Milk and Two Sugars: Matthew's tea story
Everyone has an entry point to tea. Maybe it was a funny anecdote, or a personal tragedy, or even something really mundane; it doesn’t matter. I like to think of tea as a never-ending story that develops richness over time. The more you sip, the longer you steep, the richer your tale becomes; shaped by personal preferences, life experience and newfound knowledge.
This is my story.
Tea entered my life from a baby’s bottle, or so at least my mother tells me. A Lipton teabag, heavily diluted with milk, was my drink of choice from the earliest days. Though I’m not sure if this is true, it might explain a few things about the way I turned out!
Similarly, during stays at my grandparents home, before and after school, there was always set a percolator brewing a viscous, caramel roast of black coffee to go with the Italian biscuits, cake and banter.
And fresh tea.
A self-proclaimed tea connoisseur, my uncle preferred a teabag, the stronger the better, more often than not an extra-strength style. Being a boy, I wasn't allowed to drink coffee (it didn't look very nice anyway), but I was given the grown-up privilege of pouring water from the kettle and preparing tea for myself and my beloved uncle. I mimicked what he did: a lashing of milk, a sugar or two, twist the teabag and stir. This became the way I would enjoy tea for most of my young years. I was content, assuming that I knew all there was to know about tea.
Looking back, it never occurred to me that I had only known tea in the milk and two sugars experience. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I never knew anything else, and I instinctively rejected green tea, or any tea without milk and sugar as being improperly served. How could I know any different, when this is what I grew up with, and what I saw everywhere: from the family, from primary school teachers and school canteens, right through to the doctor's waiting room.
Growing up, advertisements ran on television for fancy new teabags with pull strings, no mess, ever so convenient. Just add milk, sugar and stir.
My tea epiphany about tea didn’t occur in Australia. It happened, as many epiphanies do, while travelling. At Song Tea in San Francisco, I sampled my first ‘specialty tea’ a heavily-roasted Fo Shou (Buddha’s Hand) oolong prepared in gong fu cha style. In the Straits I subsisted on bubble tea and teh tarik for heat relief. Jasmin and I visited a tea plantation in Kyoto Prefecture during our honeymoon, and experienced steamed green tea served with sweet rice dumplings for contrast.
The paradigm shift was dizzying, disconcerting. It was liberating. I had discovered there so much more to tea than I had ever thought possible. And from those experiences, I felt a calling to know and share more about these amazing teas. I endeavoured to do more to spread the good word.
Before my foray into the world of tea could begin, I had to go through some inevitable period of personal discovery. I worked a call centre job, a stint as a commis chef, and even a web developer. Sadly, I was made redundant from my last full-time job and struggled to find more work. I found it extra hard to feel motivated to re-enter any of these previous career paths, when my heart was pulling toward what I know is the right new way for me.
I’m glad that I had my life partner, my life coach and my pet bird for consolation and advice. Feeling dejected and alone, I joked about enrolling in a tea school to take my passion seriously. What a silly thought. Nobody makes a living that way.
By an act of serendipity, I found Australian Tea Masters through a Google search. The wheels were suddenly aligned, and I have been permanently in motion ever since.
Fast forward to the current day, and I am really happy with what Jasmin and I have made of Endeavour Tea. A self-started career in tea is a challenging undertaking. You face off against a competitive market, and vie for limited time and attention in our busy modern day. Though difficult, the allure of specialty tea proved too great for me to resist, and so I push on, everyday.
Specialty tea does more for me than simply tantalise the taste buds. It represents an ever-evolving expression our species, an intersection of human ingenuity and nature. The more I delve into specialty tea, the more I come to appreciate anthropology, geography, world culture and history.
Moving forward, I see a major challenge in shifting consumer sentiment.
The supermarket shelves of the Western world are a less than ideal place to discover specialty tea. Aisles are replete with fruit infusions, herbal tisanes (often called tea), wellness blends and commodity-grade teabags. This continues to shoehorn customers into a narrow and unchanging perspective of what tea can be.
Though there are many fervent tea drinkers out there, the modern Australian consumer wants a functional beverage, one with lots of value-added or wellness benefits. Specialty teas, with their immense diversity, gourmet flavours and foreign sounding names, don’t fit this brief and will simply have to wait until discovered anew.
What I hope to do is bring specialty tea to the same level of exposure in the community consciousness, by advocating online and by appearing in person for events and education. The consumer can make the choice about what they feel like drinking—but they first have to understand that variety exists.
I’m confident that specialty tea will be rediscovered, and what is currently a niche will become a mainstay. What is old eventually becomes new again.
I hope you will continue to follow me on this incredible journey. Forever learning, always a student.