How to make tea


Year: 2002

Author: Fran Abrams

Type: newspaper article.

Availability: free online (link) & copied below.

Full reference: Abrams, F. (2002) How to make tea. The Guardian 25 June

Page reference: Abrams, F. (2011) How to make tea. ( <insert date here>)


There are few things more quintessentially English than a cup of Twinings Traditional Afternoon tea. But the tale of these teabags begins a world away from your kettle. In the second of her investigations into the manufacture of ‘British’ products, Fran Abrams traces the story back to a plantation in the hills of Sri Lanka.

It’s pouring with rain and the taxis are coughing out little bursts of blue fug as they inch along the Strand. It is nice and dry in the Twinings shop, though, and inside the smell of tea is sweet and inviting. It’s a long, narrow corridor of a shop and its walls are lined with black and gold boxes. Half way down, on the right, is the perfect tea for a day like today.

‘By Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Tea and Coffee Merchants R Twining and Co Ltd, London,’ it says at the top of the box. The name of the blend is picked out in green: Traditional Afternoon.

This is a bright, copper-coloured tea; brisk and refreshing. ‘Ideal as an afternoon pick-me-up or whenever you need revitalising,’ it says on the box. ‘Fifty Tea Bags. A blend of Ceylon, Assam and Kenyan teas.’

When Thomas Twining first began selling tea from this shop in 1706, a decent Pekoe went out of the door for about £3 per kilo, a phenomenal sum at the time. The price has gone up a bit since then. Our box of Traditional Afternoon will set us back £1.70 for 125 gram of tea; £13.60 per kilo.

It’s mid afternoon in London but five-and-a-half-thousand miles away on the Moray Estate in Maskeliya, Sri Lanka, it is evening, and Sivalinga Ambiga is helping her two sons with their homework. Before bed she will iron their school uniforms – she is lucky because unlike some of her neighbours she has electricity in her small, single-storey estate house high on the mountain. Outside in the dark a breeze ruffles the waist-high carpet of tea that covers every hillside, and Ambiga can hear the distant roar of a waterfall cascading into the reservoir below. Part of what used to be the estate is under water now, and when it’s very dry the abandoned houses rise slowly from their graves.

It won’t be long before Ambiga turns in: she gets up at 5am to cook breakfast for her family before starting work in the tea garden at 7.30am. Ambiga is expected to pick 19 kilos of tea a day, gathering the leaves in both hands as she moves slowly along the hillside between the carefully-pruned rows. As she works she braces a huge wicker basket on her back, holding it in place with a strap across her forehead. ‘I was born and brought up on this estate,’ she says. ‘I went away to school but I came back to marry my husband, Jayaraman Murthi. He lived here, and so I was very happy to come back.’

Ambiga, who is 25, is four months pregnant with her third child. She has never seen, let alone tasted, Traditional Afternoon tea. She takes home about 90p a day, so our box would cost her almost two days’ wages. Once it has been dried and processed, her daily output weighs about five kilos. So put another way, Ambiga is paid two pence to pick the amount of tea needed to fill our £1.70 box.

Does she ever take a tea break? She and the other women laugh shyly, then they produce a bottle of tea, with milk and sugar, from which they sip while they work the hillsides. They drink five or six cups a day, they say.

While the women pluck, the men prune, weed and spray. About 15% of the estate’s expenditure goes on pesticides and weedkillers. There seems to be a different bottle for every ill. The men wear the gallon-sized plastic bottles like knapsacks on their backs, but they don’t choose to wear the protective clothing the estate provides, working instead in thin trousers and, like their wives, in bare feet.

School finishes at 2pm and in the afternoons Ambiga’s sons, seven-year-old Vinoshan and five-year-old Gagendran, often help with the plucking. At busy times of the year every pair of hands is needed, for the estate is suffering from labour shortages. Ten years ago there were 1,400 workers here; now there are just 1,200. In the 1920s, when the British founded the estate, these Tamil workers were little more than slave labour, the estate superintendent, Rajiv Bandaranayake, tells me. Now children growing up here can leave, and many of them choose to do so. Some go to garment factories or into domestic service in the Gulf states; a few have even gone to university with the support of the estate.

Bandaranayake, like many of the top people in tea, was born to the job. His father was a tea planter when the British were running these estates, and his bulky form spreads comfortably into the big armchair in his airy lounge. There is a huge bay window with view over a carefully-tended garden to the mountains beyond. But although the colonial-style manager’s bungalow remains, things have changed, he says. The estate now offers maternity leave and a clinic to its employees, and the owners would like to do more to improve the workers’ ramshackle tin-roofed accommodation which, he admits, is substandard.

There are a number of different catalysts for change. Some workers choose to leave; others choose to stay and demand better conditions. Last year there were riots here, during a strike over pay which went on for a month. At one stage the water pipes to Bandaranayake’s bungalow were cut and he feared for the safety of his family as angry workers circled the house.

‘They wanted to kill us. Our lives were really in danger,’ he says smiling, as the lunchtime sun hits the floor at his feet. ‘We really had a lot of violence. Now both sides have realised fighting isn’t the answer. Wages can only go up if our companies can make money.’

The plantation workers were angry because their counterparts in the garment sector had been given a cost-of-living allowance of 400 rupees, about £2.85, per month. The plantation management companies said their workers weren’t entitled to any more because they already had their own collective agreements. In the end the employers agreed to pay an ‘attendance allowance’ of 150 rupees, £1.07, per month to workers who turned up for more than 75 days out of every 100, and the trouble subsided.

And so the plantation workers of Maskeliya are back at work, plucking the tea and transporting it down the hill to the estate’s processing plant where it can be dried, rolled, fermented and then baked before being packed in large brown paper packages. But there are other clouds on the horizon. Though Moray produces some of the best teas in the Dimbula region and its price is kept high, the price of tea across the world is being forced down as new and bigger players flood the market with cheap, mass-produced leaves. Vietnam, for example, has become a serious tea producer in recent years. Uganda has increased its production by 20% since 1995. Even the tea trade, already international in its habits, is not immune to the effects of globalisation.

At the Tea Tang company, which buys for Twinings in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, there is dark wood panelling and an air of tradition – although the company is only 30 years old. There is a great deal of mystique about tea, about its blending, its tastes, its habit of changing with the weather. There’s a romance, a sense of some lingering Victorian propriety, about the trade. If you work in the upper echelons of this business, you are emphatically ‘in’ tea.

But at Colombo’s weekly tea auction, the conceit evaporates. Here, every Wednesday, the Colombo tea buyers gather in a sparse, utilitarian auditorium with hard cash in mind, all their attention focussed on the auctioneer’s gushing stream of words. In December last year, when our tea might well have been sold, the average price of tea at the weekly auction in Colombo was around £1.07 per kilo. A year earlier, it was £1.21.

But whatever the price, the taste must stay the same. This is one of the golden rules of the tea business – its art is to cut out the seasonal variations, the differences in taste brought about by soil conditions or weather. And so in an airy room with dark wood glass-fronted cupboards at the Tea Tang headquarters, Chandana de Silva blends half a dozen different teas to recreate a flavour set by Twinings. Does he like to drink Traditional Afternoon? His face is a picture of anxiety mixed with distaste. No, he says, he doesn’t. He prefers the Classic Blend, which is stronger.

Perhaps some of our tea was in blend number 1,970, put together here on December 4 2001. A hundred packages of 58 kilos each, shipped to Felixstowe on December 27 by the Hanjin Shipping Company. They arrived in Britain on January 15 and were taken by road to Twinings’ headquarters at Andover.

From this point on, of course, the story starts to get more complex. For the Ceylon tea in the Traditional Afternoon makes up less than half the total weight of tea. And if Sri Lanka is eyeing the tea prices with concern, Assam and Kenya, where prices are already lower, have much more to fear.

Between December 2000 and December 2001, the average price of Indian tea fell from £1.05 to 94p per kilo, and already the tea planters in Assam are predicting disaster. A series of floods during the past 25 years have caused the loss of large areas of tea plantation on the Brahmaputra plains. Infrastructure in the region is poor, quality has been suffering and some major customers have pulled out of the region.

‘A decline in domestic quality has led to a crash in prices, triggering off the worst crisis in the past century for the Indian tea industry,’ says Aboni Borgohain, chairman of the Tea Research Association and a planter in Assam. ‘The backbone of the industry could be broken.’

But in Sri Lanka, eyes turn to Kenya when apportioning blame for the slump in prices. After all, the African country is the fourth largest biggest producer of tea after China, India and Sri Lanka. While Ceylon tea is produced by expensive traditional methods, in which the machines gently rub the tea leaves to release the flavour (this used to be done by hand), it is whispered that in Kenya they use CTC – cut, tear and curl. Instead of rubbing the leaves gently, the machines chop them up and grind them; which means the end flavour may be noticeably harsher. One senior figure in the tea business describes the process as ‘mincing’. After only a second or two he recovers his composure and asks not to be quoted. After all, tea is a gentleman’s trade.

But Kenya, where the bulk of our Traditional Afternoon comes from, is feeling the pinch too. In Mombasa the price of tea has dropped from £1.40 per kilo a year ago to about £1 today. One of the companies from which Twinings buys is Williamson Tea Kenya, whose managing director is Nigel Sands-Lumsdaine. The problem is simple, he says, and it is the same everywhere. Too much tea, too few customers.

‘Consumption has been increasing by 1% per annum while production has been growing by 2% per annum, and I think that says it all,’ he says. ‘I don’t think we are optimistic that it will improve from current levels, with Vietnam planting more and more tea and China as a somewhat unknown quantity.’

And like everywhere else, it isn’t easy to improve labour standards when money is tight. When health researchers from Kenya’s Moi University visited Tinderet, one of the tea estates from which Twinings buys tea for the Traditional Afternoon blend, they found workers there were forced to live with contaminated water supplies and too few pit latrines. They also noted unhealthy levels of noise and dust in the factory, and said the workers’ protective clothing was inadequate. They added, though, that there was a medical dispensary on the estate.

In the tea-blending department at Andover, all these troubles seem very far away. Here all is light and air, and as you climb the stairs your senses are assailed first by a fruity smell, then a punch of lapsang souchong, then by the sweeter aroma of black tea. In a drawer near the far end of the tasting room, where copper kettles boil on gas rings and tasters spit into bins with relish, is our blend. Encased in a small silver-coloured tin, with a piece of paper spelling out all its details: blended here, February 11 2002.

This process of blending and tasting is a continual one, each batch tasted against the last and against a ‘reserve’ to check for consistency. The blender is Michael Wright, who came to Twinings as a graduate trainee 13 years ago. Every few weeks he takes samples from each of the constituent teas and adjusts the recipe before sending a consignment by road up to Twinings’ teabag factory in Newcastle. Ceylon for flavour. Assam for strength. Kenyan for body.

The job is a delight, Wright says. Unlike many others in the trade, he does not have tea in his genes. ‘I didn’t even know tea buyers existed till I came here. I was very lucky. You tend to spend a lot of time talking about your job, because people are so fascinated by it.’

While Wright is new to the business, Twinings’ corporate communications manager is Stephen Twining, whose family is now in its 10th generation in the tea business. Twinings is owned by Associated British Foods, one of a handful of conglomerates that own most of Britain’s food and drink trade, but it keeps its links with the Twining family. There is still a Twinings way of doing things. It’s about responsibility, Twining says.

‘I’ve been asked how I sleep at night when I’m exploiting people in the third world. But we take responsibility for who we are and what we are. You could argue that it’s miles behind the times, but the thing that helps me sleep is that I know it’s going to be a long, slow, continuous process. There’s work to be done, but it is being done and that is very positive.’

The story of our tea does not end here. Now our teas have met, they must be united in a cocoon of packaging. According to some estimates, packaging can make up as much as four fifths of the cost of a packet of teabags. And so to Lydney in Gloucestershire, to JR Crompton Ltd, the world’s biggest manufacturer of tea-bag paper.

Actually ‘paper’ is a bit of a misnomer. Paper falls to pieces when it gets wet, and so paper alone will not do for teabags. Our bags are what is known as ‘superseal’, which is a mix of rayon – a product made of wood pulp and caustic soda – and polypropylene, a by-product of the oil industry. The polypropylene is provided by the Fina oil company’s plant in Belgium, and the whole is wrapped around with a casing of paper from trees grown in Scandinavia and North America. For each tonne of paper made, about 50 kilos of discarded pulp goes into landfill sites.

Then, of course, there are the boxes. Twinings has done away with the polythene shrink-wrapping that covers most boxes of teabags – it looks naff, the marketing people hint. And so our box is a two-layered affair, the first layer coated with a varnish to seal in the tea, the second printed with the gold and green design. The card comes from pine and birch trees in Finland but the printing is done in Maidenhead.

All these constituent parts meet at Twinings’ factory in north Tyneside, a huge shed of a place crouched on an industrial estate near where the shipyards used to be. In the UK, of course, labour is expensive and much of the work is done by machine. There are machines to mix the tea, machines to make the bags, even machines to pack the boxes together into bundles of 12.

The production manager, Richard Cotton, takes our box of teabags and reads the identifying code. He goes away and comes back with a date and time: February 27, 19.05pm. Line 51. There were three people on that line on the afternoon shift that day, he says. Sharon Ellis, Anne Davison and Lynn Lumley. Mostly they keep an eye on the machines, checking for problems.

Ellis is in today, as it happens, which is unusual because workers here do five-hour shifts instead of the usual eight, and these three women start at five. Ellis has been here for nine years, always on line 51. Why move? The pay is good – around £6 an hour which is more than most factories around here. And the women on the afternoon shift have a laugh. They like to seek out Cotton on their nights out in Whitley Bay and embarrass him into buying them a drink. Something a little stronger than tea, of course.

‘When I first started here there were seven lasses on the line,’ Ellis says. ‘Now they’re getting all this hi-tech machinery they don’t need so many. I think it’s easier now, actually. When I first applied for the job I didn’t get it but my sister-in-law worked here and I knew I could do it. So I just kept on applying until they took me. I like the lasses I work with. At Christmas we sing rugby-club versions of carols.’

And so our tea, gathered thousands of miles away by the likes of Ambiga, haggled over at auction, blended, shipped around the world, blended again then wrapped, boxed and re-boxed, is on the move for the last time. Down the motorway to a warehouse in Warwickshire, then on to the Strand. Where, right now, it is being dropped into a handsome black-and-gold carrier bag along with a receipt for £1.70. Outside, not too far away, is a stop for the number 59 bus. Which takes us to where the kettle is. Time for a brew. After all, it’s been a long journey.

Posted by Ian Cook (last updated January 2011). Article reproduced without fee with permission from Guardian News and Media Limited (copyright 2002).