A taste of Dorset – Rich tea heritage
Lorraine Gibson looks at a Dorset representative of a British icon: Spicer's Dorset Tea
Published in December ’11
For the British, tea drinking is a serious business; for the Japanese, it is almost a religion. So for a Dorset firm to succeed in exporting one of its quintessentially English blends to a Japanese retailer is a bit of a coup, but Keith Spicer’s Dorset Tea does have a unique identity.
The classic blend is inspired by the county it celebrates, right down to the retro image of Corfe Castle on its packaging which echoes the Enid Blyton’s book covers. It delivers a pale, red-earthish colour – with strong, but not ferocious, flavour and the all-important refreshing tang, and is designed specifically to work well with the county’s notoriously hard water; all of which unexpectedly appeals to the discerning palates of the Japanese.
As well as the exporting success, the firm also has impressive eco credentials. These include using the most environmentally friendly packaging available, being founding members of the Ethical Tea Partnership and being accredited with Rainforest Alliance Status. Yet this globe-spanning trade had humble beginnings. The company began in 1934 when a young Bournemouth man called Keith Spicer decided that, on account of there being such a proliferation of hotels in his neighbourhood, it might be a good idea to go into the business of wholesaling tea. The 21-year-old acquired a large bag of the stuff and in the lounge of his modest Charminster house, decanted it into smaller packages. He then, literally, got on his bike – an old butcher’s bone-shaker that had seen better days – and set about hawking his wares around the town. Little could Keith have imagined, as he trundled about the streets on his rusty steed, that he was laying foundations for a family business, which still endures today, supplying supermarkets, private label clients, posh London emporia and international customers. Nor in his wildest dreams could he have predicted that one day the end product and its source would come together in an initiative that offers a drastically needed helping hand to bereft children on the other side of the planet.
As Spicer’s trade expanded, sourcing more and more tea led to direct contact with the growers, the majority of whom are found in East Africa, which is where the best leaves for producing the red-brown shade tea that Spicer’s requires are grown. As members of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), Spicer’s source their tea in a socially responsible way. The ETP aims to improve the lives of tea workers and ensure that tea drinkers can be confident that the tea in their cup has been produced in an environmentally and socially-sustainable way. Consequently staff from the Dorset HQ, including current sales and marketing manager, Alistair Lee, and technical manager, Jean-Rene Grailhe, found themselves in Africa. There they rapidly became immersed in the affairs of the local communities and the many difficult issues facing them on a daily basis. This was especially true in Malawi, which is home to the world’s highest percentage of children orphaned as a result of AIDS.
Spicer’s are now proud sponsors of Chombo Orphange in Chirimba Township, Blantyre (Malawi), where orphans aged between three and sixteen years of age, all of whom have experienced the traumas of sickness, death, poverty, abandonment and hunger to some degree, can grow up together in a caring community. When the children initially arrive, they are in need of immediate support, not just of the physical variety, but emotional too, which is where the Chombo house ‘mothers’ step in, guiding their new charges on everything from basic life skills and values to upholding their Malawian traditions. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, they act as surrogate mothers, giving the children the parental care of which they have been so deprived. The Chombo set-up also addresses basic needs such as education fees, books, transport and the like, all of which cost money. Which is why the Spicer’s team is on a permanent fund-raising mission, and one of the reasons behind the launch of Dorset Tea on the firm’s 75th anniversary. The fund-raising takes the form of charity auctions and golf tournaments, cake sales and selling cuppas at the Wimborne Food Festival.
African orphans and the plight of the rainforest are close to their hearts, but closer to home, the company are also enthusiastic supporters of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, and recently ran a competition in association with Monkey World, underlining their commitment and fondness for the county where it all started, as things often do, with a nice cup of tea.
The British drink 165 million cups of tea a day, which is 60.2 billion cups per year. Keith Spicer combine sources and blends from around the world in order to produce their Dorset Tea. The leaves are still picked by hand, the tea is sampled and tested, auctioned, tested again, blended, tested again… and yet the average person in the UK spends just eight seconds making a cup of tea. Keith Spicer’s Alistair Lee has some recommendations on how to make the perfect cup.
‘Give it time to brew,’ says Alistair. ‘Leave it a few minutes. Go off and do something then come back to it. Always use freshly-drawn water and only boil enough for how much tea you’re making. It’s not just better for the environment, but as re-boiled water loses some of its oxygen, not using freshly-drawn water will not allow the tea to get its full flavour.
‘The ideal ratio for the perfect cuppa is 88% tea to 12% milk. As the smaller proportion, the milk should go in first so as to minimise the ‘shock’ of cold and boiling liquids is minimised. Pouring milk into what is essentially a cup full of boiling water will unbind the proteins in the milk and alter its taste and texture.’