black&white #42: The Leafies, an afternoon of extraordinary tea
5 min steep
This week marked a truly special occasion in the world of tea. For the first time ever, the International Tea Academy Awards ceremony took place – and tea producers, processors and traders from around the world were celebrated for their outstanding contribution to our industry. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my involvement in the UK Tea Academy and why we wanted to create the awards – although fine tea was just beginning to get the attention it deserved in the UK, we in the tea world still lacked an official UK-based initiative to celebrate the best teas in the world – unlike coffee, alcohol and many, many other types of food.
The professional brew team preparing the tea for the judges.
On Thursday, this deficiency was no longer – and we saw the hard work of our organisers, judges, brewers and, of course, our entrants come together in a beautiful celebration of fine loose leaf teas. All in our partner Fortnum & Mason’s illustrious Drawing Room, on the 4th floor of their flagship 1707 store in Piccadilly. Home of the world-renowned Rare Tea Counter, where the winners will have their teas showcased and sold to tea connoisseurs who travel far and wide to taste and buy some of the best, rarest teas in the world. So, what did we get up to at the first ever International Tea Academy Awards?
First up, we welcomed judges, entrants and guests from around the world for a pre-Award drink. There was a buzz in the air, an edge of glitz and glamour – and for me, some pre-show jitters. After all, it was the culmination of years of planning, months of organising and weeks of intense judging. Next came the Awards Ceremony, hosted by the inimitable Jane Pettigrew, tea expert, Leafies judge and co-founder of the UK Tea Academy. There were 19 tea categories and six special achievements overall – and our judges were on hand to present the awards. In each category there were multiple ‘Highly Commended’ and one ‘Gold’ up for grabs – but our judges were tough, and out of over 300 entries, only 28 Highly Commended and 12 Golds were awarded. You’ll be able to find the full list of winners on The Leafies website, but here were some of the big hitters.
Jane Pettigrew, Leafies judge and co-founder of the UK Tea Academy.
Phyu Thwe founded the Mogok Tea Company to bring a better quality of life to her native region in Myanmar through tea-growing on her family's land. With the help from the Scottish Tea Factory and Tea consultant Beverly Wainwright – who brought us the superb and 100% Scottish-grown Nine Ladies Dancing – Phyu’s been growing some truly extraordinary teas. She won Gold for Black Ruby in our Black Natural category and Highly Commended for her green tea Tiny Green Temple. Phyu herself won the Tea for Life Special Award, for her work empowering her community, regenerating the local community and uplifting the welfare of her tea workers. An incredible achievement. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and full of emotion as she spoke about the hardship and trauma her community had gone through as a result of the ongoing civil war in Myanmar – and how tea growing had offered some respite in a region ravaged by conflict.
I spoke to her after the awards about what winning the Leafies meant to her:
“It’s uplifting for the team at home. Mainly because this is the first time ever that black tea’s been made in our particular area that meets international standards. With the help, training and teaching from the Beverly and Scottish Tea Factory, we’ve been able to produce such high quality tea. It’s such an honour – and such an encouragement for people back home.”
Tea processors at the Mogok Tea Company in Myanmar.
Another runaway winner was Wild Orchard, an American outfit with a partner farm in Jeju Island, South Korea, who won three Highly Commendeds one for their Early Spring green and two for their Sunday Brunch blend in the Natural Roasted Green and House Blend categories. Superb teas, exemplary production methods, and exactly the kind of company we want to shine a light on through the Leafies.
“I was so thrilled and honored to accept 3 awards today on behalf of Wild Orchard Regenerative Teas. We are extremely humbled and excited to have our teas recognized as some of the finest in the world. The original vision for our farm saw that restoring the health of our soil through regenerative agriculture principles would produce a tea elevated in nutrients and flavor and also act as a powerful carbon draw down solution to address our current climate crisis.”
The landscape surrounding Wild Orchard's tea fields in Jeju Island, South Korea.
I also got a chance to speak to Chris from the Tea Project UK – originally a company in Hong Kong – who were there representing a tea grower in Taiwan for their High Mountain Oolong Tea. “It was an honour to receive the award. It comes as a surprise as it’s the first time we’ve entered any international awards and it’s a huge encouragement to our start-up. We’re from Hong Kong and many of us have moved here recently because of the political situation in our country. We often feel sad and homesick, but through tea, we’re trying to bring comfort and warmth to people in this chaotic world.”
And when we asked what The Leafies brought to the industry, Chris said: “There are so many tea growers around who are doing incredible things for their country, or their communities, or their environment but not many people recognise or know about it. And it provides a really great platform to showcase what kind of qualities and values that you’re growing tea by.”
And finally, we have to mention the winner of the Lifetime Achievement award, Indi Khanna of the Tea Studio. Indi has been making tea for over 45 years, taking a hands-on approach to all aspects of his tea making – from the tea nursery and field cultivation to processing and blending. He’s even known in international tea trade circles. He currently lives and works in the Nilgiri Hills in India, where he produces some truly exceptional artisan teas and has helped revive the tea growing industry in that part of the region. Very excitingly, we’re going to be selling some of Indi’s superb Nilgiri Frost black tea in our next batch of special edition teas – and you’ll be the first to know. Did we enter any Canton teas? Even though I’m not a judge, in the interests of impartiality, we decided not to.
Tea Studio’s micro factory nestled in the stunning Nilgiri Mountain range in Tamil Nadu.
After the awards, we were treated to the ultimate Leafies x Fortnum and Mason experience. A delectable Afternoon Tea buffet with a selection of the award-winning teas (and some tea infused gin and tonics). And, of course, a chance to meet our fellow tea enthusiasts from around the world. To all be in the same room together felt momentous.
It was the first ever Leafies, but it certainly won’t be the last.