You would be hard pressed to find anyone more fuelled by the love of tea than Stephen Twining.
"I'm very privileged that this is what gets me out of bed in the morning," he says, tea cup in hand. In fact, he's never far away from a tea cup, his day punctuated with different teas and infusions.
"A day with fewer than nine cups of tea is an unsatisfactory tea-drinking day," he quips.
As one of the tenth generation of the Twining tea empire, tea, you could say, is in his blood. He didn't start drinking tea in any great quantity until he was a teenager, but says he was always surrounded by tea.
Today, as brand ambassador for Twinings, he travels the world sharing his love of tea. He never gets bored with it, and likes the variety.
"If I was on a desert island with just one kind of tea, I'd consider I was being punished. I don't need to do it in New Zealand because it's a very civilised country, but some places I travel I take a box of tea bags, literally a caddie of five, just in case of emergencies.
"My typical tea-drinking day starts with a good strong cup of tea. It will be English breakfast, and then I work my way down through Ceylon teas and Darjeeling teas. I traditionally drink Earl Grey and Lady Grey around lunch time," he says.
"Afternoons are a free for all. It depends on the weather, how I'm feeling and what I'm doing, and on cold days I go for stronger teas like chai or back to English breakfast to warm me up again. Hot sunny days Earl Grey is great, and green teas are great for that too. In the evenings, I'll have an infusion. I call them infusions although they come in bags but they don't contain camellia sinensis, so they're naturally caffeine- free, perfect for after dinner - no problem at all to go to sleep."
And every drop of tea he has is Twinings. "I know what the competition's tea tastes like from tastings," he says, pursing his lips.
Tea is a bit like wine, he says. Like grapes, tea takes on the flavour of the terroir and the conditions in which it grows.
When you taste tea, rather than swirl it in the glass as you would a pinot noir to get the oxygen into it, you slurp it out of a soup spoon to the back of your palate, the place where the senses of smell and taste meet.
It's very technical, this tea-tasting business, though perhaps the ways to describe tea are less colourful than wine; no comparing tea to Moroccan leather or newly cut grass for instance. Twining admits he's only done two years of tea-tasting training where he should really do five.
"Firstly you're learning to refine your palate so you can pick the subtle nuances of certain teas.
"Secondly you're learning about which teas are going to go together to reproduce the flavour of this tea."
Twining was in New Zealand recently to promote New Zealand Earl Grey Tea, a blend that we Kiwis chose.
Twinings travelled up and down the country, letting punters try four proposed blends, and the blend with less bergamot but a touch of orange blossom won the day.
Twining is a living, tea-drinking encyclopaedia of the tea arts.
Ask him about why the British love tea so much, and he launches into a history lesson.
There was such a high tax on tea, he says, with 100 grams costing about $300 in today's money, it became a status symbol.
"Families would have their portrait taken drinking tea."
His ancestor, Richard Twining got the tax brought down, arguing that high taxes only fuelled tea smuggling. He also surmised that if more people could afford tea with a lower tax, the government could raise more money through increased sales.
"To put the smugglers out of business, to improve the tea and also allow people to drink it, the tax came down and Richard's forecast was right, and everyone rushed out to try this incredible drink," says Twining.
Twinings has held the Royal warrant as suppliers of tea since 1837, and are still holders today.
So what tea does the Queen favour? His tea-drinking lips are sealed. With the privilege comes the rule book, he says. "I can't go around the world saying, 'Drink this, this is the Queen's tea.' It would not be honourable behaviour."
- © Fairfax NZ News
Which snack do you think is best?Related story: (See story)