Q&A with Ringtons’ head of tea, James Jobling
With the Tetley Tea Report being launched on February 8, Coffee Business World asked tea companies what were the highlights of 2017 for them, along with the challenges and opportunities for the year ahead. We begin this week with Ringtons’ head of tea, James Jobling.
What was the highlight of 2017 for you?
Last year marked the 110th anniversary of our business and was our biggest and busiest year in our history. In 2017 we created a record number of blends and different product SKUs for our own brand and our various private label customers that we proudly make tea products for. Our factory has never been so busy nor has it even produced such a vast diversity of products and styles. Our teams have evolved and grown in their expertise around this and it was a real highlight for me to see us supply our customers with such exciting, superb quality products across the year.
A lowlight (which could transform into a positive) was that we experienced a highly disruptive period for the Darjeeling tea industry in 2017. In some quarters of the Darjeeling region, some groups have long wished for Darjeeling to become an independent state away from the rest of West Bengal and the West Bengali Government. Over the decades this has led to some typically quite small strikes and protests across the region, but in 2017 there was a major political strike across the whole of the region effectively closing Darjeeling down for three months. The strikes were not specific to tea, they affected tourism, education, food, etc, but the tea producers were fully affected as no work was being done in the region at all. No Darjeeling tea – very sad. However, there is quite a lot of positivity now that this major break in supply could have had a cathartic effect on the tea industry in Darjeeling, and perhaps it may now be much better placed and prepared, for a more sustainable future. I hope….
With all the talk about the health benefits of tea, what's the ONE biggest benefit of drinking tea that you would like more people to be aware of?
There are lots of benefits to drinking tea, none less so for me than the sheer enjoyment of exploring a wonderfully diverse and complex range of flavours and characteristics that are coaxed out of what may appear to be a simple green leaf. It makes you happy! However, I'm not sure that qualifies as a health benefit so for that I would have to say tea's natural L-theanine content. L-theanine is an amino acid that has natural relaxing or de-stressing effect when consumed. For a long time it has often been said that in times of crisis or when a problem needs discussing, we Brits 'put the kettle on' and gather around the teapot to sort the problem out. I've always said that problems are always best shared and discussed but by also doing this with a nice cup of tea the solution may just present itself a little more easily.
What do you think will be the tea hero for 2018?
In speciality pure tea markets I expect to see a big year for Japanese green teas. We've already seen the likes of matcha tea powders become more accessible and mainstream, not only as a beverage but also in cuisine in the UK (this is already very popular in Japan).
Japanese green teas are really quite unique in that they have really different flavours to other green teas and usually have a strong element of 'umami' to them – which is a more savoury character revered in japan. This makes the flavours really interesting and Japanese preparation ceremonies often come with interesting equipment and traditions, so if you are a bit of a tea geek then there's plenty of paraphernalia to collect!
Biggest challenge for tea companies in the next 12-18 months
In the UK we need to tackle traditional 'everyday' black tea's place in our habits and hearts. I'm afraid black tea is too often seen as a cheap staple item and it is often very low quality and much too cheap for what it is. Good quality tea takes time, effort, care and attention to cultivate and transform the leaves into the tea that we receive here at home. Those efforts should be rewarded and celebrated, not only by sustainable pricing but also be proper preparation to maximise the enjoyment for the consumer.
Who or what inspires you (tea-related)?
I have long been inspired by our chairman, Nigel Smith, who has an enormous passion for the true flavour of freshly-made, high quality teas. Few of us are normally fortunate enough to experience the flavour of teas that have been freshly developed and dried in the ovens as you see on the tea estates. Nigel is the eldest of three great-great grandchildren of our founder Samuel Smith and has dedicated over 20 years of his career to perfecting Ringtons' techniques to capture, preserve and deliver these pristine flavours to the Ringtons customers. Techniques that Nigel has recently coined as our 'Leaf Lock' products. Once you begin experiencing the fresh, true taste of teas you will never want to have anything else!
What's your favourite cup of tea and why?
That's an almost impossible question for me to answer given there are so many wonderful teas in the world. However, it is safe to say that our Gold tea bags, which only use the very best smallholder-grown leaves from Kenya's East of Rift Valley and protected using our Leaf Lock techniques, is my everyday staple – it has a wonderful brightness of colour with fresh and naturally sweet flavours, it's really refreshing.
For quieter moments, I love taking my time slowly preparing, sipping and exploring the fascinating flavours of different Oolong teas. The rarest we have comes from ancient tea trees in China's Phoenix Mountains; the bushes are over 100 years old and the tea has a wonderful apricot sweetness and cooling sensation!