Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
There is no name more venerable in the British tea trade than Twinings. In 1711, Queen Anne, a tea lover of some note, appointed Thomas Twining her official purveyor of teas, and Twinings have held Royal Warrants to every king or queen since that time. For ten generations spanning three centuries, this tea dynasty has reigned supreme across the British Empire.
The Twining family trace their heritage to the Gloucestershire township of Twyning at the confluence of the Avon and Severn rivers. Twyning derives from the Old English word for “between the rivers” and, despite its spelling, was originally (but no longer) pronounced TWIN-ning.
In 1706, Thomas Twining purchased Tom’s Coffee House at 216 Strand in London. At that time, brewed coffee and tea were dipped from barrels and sold to customers by the tankard or cup. Thomas transformed the coffeehouse into Twinings Tea House and set a “Golden Lyon” above the door, flanked by figures of two Chinese merchants. Twinings at the Golden Lyon was one of the first shops ladies could enter without any impropriety to buy their tea. Prior to this, women had been obliged to send their husbands or male servants into the forbidden interior of a coffeehouse to purchase loose-leaf tea for home consumption. Now, carriages drew up to the famous doorway and waited while aristocratic ladies dealt directly with the tea merchant. Once inside, they could buy their favorite tea straight from one of the open chests or have a blend specially made up.
A century later, writer Jane Austen was a devoted customer because, at a time when tea leaves were sometimes mixed with tree leaves by unscrupulous vendors and smugglers, Austen could be sure of buying unadulterated leaves at Twinings. In an 1814 letter to her sister Cassandra, she mentions: “I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining til later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply.”
Since the days of Thomas Twining, all Twinings teas were blended and packed in London. But in 1964, Associated British Foods acquired the family-owned company, and two years later, operations were moved to Andover, Hampshire.
Stephen Twining is the 10th generation of this famous tea clan. He began working for the company in 1985 and moved up through the ranks to become Director of Corporate Relations, which means “tea ambassador.” Stephen enjoys the enviable position of traveling the world to inform people about tea in general and to publicize his namesake brand.
I met Stephen on a misty London morning at the original Twinings Tea Shop, just down the street from the Savoy Hotel. I hadn’t been in the long, narrow shop for several years. For a few decades, packages of tea bags and coffees were the main offering, but I was pleased to see the historic venue had been brightly revamped for contemporary tea drinkers.
Below the portraits of the Twining patriarchs, loose teas from around the world again fill the shelves. Best of all, a sleek new tea bar can accommodate guests as they taste teas from the unending selections the shop proffers. It seems the British tea trade has taken a page from tea culture in America, where tea bars have been popping up for more than a decade as retailers realize their customers buy more tea when tastings are offered.
Stephen made a nice pot of a very tippy, single-estate Assam, and we compared notes on the current state of tea in our two countries. There are a number of similarities—a growing demographic of young tea drinkers, a greater preference for loose-leaf teas, the influence of tea’s healthy reputation, and tea’s universal ability to bring people together.
The Twining family business has grown into a multi-million-dollar brand that is filling teacups around the world. For 150 years, Stephen’s ancestors stocked only Chinese teas, delivered from the same East India Company warehouses in London that dispatched shiploads of teas that ended up at the bottom of Boston Harbor in 1773. In an interesting twist to tea’s long and colorful history, China is now importing great quantities of Twinings teas. Selling British tea to China is the equivalent of the English adage “carrying coals to Newcastle.”
As he travels the world, Stephen Twining often ends his talks by reciting the poem that so aptly sums up the role of tea in the Twining story:
It seems in some cases kind nature hath planned
That names with their callings agree,
For Twining the Teaman that lives in the Strand,
Would be “wining; deprived of his T.”
Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson is the co-author, along with Jane Pettigrew, of A Social History of Tea, published by Benjamin Press. He and his wife, Shelley, are owners of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas.