationship with some of the estates and producers represented in the shop. Pictures of d’Offay’s travels to the places where the teas he sells originate are available on Postcard Teas’s website and in the shop. A beautiful selection of artisanal teaware and Japanese ceramics is also on sale (perhaps reflecting d’Offay’s roots as coming from a family of prominent art dealers).

The stocklist in Postcard Teas includes the full range of teas (white, green, oolong, black and pu-erh), but oolong certainly dominates it. At the same time d’Offay is also a partner in East Teas, where he and Alex Fraser sell an impressive range of East Asian teas (from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China). East Teas is a separate business whose hub (in additional to the virtual one) is in a stall in Borough Market, London’s foodie heaven. But the teas d’Offay and Fraser sell under the East Teas label are all also available in Postcard Teas, where they are joined by teas from these countries whose price tags and stature would not befit the market, and also by teas whose country of origin is not East Asia. In most cases the latter are from India.

A visit to d’Offay on a recent Saturday morning offered the opportunity to taste a wide range of his teas. D’Offay, it should be noted, tastes each tea he prepares before taking it out to the customers, who enjoy the tea at a large common table. He believes there is a lot of variation between brewings, especially in certain teas, and may discard a brewing which is not to his liking and try again until he reaches the perfect brew.

We started by tasting Emperor Jiaqing Tribute Phoneix, an old tea tree oolong from Master Wang, one of tea makers Postcard Teas regularly works with. The trees this tea is made from date to the Ming dynasty, and this tea, a tribute tea to the famous Ching dynasty Emperor Jiaqing is made each year in May. This tea had a wonderful honeyed aroma with touches of spice, and a full, thick body. We continued to try another oolong from Master Wang, this time Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong, made in March from old trees. In this tea the aromas had notes of wood and of lichee fruits. A fantastic, full-bodied tea.

Next we moved to teas from the Wuyi area, made by another of Postcard Teas’ important providers, Master Xu. The Rou Gui, a lightly roasted oolong, had some cinnamon, prunes and chocolate in its aroma, and showed a beautiful structure upon tasting. We also tasted the Ancient Tree Shui Xian made by Master Xu, from trees all over 100 years old, growing in the Wuyishan area. This is a beautiful roasted oolong.

Moving from Oolong to Pu-Erh, we next tasted Jin Damo 800-year-old tree Pu-Erh tea. A beautiful cooked Pu-Erh made by Master Liu, a tea with notes of black fruits on the aroma and tastes reminiscent of coffee.

At this stage d’Offay asked me about which types of teas I like. When I told him I really like all kind of teas, with the exception of Lapsang Souchong, he insisted I try his Tong Mu Lapsang Souchong. And let me admit to you: he succeeded in converting me. This tea had beautiful rich citrusy aroma which was only slightly smokey. According to d’Offay this is the result of using wood fire rather than charcoal for the smoking process. I was certainly won over.

Later (at home) we enjoyed another tea from the Liu family, the Liu Family White Tea from 800-year-old wild tea trees. The dry leaves of this exquisite tea were very aromatic with touches of roasted chestnut and almonds. The brewed tea had a very gentle beautiful aroma (chestnuts once again) and taste.

When it comes to Darjeeling, d’Offay works with the excellent Goomtee and Jungpana estates. This year he also stocks a wonderful First Flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn estate, a tea that exhibits all the properties of a very fresh excellent First Flush Darjeeling, and is round and long.

Postcard Teas is a business that works in small volumes. Many of the teas on sale are produced in very small quantities to start with. Still, d’Offay eschews the hypish term “rare teas” which is now seen in many places (including Starbucks, no less), which as he reminds us is often used to describe teas that are actually made for export in large factories. So while this term (like the term “fair trade”) may have become a selling term for mediocre industrial teas, the teas on sale here are truly rare teas, made by small scale family producers, and if you come here to taste and buy teas, or even if you buy them online through Postcard Teas website, d’Offay will happily share with you the story of where they came from, who made them, when were they made, and what are the working conditions in the place of production. His passion for bringing these teas to London rewards us with access to beautiful teas, and Postcard Teas is a haven for tea lovers, where superb teas can be tasted and bought for a very fair price. Watch the “Agony of the Leaves” in your gaiwan as they open, and recall that their agony is your joy. Also joyful are the tea-themed postcards that d’Offay collects, although they are unfortunately no longer on display in the shop. He does offer “postcard packs” of teas: there is a red postbox in the shop, and if you buy tea in a postcard pack, you can add an address on the pack and have it sent to the person of your choice. Now, here is a beautiful idea of a gift for your family and friends. Just remember to buy a pack of the tea for yourself too!

Postcard Teas
9 Dering Street (off New Bond Street)
London, W1S 1AG
Tel. 0207 629 3654