The Twinings tea shop and museum is a tiny gem, often overlooked and overshadowed by its neighbours on the Strand. Inside, however, this narrow outlet tells a different story. At the front, people stock up with tea that will easily last them years, but towards the back - the best bit - it gets calmer and you can try any one of the hundreds of teas on display at no cost.
We shared a cup of Assam with Mark Nicholls, the manager, and found out more about the company and tea in general, including why one customer kissed the shop floor as he entered.
Could you give us a tea-potted history of Twinings?
After the Great Fire of London, a lot of businesses and a lot of prestigious people were moving outside the city, and a lot of people ended-up here on the Strand. This became the new boundary of London and Thomas Twining bought himself a coffee shop here in about 1696. This was called the Golden Lion and is all still represented on our doorway today (see pic).
This would have been known as a coffee house at that time. It was where gentlemen of the town would drink coffee and cocoa in the morning and maybe towards the afternoon they would get on to the rum or brandy. There might also have been a lot of business taking place and card games happening as well.
Thomas then made a very brave move and through his connections and experience at the East India Company introduced tea here around about 1706.
Which types of tea were introduced first?
Tea that we were getting from China at that period was mainly green tea and black tea. People had never seen this before. Culturally, the shock waves it sent through the beverage culture of the country were phenomenal. People were drinking beer which was low in alcohol, as the badness was taken out by the fermentation process, so people were not dying of dysentery as they were when they were drinking water from the Thames. So, coincidently, when tea turned up they were being told to boil their water - obviously people were not dying and people thought ‘great, if I drink tea, I’m not going to die’. So it gained popularity from day one.
Did people drink tea without milk and sugar?
Milk and sugar came in a little bit later for two reasons. In the later half of the seventeenth century both the crockery and the tea were very delicate. So, because you were tipping the boiling water onto this it was all smashing and breaking. Some clever dick said ‘lets put a spot of milk in first’ and of course that was cooling it. That is why we have always been told to put our milk in first.
Tell us more about the tea museum
It is a time capsule - a collection of tea memorabilia that has been used over the generations, from tea caddies, tea cups, and books from the period, to older packaging from the turn of the century. We also have bits and pieces about the family - who they were, what they did, and the contribution they made, not only to the company but to society as a whole. For example, Louisa and Elizabeth Twining made massive contributions to the good of society and actually won the Nobel prizes.
People are very passionate about tea. You get all sorts. For some people it is almost a pilgrimage. They obviously love the tea and the shop has been here since the company started. One gentleman went to the floor and kissed it when he came in. I was absolutely stunned. Twinings obviously meant something special to him, which, of course, we were delighted to see.
Is everyday tea one of your most popular?
We like to appeal to every palette. We try to make a tea to suit everyone. There is a massive selection for everyone to have a look at. But our everyday tea is probably quite new on the scene compared to some of the other teas.
Is there a difference in quality between tea bags and loose tea?
I guess loose tea, historically, has always produced a good strength and has been a lot more pleasant to drink. Tea bags have been around since the 50s and are used to generate or make a cup of tea quicker, faster, or slightly more efficiently than using a teapot. People say that teabags don't taste as good as loose tea, but some that are coming out now are as good as loose tea. Our tasters in Andover identify good teas early on and are able to source them more efficiently and quickly and get them here and put them straight into a bag.
How much tea do people in the UK drink?
I think at the last count I heard 1.3 million cups a day. I know that we have about less than one percent of the world's population, yet we are consuming two percent of the world's tea output, so we are considerable tea drinkers and in the mid 60s we peaked our consumption at 5 kilos of tea, per person, per year, which is a phenomenal amount of tea.
Do you think Twinings will ever open tea houses?
I would be delighted if they ever did. I guess it is something very different for Twinings, as we have been tea and coffee merchants, so I guess cafes would be very different to what we have done.
Twinings can be found at 216 Strand.
By Helen Soteriou. Images (c) Helen Soteriou.