What price the prestige of British tea and the dignity of its growers?

Pots of tea will be served in Brew, the tea pub.
Pots of tea will be served in Brew, the tea pub

“The paintings aren’t selling. Change the price tags – put them up by 20%.”

“Put them down by 20%, you mean?”

“No. Up. People will value them more if they cost more.”

My manager at the Commonwealth Institute over 30 years ago was right. The paintings all sold.

In this world of buy-one-get-one-free, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap and all the other enticements to get more for less, it’s a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion that seems to fly in the face of classical economics.

But should we be surprised that by increasing the price of something we’re increasing its value? Or, by the same token, that by lowering the price of something we’re destroying its value?

One of my favourite characters in the late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a seller of pies containing highly dubious meat by-products (“I’ll sell it for less, and that’s cutting me own throat”). If circumstances ever force you to consider buying a pie from C.M.O.T Dibbler – who prophetically predates the horsemeat scandal – you know you have sunk to an unspeakably sordid level, void of hygiene and ethics.

We seem to be getting this same uneasy feeling about our current, mean-spirited BOGOF culture. We’re beginning to ask who pays the real price for these cheapened products? In our heart of hearts we know it’s the labourers in the tea plantations, the garment factories, the shrimp fishing boats…but we don’t know what to do about it.

Of course, it’s true that we all love a bargain – but if we see three similar products at three different prices, if we can afford it, we’ll generally go for the middle one rather than the cheapest. And the early success of the Fairtrade movement proved that people will pay more if they can – and if they believe it will do any good.

Like bananas and milk, tea is often used as a “loss leader” by supermarkets. You can now buy a pack of 40 tea bags for 20p. But by  deliberately making a loss on these British favourites to lead people into their stores, they impoverish the whole value chain, giving no leeway to improve wages, working or living conditions.

So, what if we paid more for our tea? What if we valued it more, took more care over making it? Drank it in beautiful surroundings? What if more of this added value found its way to the women who brave the harsh elements and the sheer hillsides to pluck it?

Someone who hopes to find the answers to these question is Alex Holland. Having helped to save Brixton Market  in 2009, he is now turning his attention to tea.

Alex sees tea as a precious emblem of Britain – “a nation defined by tea drinking”. His mission is to “restore prestige to our national drink by converting Britain to loose-leaf tea” in establishments that will “have the feel of a pub but instead of offering pints of beer, it will serve pots of tea” as well as food and tea-based cocktails such as “oolong martinis”.

It sounds crazy, I know, but the man’s done his homework (using a Human Centred Design process) and this is apparently what the people of Britain want.  Brew, the tea pub will guarantee good prices to small-scale farmers who process their tea crop themselves instead of selling it to a factory. It will provide work experience placements for ex-offenders, and is backed by some pretty successful restaurateurs as well as some 300 crowd-funding investors.

The vast acres of India’s Raj-era tea plantations, rooted in indentured labour and cut-me-own-throat pricing policies, are conjoined with profit-prioritising multi-nationals and “loss-leading” supermarkets. While some are making efforts to improve the lot of plantation workers, there’s probably little hope that this colossal system can ever change enough to allow workers to get a fairer share of the value of the crop they produce.

So perhaps Alex’s refreshingly alternative approach of joining forces with other small, high-value retailers and linking more directly with small tea producers (both of whose numbers are growing) is the answer. By promoting loose, whole-leaf tea instead of dust in tea-bags, perhaps he’ll help overturn the culture that equates workers with dust and managers with whole leaf.

I drink my whole-leaf tea, brought back from my last trip to my birthplace, Munnar, from a beautiful tea pot and matching cup, a gift from a dear friend, looking out over a Clissold Park lake where the ducks, geese and swans are loud with the reproductive joys of spring, below the tapering elegance of St Mary’s church spire. I sip slowly so as not to scare away the wild parakeets feeding on my balcony. The multiple dimensions of this experience are reminiscent of a Japanese tea ceremony.

Andrew Juniper, in his book on wabi-sabi,  the Japanese art of impermanence, describes the state of mindfulness that this ancient ceremony brings you to, through the perfect balance of people, nature, art, the poetic movements of the tea master… to the consummation of the tea itself.

“Here is the heaven and oblivion sought on earth. The jealous intellect that guards our every thought and action relinquishes its vice-like grip and allows us to taste the reality of the present, the infinite, the wondrous and awesome world we all left in our early childhood.”

You don’t achieve that state by pouring boiling water from an electric kettle onto a paper bag full of tea dust that cost half of 1p, knowing that the people who grew it are undernourished, poisoned by the chemicals they’re spraying and living on food handouts in leaking houses with overflowing cesspits.

You might get it in a Brew tea pub, sipping whole leaf tea grown on a small tea garden whose owner Alex knows by name, brewed to perfection and then transferred to a new pot so it stays the perfect strength to the last cup, served to you by someone being given a second chance in life, in the warm, convivial atmosphere of a traditional British pub.

And that’s priceless.

Thank you, Emma, for the pricing insight; Philippa, for the lovely  tea-pot and cup; and Rory, for the wabi-sabi revelation.



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