It is a good week to be visiting London Tea Exchange, I am told, ahead of National Tea Day on 21 April. The attaché of the Mexican president is paying them a visit later this week, so their top teas are already out on display awaiting far more important tastebuds than my own.
The Spitalfields shop makes regulars of royals, presidents, prime ministers – all drawn to its huge selection of rare, premium quality teas from all corners of the globe.
Even Prince Charles is reportedly a fan of their premium earl grey; a ‘classic’ blend of a Sri Lankan black tea infused with Italian bergamot oil.
But while founder and chief executive officer Sheikh Aliur Rahman is well versed on talking tea with Very Important People, he and the team are just as happy walking us ordinary folk through their range of more than 300 single estate varieties and blends from the world’s 24 tea-producing countries.
The former City trader got the idea for the business from years of business trips to far flung places where he was treated to “lots and lots of tea”. Surprised to find that, in a nation famous for the stuff, he wasn’t able to get a lot of the varieties he had tried, Aliur spent eight years collecting as many premium teas as possible before opening London Tea Exchange two-and-a-half years ago.
“I didn’t want it to be just another High Street tea shop – we have enough of those,” he explains. “I wanted it to be something that added value to the industry; gather the best of the best and bring it to London.”
To that end, Aliur and his team select their estates based on their location (the best tea trees grow at 1,500 metres above sea level) and sustainable growing practices, visiting each producer to personally taste and select the teas.
This is a quality assurance test that can sometimes prove dangerous, as Aliur found when paying a visit to the highest tea estate in the world in Nepal. “It’s right on the edge of the Himalayas and I had to climb up this mountain along a narrow path to reach it – I nearly died for that tea.”
The six types of tea – Green, Black, White, Yellow, Oolong and Pu-erh – are well represented on the shop floor, among them the Mountain Gold, which was awarded Best Product of the Year at the 2016 UKBCCI Business Awards. Aliur also has a stash of around 80 ‘aged pures’ viewable by appointment only, including the coveted Chinese ‘Red Robe’ variety, which retails for around £8,000 per gram.
But if you’re feeling a little low-brow with your 2pm Twinings pick-me-up, don’t. “People always ask what I think about the supermarket brands, and the tea bags and I say ‘it’s great’ – we want the tea industry to keep on growing as much as possible, we want them to do well.
“Tea is coming back into fashion – we get a lot of companies doing tea tastings instead of wine or chocolate; Starbucks has just brought out a tea, Unilever just bought T2, I think there’s a strong future in it.” In a nation of 165million cuppas a day and counting, we’d say he’s probably right.
London Tea Exchange, 10 Market Street E1 6DT