“We do our best and most creative thinking when we are relaxing over a cup of tea,” says Paul Bennetts, founder of Tomte Life. Not over a glass of wine, not in the bath, but over a cup of tea. Indeed, it has become a defining idea for the website focused on sourcing high-quality tea from around the world and promoting its ability to bring people together. Cradling a freshly brewed cup of Hawaiian forest white tea, it’s hard to argue.
Having founded Tomte with a small team earlier this year, Bennetts is working hard to not only source the best teas to bring to Australia, but to change the way we think about drinking tea. “Tea has this ability to allow us to pause and connect,” says Bennetts. “It’s a wonderful device to help up discuss and share ideas with someone. You don’t really get that with other beverages necessarily.”
The idea that tea brings people together is not a new one, and Bennetts certainly doesn’t claim to be the first to observe the notion. But what is different about his approach to tea drinking is two-fold.
First, in contrast to his efforts in sourcing the best teas from around the world, he’s not trying to create a specialty tea movement that requires vast amounts of knowledge or a highly trained palate. Rather, he’s looking to make tea accessible to everyone, with Tomte finding the best teas, so that all you have to do is enjoy them.
Second, Bennetts has a very precise method for brewing tea that has almost nothing to do with precision itself. It’s less about measurements, weights and timing and more about personal tastes, ease of brewing and an option to really take your time. “We prefer to use more tea, brew it for less time and re-steep it multiple times,” he explains.
For this, Bennetts favours a gaiwan for brewing (a cup with a lid used to brew and pour small amounts of tea steeped to your personal preference), brewing repeated cups from the same leaves. Popular in China, gaiwan are still relatively unusual in Australia.
“The clean up easy,” notes Bennetts with a smile, “and you use your samovar – or cast iron teapot – to refill as you wish. You can re-brew the leaves and really take your time to savour not just one over-drawn pot, but a number of tea cups brewed to your preference.”
None of Bennetts’ teas come with a strictly prescribed brewing time; there are loose guidelines so white and green teas are not scorched, but steeping time is a personal choice.
“One of the reasons I am doing this is because there are some amazing teas out there, but as an Australian it’s very hard to find any information or get hold of it, or to find out what’s going on in the world with tea. For example, Hawaii has had this decade of experimentation and now they’re producing unbelievable micro-lot teas.”
Bennetts’ frustration with tea quality in Australia reached a head when he experienced puerh tea with a friend in a San Francisco teahouse. Put simply, it was unlike anything he had encountered before, brewed so black that it looked like espresso and tasted nothing like the versions he had previously tried. Back in Australia, he realised that the majority of beverages on offer were what he terms “a sugar delivery system”.
“It was very frustrating being sold sugar when I wanted tea,” says Bennetts, referring to the preference for black tea with milk and sugar or teas using artificial flavours. “And there’s such an interesting world of teas out there that are just impossible to find in Australia.”
The team at Tomte have scoured over 500 small-lot farms to come up with around six teas, of which we try Hawaiian-grown forest white tea and Oolong, before finishing with a first harvest Korean black tea. Over the course of our discussion, we try the teas brewed several times from the same leaves, letting their full range and personality unfold in the cup and sliding into easy conversation as the tea steeps.
The most important aspect of our tea tasting is that by the time we are done, we’ve been sipping tea for almost two hours – and not once did we look at a clock, watch or mobile phone. That has to say something about the ritual of tea.
1. Find a perfect spot
Creating a sense of atmosphere is important. Find a spot that is good to sit and enjoy your tea. Step away from your desk, turn off your phone, find some good company. “If I ever run a teahouse, there won’t be any phone reception,” jokes Bennetts. “It will be a black hole so that no one can interrupt.”
2. Get the right equipment
“What we want is just your pot of hot water, your brewing device and your cup. So when you’ve brewed you can expel all the liquid and then when you’re ready you can brew again,” says Bennetts. “For one conversation you might be able to brew the one set of leaves five or so times, refilled from the samovar.” Bennetts recommends three simple pieces of equipment: a samovar (or cast iron teapot) to hold your water and keep it hot, a gaiwan for brewing and a teacup for straining the liquid off to enjoy.
Meet-Up. Tomte Life will be hosting their first tea meet-up in conjunction with Incu. It’s a chance to get so know some first-rate teas and have a chat with other tea lovers. It’s planned for October 4 so stay tuned for the details.