Canton Tea's Jen and Ali in the back of a truck in Taiwan

black&white #01: A newish beginning

3 min steep

Hello! Welcome to black&white. The name alludes to tea, clarity and print - we love them all. With black&white #01 we honour a new beginning by casting back to the start of Canton, when it was a chaotic, exciting, financial white-knuckle ride, operating from my kitchen table.

Taiwan landscape of mountains and tea fields

It was a start-up inspired by one tea, a Pouchong from Taiwan. We’d been drinking it for years because my partner worked a lot in east asia and he was given a new season batch each year by his Taiwanese friend and colleague, whose family owned the tea farm. We loved that tea. When it struck me that no one I knew had ever tasted a green tea so good, it seemed like the obvious next step to import it direct from our friend’s farm - and loads of people would buy it, right? No. We were quite wrong. Back in 2008, few people in the UK were drinking whole, perfectly intact leaves of green tea which cost a lot more than they were used to. 

At first we were selling to both individual customers and to trade. Except we didn’t actually sell much in trade - most hotels and restaurants weren’t interested in delicious, single origin, hand-crafted tea leaves from small family farms with great stories. Even in the posh places, they were happy with Twinings teabags. But we doggedly hung on, sourcing some of the world’s best teas for a handful of committed tea aficionados. And then, a bit of a breakthrough. After a trip on the foot ferry from Twickenham to Richmond, with packets of rare teas in our bag, we tentatively, hopefully, offered them up to the manager of Petersham Nurseries, the iconic Michelin-starred garden centre owned by Gael and Francesco Boglione. Our values chimed with theirs and they became an early adopter. After that some starry hotels and restaurants followed. 

Edgar Thoemmes, another family friend, was in Canton from the start as the gifted ops and finance guy. I did the tasting events, the training and the talking - so much tea talking - to chefs, F&B managers and owners about why premium tea was essential in any carefully considered menu. Did everyone listen? No. But enough people did to put Canton on the map: Jason Atherton, Rick Stein, Alain Roux, Adam Byatt, Gordon Ramsay to name(drop) just a few. 

Co-founders Jen and Edgar putting up original Canton Tea Company sign

In 2015, we had well over 120 teas on our list - it was a crazy time trying to look after 5 Star London hotels and an incensed Mr Piggott of Saffron Walden who had received a bag of only 19 tea pyramids not 20 (but then called back to apologise he’d found the missing one under the table). Something had to give. With a heavy heart we cut down our unmanageable tea list and said goodbye to all our Mr Piggotts, to focus solely on trade. 

Five years later, the pandemic struck and our trade customers closed overnight. So we adapted again. We opened up to the public and went out to find new customers and slightly sheepishly, to the old ones. The added incentive this time around is if you know what you like, you can buy it in bigger trade packs too - like 500g or 50 pyramids (never 49!). We’ll also introduce small batches of seasonal teas to keep up the interest for the more adventurous among you.

So now, with murky horizons clearing at last, we’re back to doing things the way we’d always wanted: selling to the best restaurants and hotels and directly to tea-lovers. We’ve come a rather wobbly full-circle - and we plan to stay this way.

- Jennifer Wood, Founder

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