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!

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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.

Dreamlining my way to the UK on my first trip abroad

EXCHANGE VISIT #2: SUKANYA SEEKS OUT SOUTHAMPTON

By Sukanya Saikia
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Being from Assam, I have seen tea gardens from my childhood when I used to visit my paternal house. I would be astonished by the scenic beauty of the tea growing regions; lush green in all directions. I used to be in awe that such huge estates could be managed so well. Tea is such an extremely important commodity for trade in India. Recently (a few months back), while I visited the tea-growing region of Upper Assam, I saw the saddening truth of the impact of climate change on tea. Although I am aware of climate change, I did not notice its impacts so closely until then. It sparked my interest in the subject; I felt a sense of duty towards the region where I have been born and brought up. So, when I came across a newspaper advertisement regarding a position of a research fellow at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, a century old institute dedicated to R&D in tea, I applied for the position, got through the screening process and here I am!

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

I am Sukanya, a newly appointed research fellow and a proud member of our energetic and amazing research team. The brilliant collaborative project I get to work on is being undertaken jointly between the Tea Research Association and the University of Southampton (funded by UKIERI). I consider myself highly honoured to be able to work with such an eminent group of people. Since starting my position in May this year, I’ve had fantastic exposure to an elite group of people working on climate change and many other diverse fields, and as part of the project I get to exchange knowledge through visiting the UK. 26th July was the day of my first trip abroad. Of course, being my first international trip, it helped in adding to the excitement! On my journey I was accompanied by the Indian project coordinator, Dr. Niladri Gupta. He’s an excellent guide and knows so many facts about so many places! Before visiting a foreign land, I was a bit apprehensive for a few reasons: I was conscious of the accent difference between the two countries; I was wondering whether they would be welcoming enough; whether they would understand me; whether I would be able to understand them; would they be patient listeners. These fears dissolved instantly when I visited the University of Southampton and met the new people.

Ellie gave me a warm welcome at the University and Niladri showed me around the University campus. I was awestruck to see the huge library and all its facilities. Almost each and every leading journal is accessible; which is a big constraint in most of the R&D institutes in India. This is really helpful for the students and all the researchers. I have realised that life in UK is highly technical; yet very simple. Back in India, life still is more complex, even with tremendous manpower. I’m not saying that India is lacking in opportunities; India is full of doors waiting to be opened with various directions waiting to be explored. I feel it’s the attitude of certain individuals which need to be changed. The work culture in UK is very different – time is not a factor for them; they are dedicated to work. I respect their work culture. I feel sometimes it becomes a bit difficult here to achieve such a productive work ethic.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it's currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it’s currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

Anyway, the UK research team provided an enthusiastic welcome and a thoroughly engaging environment for me to share their knowledge and experience. During our meetings we discussed climate change issues and how we can identify potential solutions to mitigate its impact on tea production and assist the transition of the tea gardens to adopt climate-smart agriculture. It was a highly productive two weeks and I learnt a great deal. Apart from this project, other prospects of future work were also discussed. It’s superb to see how minds work and come up with such brilliant ideas. How these ideas could be executed and transformed to reality is just a few steps away. After all, small steps lead to big milestones!

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Besides the enlightenment of knowledge, I saw some English countryside as well as historic and beautiful places during my stay; Winchester, wild horses in New Forest, the Red Arrows on the Isle of Wight, cruise liners at Southampton docks, and many sites around the historic city of Southampton and some of London during the weekends. Even when we visited these places the subject of tea and climate still managed to creep in; we stopped in a Whittard tea shop in Winchester and interacted with the shop owner about her views on the tea trade; we reflected upon the warm weather the UK was currently experiencing and the science behind why this might be; we discussed about the newly developed English tea estate at Tregothnan in Cornwall. This was all impromptu relative to the situation and quite fun!

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen in Winchester

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen (a chalk stream) in Winchester

Exchange programs such as UKIERI provide much essential opportunities to enhance and broaden the thinking, understanding and seeing the world with different perspectives. This two-week trip has been a life-changing experience for me. Thanks a lot to Ellie, John, Jenny, Andy, Emma, Pete and Niladri for showing me around this intoxicatingly beautiful country of the United Kingdom; and thank you so much for the marvellous food which my taste buds got to experience. For now, we are progressing with the research and having frequent discussions over Skype, but I cannot wait to return next year to see everyone again, meet new people, carry on with our excellent work and come up with many new ideas for how science can help my home state of Assam cope with the climate impacts of the future.

The next steps… As part of my position as a research fellow, I have the opportunity to enhance my skills through undertaking training. I have already completed an online course on An Introduction to the Science of Climate and Climate Change conducted by the University of Oxford, Met Office Hadley Centre and Natural Environment Research Council in UK. Next, I am preparing to undergo training in MATLAB which will further my skills in coding to enhance the development of models to analyse climate and tea yield data.