A Good Old British Cup of Tea

INTEREST PIECE: INVESTIGATING UK TEA GROWTH POTENTIAL

By Catherine Rouse
University of Southampton

When you think about tea production, India, China and maybe Africa spring to mind, but what about the UK?

My name is Catherine and I am currently completing my MSc in Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. As part of the final semester we are required to undertake a 20,000 word research project, which sounds like a rather daunting task. Yet, the key is to choose a topic that is of interest to yourself and a wider community, and tea definitely hits that brief.

A few months ago Connie and Patrick, two of my course mates, visited Assam as part of a UKIERI project. They collected a variety of data on the locations of shade trees and soil properties within a number of tea plantations for their respective projects. Their post ‘Shade, food and an egg’s lost luggage!’ details a joint experience around Assam and provides additional detail on each of their projects, so definitely take a look. My project moves away from India and instead focuses on tea growth within parts of the UK. This may seem a bit strange as yes, we Brits love to drink a good cup of tea and are one of the biggest tea drinking nations out there, yet when it comes to home grown tea we are pretty limited in awareness, knowledge and experience. Tea requires very specific environmental conditions to grow, and as such the potential for growth (particularly under future climate change) can be modelled. Specifically, my project looks at the climatic, topographic and soil conditions found within the UK and whether, when combined, suitable areas for growing tea can be highlighted through using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and an ecological habitat suitability model. Unfortunately this means I did not get to join Connie and Patrick on their adventure to India, however I did get to go to Cornwall to find more out about existing English tea production, and lucky for me the weather was beautiful.

Me at the Eden project

First stop was the Eden project, located just outside St Austell. Whilst visiting I bumped into one of the gardeners who manages the tea section. Unfortunately they are really struggling with keeping the soil pH at optimum growing conditions, which for tea is around 4.5-5, and attempts to lower the pH through various techniques including fertiliser has led to the presence of the Phytophthora pathogen. So sadly, many plants have had to be removed. The remaining tea plants appeared rather unhealthy and yellow, despite daily irrigation and ‘suitable’ climatic conditions. Tea growth at Eden made me aware of some of the difficulties associated with growing tea and the extreme practices required in order to ensure successful growth. However, my second destination in Cornwall led me to one of the only successful British tea plantations, Tregothnan, where there were many healthy looking tea plants!


Tregothnan estate is located near Truro, Cornwall and is one of the only commercial tea plantations to supply English-grown tea to British supermarkets (blended), as well as high-end London stores such as Fortnum and Mason at a premium. Planting first began in 1999 and after 6 years the first plants were fully established and ready for harvest. Currently tea is grown in around 40 acres of the 6,000 acre estate, although there appear to be plans to extend this to 150 acres over the coming years. Whilst we were there we observed innovative field technology which could contribute to future cultivation; trials for mechanised planting which is currently not undertaken anywhere else in the world. We also had a tour around the estate and the incredible gardens which display a range of rare plants taken from all over the world, on a par with Kew Gardens!


We also got to taste some of this English tea and take some produce home. Ellie was particularly happy as she procured a tea plant to grow at home. Next week I will be attending the Ethical Tea Partnership annual meeting where I will have an opportunity to engage with multiple tea stakeholders and get further ideas for my research, and perhaps kick-start a career in tea!

The team in Tregonthan’s tea tasting room: Catherine, Ellie, Niladri, Sukanya

The team in Tregonthan’s tea tasting room: Catherine, Ellie, Niladri, Sukanya

From the lowlands of Assam to the Highlands of Scotland

EXCHANGE VISIT #6: FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

By Sukanya Saikia
Tea Research Association

When you see cows and goats roaming around or rather lazing around on the roads, creating havoc for the commuters, it’s Assam. But when you see sheep grazing in lush green highlands and cows that are very different from the ones you see back home, then wait, you are in Scotland! It’s time for the second exchange meet of the UKIERI project for the Indian team to visit the UK. Our visit lasts for three weeks starting at Edinburgh, Scotland. So this time it has been my utmost privilege to attend the World Water Congress XV held there by the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) from 25th – 29th May, 2015.

The grandeur of Edinburgh Castle (and the unpredictable weather!)

The grandeur of Edinburgh Castle (and the unpredictable weather!)

I would like to start with Edinburgh. As lovely as the name itself, Edinburgh is a thrilling city. The journey from London by train was striking as the train moved along the coast of the North Sea (of course you need to sit on the correct side of the train to get that view, and I am the lucky one in this case). Home to the Edinburgh Castle and many historical structures and buildings, all of which looked like castle to me, I had the most amazing time in those five days. Streets buzzing with people (mostly tourists) moving around, bagpipers playing, quirky shops, street performers, variety of cafes and Scotch whisky stores, cool breeze (I couldn’t find a stronger word for it, as it was freezing for me!), Edinburgh will win your heart at the first sight. It definitely will soothe your eyes almost immediately. And what added to my delight was that I could very well understand the Scottish accent! To take that to my credit, I would say that sometimes it’s very hard to comprehend (as told by my colleagues in England)! Moreover, working on climate, and not talking about the weather of Edinburgh won’t be fair. But what can I say about it…That’s the beauty about it; it’s so unpredictable that you can’t be certain about it. It’s sunny this moment and pouring the next! So take your raincoat and umbrella (which would just turn inside out; thanks to the wind) the next time you’re there..

Presenting our iPoster at the World Water Congress

Presenting our iPoster at the World Water Congress

Coming to the conference, I presented a poster entitled Climate-smart landscape management in North East India: determining the influence of climate variables on tea production under the session Climate Change, Impacts and Adaptation. The poster reflects the preliminary results of our analysis that we have undertaken for the North Bank tea growing region of Assam. It is my first international conference at an international location and also my first time in Scotland and the experience I would say is mind boggling! The sessions varied from transboundary water resources issues, water governance, the monetary and non-monetary aspects of water, climate change loss and damage in terms of water, management, food security, links with energy, food and environmental sectors and a lot many water-related issues. There were some special sessions on water and mountains, water-energy-food nexus etc. A documentary was also screened at the conference named as A Thirsty World which echoes the circumstances of people living in various parts of the world having access to very little water or no water at all. Besides presenting the paper, I felt that it opened a whole new set of opportunities in terms of networking with other delegates who have come from various parts of the world, working on a diverse range of topics. Knowing the views and arguments of such renowned scientists and professors is an excellent prospect in itself. I had to push myself to speak to such expert people, and set targets for interacting with as many people as possible. I even managed to get some business cards! Conferences like this provide a brilliant platform to build your own network for future collaborations and projects.

Me with a bagpiper at the Edinburgh Castle conference reception

Me with a bagpiper at the Edinburgh Castle conference reception

As part of the conference, some social events were also organized for networking. One such event was an evening hosted by the Congress at the 12th century old Edinburgh Castle where we had access to the inside of the castle! From the top the whole of Edinburgh was visible and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful! We could see the Crown Jewels Exhibition, Queen Anne Building, St. Margaret’s Chapel and Jacobite Room. There were highland dancers and musicians performing. I must say that this was an exclusive opening for the delegates to soak up in the electrifying atmosphere. The conference as a whole was a grand success. Moreover, I also managed to take a highland tour starting from Edinburgh to the Cairngorms Mountains, Inverness, Loch Ness, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. I would highly recommend anyone going to Scotland to take this tour. I was spellbound by the extent of green and yellow highlands and the friendly locals that greet you there! Also thanks to Fergus, our driver, for making the journey a very enjoyable one by narrating tales of kings and queens…

Next, I am heading to Southampton for two weeks to engage with our research. We will discuss the development of a DSS (Decision Support System) for our project, as well as fit in a couple of trips to visit Cornwall to speak to the Tregothnan tea estate manager and attend the Ethical Tea Partnership annual meeting in London. I am excited and looking forward to these events. I must extend my thanks Ellie for making me feel at home in the UK and arranging all our exciting work activities; Ellie and Niladri for being such supportive mentors; and to my new friends in Southampton – Patrick, Connie, Heather, Hayley, Vera and Serina – for baking wonderful cakes. This will be my last visit to the UK on our project, but I hope to come back soon. I will miss the wonderful people I have met and will cherish the rest of the time I have visiting on my last trip. Let me tell you I am having the time of my life; exchange programs like UKIERI definitely make your life worth living!

A future for UK tea?

INTEREST PIECE: ENGLISH TEA V ASSAM TEA

by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.”

The initial stages of our collaborative research venture have sparked great interest for me in tea to a level purely beyond that of drinking it! Our new research project is investigating climate impacts on tea production in Assam, India. From this I’ve developed a side interest in the UK tea industry; an interest I regard as suitably justified given that we consume so much of the stuff. In fact, I have learned since commencing the project that tea is actually grown in the UK, which is a highly exciting prospect. Currently only one tea estate produces tea in England and that is the Tregothnan plantation in Cornwall. According to their website, “Tregothnan is one of the very best tea regions in the world. Its cool climate and inimitable uniqueness is essential for the best of teas.” So how does English grown tea differ to that grown in Assam?

Growing differences: Cornwall V Assam
Acidic soils and a damp environment provide ideal tea-growing conditions at Tregothnan. The Camellia sinensis tea bush grows especially well in the damp and temperate Cornish valleys. In comparison, Assam is also especially damp given the monsoon rains rejuvenates the landscape every summer. Another interesting fact I’ve learned is that because of an early sunrise, Assam’s tea gardens follow local time, known as ‘Tea Garden Time’ or Bagantime, which is an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time!

tea-assamVengland

Tea is grown in Assam during the summer season and in contrast to the UK, India has a much warmer and more humid climate during these months. However, the ambient temperature range for growing tea is approximately 13 – 30°C, which both Cornwall and Assam fall within the majority of the growing season. In fact, anything too hot and the tea leaves burn in the heat. Shade trees are often required in Assam to protect the bushes from direct sunlight. During the winter the tea bushes are dormant in both locations due to low temperatures and reduced daylight hours. There are many environmental factors which are important for optimal tea growth, such as temperature, moisture, soil depth and pH, and such conditions have both similarities and variation between Assam and England. Therefore, I wondered – do the growing conditions alter the taste?

The taste test
Clearly a tea taste test was in order to determine if nurturing tea plants in different geographical localities actually transfers a change in flavour through to the palette. I acquired some pure Assam loose black leaf tea from the Tocklai tea plantation and some classic black leaf tea bags from Tregothnan. Now, the black tea from Tregothnan is slightly misleading, as although marketed as “the tea grown in England” the bagged product is actually a blend of English tea with “finest Assam”, as stated on the front of their merchandise (if I ever acquire any pure English loose leaf tea I will re-do this taste test).

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Brewing the tea, I actually found the English tea to produce a darker brew. To me, the Assam tea tasted a little more bitter. There were certainly distinctive differences in the actual taste, but not being a qualified tea taster I’ve struggled to elaborate using the correct descriptive language. There are some top tips here though if you’re that way inclined. I tried both with and without milk and actually found both varieties of the tea very pleasant to drink black. Clearly both are winning brews and I’d recommend either, but I did particularly like the English blend taste. Views from others in a taste test stated the English variety to be “smooth and surprisingly strong”, “tastes quite powerful” and has “the nuttiness of a top Assam.” So if English grown tea is actually as good as Assamese tea for consumers, does the India to UK export industry have something to worry about?


Why grow tea in the UK?

In short, probably not any time soon. Tea is a lucrative business, we love a good cuppa, and the UK imports around £250 million worth of tea each year. English tea is not currently produced on a scale to rival Indian leaves, and probably never will be due to space issues. Tregothnan tea is presently marketed as a luxury brand but perhaps there is scope to plant further tea estates in the UK and cultivate more leaves on our home soil. In addition to a superb taste, a reason why this could be favoured by the UK community is largely environmental. Recent environmental concerns regarding more sustainable food production has led many consumers to think more closely about where the produce they are purchasing is being sourced. The slow food movement has gained traction over the last decade and people are beginning to care about reducing their environmental footprint. Checking your fruit and veg in the supermarket for where it originates from is one way to achieve this. Sourcing food locally and buying what is in season reduces an individual’s collective food miles; something the environmentally conscious are keen to achieve. I know I consistently check the origin of fresh produce and always try to buy British.

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So, by growing British and buying local, products can potentially be produced more sustainably and your environmental footprint is reduced. Perhaps this would be good enough reason to grow more of our nation’s favourite beverage on our home soil, as well as it tasting as good as our overseas tea rivals! However, tea is a way of life for many families in India and a decline in production could potentially be detrimental to their livelihoods; the international tea trade remains a significant factor in providing income for the people of Assam, but it’s good to know we can successfully cultivate tasty tea in England should productivity abroad ever decline.

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We are hoping to visit Tregothnan next summer to tour the tea estate in person and compare characteristics of tea bush cultivation between Assam and Cornwall. Another blog post will appear then, and perhaps we’ll get our hands on some non-blended pure English loose leaf tea to try.