Country of Origin: Scotland
Leaf Appearance: large, dark and spindly
Steep time: 3 minutes
Water Temperature: 212 degrees
Preparation Method: ceramic side-handled teapot
I've had the pleasure of trying a few different Scottish grown teas and have enjoyed them quite a bit. When I had the opportunity to review Kinnettles Gold from Kinnettle Farm in Angus, I jumped at the chance. They partnered with Beverly-Clair Wainwright of Amba Estate fame so I knew that I was in for a real treat.
PekoeTea's explained that they matched processing techniques to the terroir of Scotland rather than copying methods from other countries. Kinnettles Gold has been produced since 2015 in small batches of less than 2kg per year. Scotland does get pretty chilly in the winter months so I'd imagine their window for harvesting is relatively short.
The dry leaf was really beautiful to look at, long and spindly with visible bud tips. My closeup doesn't quite show the scale but they were fairly small in size, reminding me a bit of a Bai Lin Gongfu or Keemun. Having just 5g of leaf to work with, I brewed this tea in a ceramic side-handled teapot that was exactly the recommended 200ml. I definitely feel inclined to pick up some more so that I can experiment with gongfu brewing.
The taste was malty and sweet with a surprisingly fruity aftertaste. I couldn't help but be reminded of caramelized apples. As black tea generally goes, tannins were definitely there but not so much as to be astringent or overpowering.
I was able to get several infusions in before the tea started to lose strength and color. Playing with leaves is a long-standing habit of mine and I couldn't resist once they unfurled. The coloring really unlike any black tea that I had seen and there were lots of great looking bud sets as well.
This opportunity was even more special because I was able to send questions to Jon Cooper of Pekoe Tea as well as Susie Walker-Monroe, the producer of the tea at Kinnettles Farm.
Q&A with Susie Walker-Monroe
Q: Have you always been a tea person? What inspired you to start Kinnettles Farm?
No I haven’t particularly as I am just as happy drinking lovely coffee too. But I read an article in a glossy magazine back in 2007 in a dentists waiting room about Tregothnan in Cornwall, the first tea plantation in the UK. From the photos in the magazine, they had the same flora as we have on our farm - snowdrops, primulas, rhododendron’s - all acid loving plants. We were looking at the time for a project for the farm to diversify into and tea ticked a lot of boxes. We have free draining loamy soils and south facing slopes. Only once I purchased plants from Tregothnan and started to read about tea in depth, did I realise what a huge subject it is - a lifetime immersion is not enough to learn it all!
Q: What were the biggest challenges that you ran into when you first started growing tea?
The biggest challenges are high winds and wet heavy snow damaging leaves. We initially planted our cuttings from Tregothnan out in the fields, but this was too brutal for them as cuttings have very shallow roots and the frost is a challenge. We moved everything to polytunnels in 2010. When you pluck the tea you are taking away 5% of its growth, so we replace this with liquid manures from the plants around us - namely dockens, comfrey and stinging nettles. The amount of time and labour that goes into looking after, plucking and processing tea has been a worry as at the beginning I simply had not appreciated that you need to pluck 4 to 5 times the amount of green leaf to make black tea. Put simply 250 grams of plucked green leaf will give me just over 50 grams of precious Kinnettles Gold.
Q: What effect does the Scottish terroir have on the taste of tea?
The terroir undoubtedly has an affect on the leaf. Our soils are naturally acidic which tea loves, so as explained above we also add liquid natural plant manures to help the tea plants and also bring out the flavour of the plants growing naturally around the tea. Light levels have a huge impact as well on the taste of tea which means our northerly latitude influences the complexity of flavours.
Q: Do you plan to expand production? Will we see a green tea, white tea, or oolong in the future?
In 2016 we got permission to bring in cold tolerant tea seed from ex soviet Georgia and Ilam District in Nepal. These are different from Kinnettles Gold which is grown from cuttings from sinensis sinensis stock at Tregothnan, so has a much smaller leaf. The only expansion of production of Kinnettles Gold is from cuttings so will always be a tea produced in tiny quantities.
Our tea seed project is different and is all about moving tea bushes out into the field and away from expensive polytunnels. The long tap roots from a seed are not shallow like cuttings, they anchor the plant against high winds and mine down for water, drawing up different minerals from the soil strata. Our teas in the future grown from seed undoubtedly will taste different from Kinnettles Gold, but will have a signature taste that is local. The tea seed project has nine of us involved and we are called Tea Gardens of Scotland (www.teagardensofscotland.co.uk). Our nine gardens this year are experimenting with the teas we will be producing in the future. We will be making black teas and green teas but no plans to do white teas. These teas will not be available until 2020 as the tea bushes need to be mature to ensure the tea has the best flavours we are able to coax from the leaf. Tea consultant Beverly Wainwright is working with us in our micro experimentation to help us going forward to realise the groups objective which is to produce some of the finest teas in the world.
Q&A with Jon Cooper
Q: PekoeTea has been in business for over a decade. How has the market changed in that time?
I’ve actually been dealing in tea since 2005 and when I first started, the UK market was very much geared towards Twinings being a “premium” tea. I remember serving some Silver Needle - Bai Hao Yin Zhen to a customer who complained that it was an expensive cup of hot water. There really wasn’t a pallet for it or really any cultural interest for it. There was a lot of resistance to a product that was against the preconceptions of what tea is - teabags from the supermarket etc.
As time has gone on, tea had gained more attention. At first mainly though gimmicky health stories about weight loss or anti-cancer, but at least it got people to pay attention. There were a few speciality tea companies around in 2005 but not many and it was mainly mainstream Chinese teas, such as Jasmine Dragon Pearls etc and Darjeelings from the big estates such as Castleton that were on the market. Even for my company, I could only dream of buying and selling some of the teas we have today. Interestingly, I have always been passionate about untouched teas and have a lot of resistance to the flavoured tea market, so this part of the industry kind of crept up on me unawares.
The hospitality industry has embraced loose tea or at the very least the pyramid tea bags, which is a big change because up until around 2011, it was usually Twinings teabags in high end restaurants. Now it’s the norm to have loose tea but there is so much varying quality with what is actually served depending if the establishment cares or not. This is a big part of what we do - education. We have to keep educating. The coffee industry has managed to get the “wow” factor but I do think that tea still has a way to go. I think this is because the added value in tea doesn’t involve buttons and machines and steam wands etc.
The UK “specialty” tea market has really grown through the loose flavoured tea market. The big German companies that supply in bulk out of a catalogue have made it really easy for all these small tea companies that are popping up every week. It is great for the market as a whole as it gets more people drinking tea, but I do have an issue with the lack of transparency in the industry. I think long term this could really damage the industry as a whole because consumers don’t know what to believe when they’re told a tea is sourced direct.
Last year I did a talk about the perceived value of tea and heavily used the analogies of single malt whisky and fine wine. I think as the price difference between low end teas and high end tea gets smaller and smaller, more and more consumers will learn to appreciate high end tea for what it really is and learn to value why it is so special.
Q: How did the collaboration between Kinettles Farm and PekoeTea come about?
I already knew Beverly Wainwright when she lived in Edinburgh before she went to Amba Estate in Sri Lanka. When Susie contacted Beverly to get some help with the processing of the teas, she was recommended to us as a company to partner with to market the new tea. There had already been some Scottish tea made by another company that had a reputation for being purely a gimmick (it was Scottish but wasn’t that good) so I was adamant that if we were to work with Susie’s tea it had to actually be good. I was blown away by it the first time I tried it and it has a taste, which I now call the Kinnettles taste. When I met Susie, I immediately saw the passion and commitment to the what she does and I felt really privileged to be able to sell the tea under the PekoeTea brand.
Q: What kind of response have you seen from customers who have tried Kinnetles Gold?
At first it was difficult to get traction with it. The people who did try it thought it was amazing but outside of Edinburgh, it was tricky to get attention. This was mainly because of the other Scottish tea that I mentioned above. We priced it at £2500/kg - £50/tin to reflect how special the tea is. There is only 2kg maximum a year and the amount of effort that goes into it is phenomenal. We are now on the 3rd batch and it is selling though a lot faster than before. I think the main thing was to persuade our customers that it is not just a gimmick and that it is good enough to stand up against some other world famous teas. We get a lot of orders for it from abroad and from tourists visiting our shop in Edinburgh but the biggest surprise was how popular it has been with the Japanese.
As with all expensive teas, it is essential to take the time to appreciate it and brew it correctly. It also tastes fantastic with Scottish water. On the whole most people who have tried it have thought it outstanding. It’s not an entry level tea (mainly because of the price) so if you’re used to artificially flavoured teas, I don’t think it will appeal.
Q: What is your favorite way to brew this special tea?
In our shop we brew it in a Gaiwan and when I have it to hand I brew it in a professional tasting cup. Boiling water for 4 minutes then pour out and leave to cool slightly in the cup. It has the most amazing golden liquor.
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