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Meet the expert: James Pogson of Northern Tea Merchants

PUBLISHED: 15:01 16 August 2013 | UPDATED: 11:04 13 September 2013

James Pogson

James Pogson

as submitted

Not all the tea’s in China...

There’s no mistake about what Northern Tea Merchants on Chatsworth Road in Chesterfield, does best – it’s loudly proclaimed on the elegant shop frontage: ‘High Quality Teas’ and ‘Freshly Roasted Coffee’. The award-winning company imports, blends and distributes the finest tea and coffee – turning a peculiarly English obsession into a taste journey around the world. It was founded in 1936 when, 10 years after he had first taken a job with the Nottingham-based Ceylon Tea Growers’ Association to develop their trade in Chesterfield, Albert Pogson began his own company. Albert was followed into the company by his son David, whose son James joined the firm in 1989. Northern Tea Merchants now manufactures over 100 million tea bags per year, roasts 200 tonnes of coffee per year, packs 55 tonnes of cocoa per year, employs 25 local people (whose combined service is over 300 years), and has still retained its original outlook on service, quality and the way to do business.

We caught up with James after a buying trip to China to find out more:

How did you get into ‘tea’ and what training do you need?

I was bathed in tea from an early age. Dad always had the business, and so as children, my sister and I would spend time at Northern Tea Merchants after school and during school holidays. He was always tasting teas for his excellent blends, and so we would sometimes have a ‘slurp’ with him at home, and he would explain what his Father had said to him about the tastes and nuances of the teas we were trying in his little white pots and bowls on the worktop in the kitchen. As for training – it’s important to understand people as well as the product you are handling. Tea, coffee and cocoa are all very ‘human’ commodities and as well as being able to taste and qualitatively assess the products, you need to know what’s going on in and around where it’s grown, and understand the communities and individual lives of the people who are farming the products we buy.

Tell us about a typical day – at home in Chesterfield and when you are on a buying trip.

There’s no such thing as a typical day at Northern Tea Merchants, my job is happily extremely diverse. For example, I could be visiting a customer in Sheffield who is just opening a café and advising them on a good layout for serving tea and coffee easily and without mess, or I could be sample roasting coffees for Harrods, writing emails to farmers in Puerto Rico, giving talks on tea and coffee for WI’s, Rotary, Probus etc. I could be helping our engineer change the bearings on a tea bag machine, or even attending a board meeting of the UK Tea Council in London. I like to be involved.

On a trip, the day would probably be a bit more intense. For instance, on my field trip to Colombia in December 2009, I did 11 internal flights in 8 days! (Due to the Andes Mountains...) I arrived at one hotel at about 2am, only to have to get up at 5am for another flight, and then had presentations and estate visits and tastings after another 6 hour drive. I have driven for 24 hours at a time in Sumatra, on all sorts of roads, from Medan to Takengon, and have stayed in ‘guest houses’ that would make a motorway Travelodge seem like a 5 star hotel! Often, I have to be suited and booted also, which does not help in the heat, but it is very important to show respect to one’s hosts and to represent your own business well. I do enjoy the travelling though, even if it’s sometimes a little gruelling, and thank goodness for iPods!

Do you have to travel a lot?

I tend to travel to the countries of origin about every 18 months or so, as I really do need to be at work here. My customers are the length and breadth of England so I rack up quite a few miles every year visiting, troubleshooting, selling, collecting, and all the other things that are involved in running a business. My three delivery drivers run up about 35,000 miles per year each as well, so we do get about a bit!

What happens on a buying trip?

It depends on the product. Most coffee is smallholder grown and it is sometimes difficult to visit individuals, as a container of coffee may be made up of produce from over 50 or 60 farmers. We buy mainly from smallholders’ co-operatives, who represent a group of farmers in a region, and who will be their access to market. Some of the co-ops are Fairtrade, some are not, but they all represent their members well and will ensure that a fair price is paid and also guarantee quality and consistency throughout the batch. Tea is a little different. For instance, in Sri Lanka we buy from some quite large estates, with state-of-the-art factories and large planted areas, as well as a few old-school farmers, from whom we purchase a few kilos of excellent quality, so the visits there are a little more intimate. With cocoa, we normally use a broker, and I am more concerned with the standards of pressing and post-farm processing, which affect the quality of cocoa powder far more than one individual farmer’s cocoa beans ever could.

How is tea transported now – are wooden tea chests still used?

In 1992, the EU decreed that tea would not be accepted into Europe in tea chests, as apparently these are not recyclable enough. All tea, from anywhere in the world, now arrives in foil-lined paper sacks. I am afraid that tea chests are a relic of history. Coffee still comes in beautifully painted sacks, though, and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is still shipped in barrels!

Which is the rarest tea?

The provenance of a tea is hugely important and affects its price. I would say that each producer country has its jewel in the crown. So in India, Darjeeling teas would probably be in the rare and special category. In China I was presented with some tribute tea made by Mr Fu (one of the best known artisan producers of tea in China) for the Chinese astronauts and it’s REALLY good. In Sri Lanka, Stassen’s produce some biodynamic tea that is rare and of excellent quality and exorbitant price. In Kenya, there are artisanal producers of orthodox tea that hand-roll and produce in tiny quantities. These fetch some serious money and are definitely for connoisseurs. So I would say that there isn’t really one best tea – that would be doing a disservice to all the fantastic tea makers all over the world.

Is tea like wine – taste varies according to plant and ‘terroir’?

I always say that tea is like wine but without the snobbery... It is a much more accessible drink. But similar science applies – tea and coffee need solar radiation (and there is more at altitude), correct soil pH, sensible pruning, proper irrigation, a rigid fertilising and mulching regime, protection from pests, shade and wind, as well as the skill of the tea-maker within the producing factory.

What does tea blending involve?

Tea blending can be done by accountants or tea-men... An accountant’s blend is easy to spot and is usually a low-cost blend of teas that has a little good tea added to it to allow marketeers to make claims about the provenance of the tea. A tea-man’s blend is usually a good quality blend, with as little reducer as the blender can bring him/herself to use. But the science is easy – you have to maintain a balance of colour, flavour, strength and character. Which teas you use to make that happen is down to the blender’s preference, and many of the better quality brands are noticeable for their different characteristics... Some are brighter in colour, some are stronger and more malty, and we all settle down to what we enjoy. Interestingly, once a person has made their choice of tea brand, they often stick with it for years. A blender’s skill lies in making that blend consistent, year in, year out, with an ever-changing set of ingredients.

China tea or Indian?

As a nation, we drink more Indian Tea than Chinese. But Chinese Tea was the original tea, first discovered 5,000 years ago by the emperor Shen Nung. Chinese tea is all Camellia Sinensis, and has a slight inherent smokiness that gives it great character, but is not generally to our taste in tea bags, whereas Indian tea (Camellia Sinensis Assamica) is pungent, strong, malty tea that is favoured by the British tea drinking public. Although I stock more types of Chinese tea than all the other origins put together, I sell more Indian Tea in volume. At home, I drink our English Breakfast tea (a classic blend of Indian and Sri Lankan teas), and also Ti Quan Yin, which is a Chinese tea dedicated to the Iron Goddess of Mercy, which I absolutely love.

Do you stock Fairtrade?

Yes, although I believe that the Fairtrade Foundation could be doing more to educate the British public about it. We have worked with ethical companies for over 30 years, our Fairtrade licence number is 0081, and we have been members since 1998. I believe Fairtrade is an excellent mechanism to make the European consumer think about where their food comes from and what goes in to making it. I also think the Fairtrade Foundation should make supermarkets become licensees, which none of them are. I pack nationally for a major supermarket and I pay the 1.2% levy on the price I sell into them at, and they do not have to pay anything out of the profit they make on a Fairtrade Product. None of the supermarkets have to pay anything to the Fairtrade Foundation from their profits and yet they associate themselves very closely with the Fairtrade Foundation. All Fairtrade licensees have to pay their 1.2% levy, and the money directly benefits growers and producers in Third World Countries. I believe that the public should lobby both the supermarkets and Fairtrade to make this happen. The money would really make a difference.

What should we be drinking tea out of – cup or mug?

At home, I have a lovely China cup and saucer that was my Grampa’s tea cup. Almost all the pattern has worn off it, and the glaze has cracked slightly, but I love it, and that’s that.... Drink tea, coffee, or anything that is personal to you from a vessel that is personal to you. It just makes it that bit more special. And Chinese tea cups don’t have handles because they are bowls!

Should we drink specific teas at certain times of the day, eg English Breakfast at breakfast?

The term ‘English Breakfast’ was coined by an American, but describes a good quality, strong cup of tea that is good to start the day on. It’s lovely to drink a nice green tea in the garden after a long day, but tea is such a personal thing, and working in the shop I have heard people say that they drink the most diverse teas at some really odd times. Tea and coffee both fit in with our lives very well, and our passion for conversation over a hot drink has remained undiminished for centuries! As I said at the start, these are very human commodities!

Have you noticed any change in tea/coffee drinking habits over the years?

Yes. I was 7 when we moved to our premises on Chatsworth Road. Vending was in full swing and instant coffee, tea bags and a few roasted coffee beans were the mainstay of our sales. Today we stock over 70 teas and 40 coffees, and also offer many new blends and recipes made from these. Our customers have changed from traditional cafés to contemporary coffee houses, traditional tea rooms, bars, street kiosks, coffee carts, delicatessens, and chains and chains of coffee shops. Our high streets have changed to reflect this. Italian style coffees, with American style choices, fancy teas, gourmet hot chocolates – all were sparsely available even 15 years ago. I think tea and coffee are both going through a true renaissance, as are our British palates!

What do you think of herbal teas?

Herbal teas, herbal infusions or herbal tisanes? By my reckoning, anything that is sold as a ‘tea’ should contain Camellia Sinensis or Camellia Sinensis Assamica. For instance, Rooibos, which is sold as tea, is from the South African Red Bush or Aspalathus Linearis and contains no tea at all, which is a little misleading for the consumer. But we have been drinking herbs since medieval times. I do sell quite a few herbal tisanes, but I apply the same rules to them as to my other teas and coffees, ie they have to be good quality, taste good, be from a safe supply chain, and be GM free. I do enjoy a nice pot of camomile flowers from time to time!

What is your favourite cup of tea – and where would you most like to drink it?

Easy. Everyone knows their favourite... It would be biodynamic Idulgashinna Ceylon Tea, and it would be drunk on the verandah at the St Andrew’s hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Happy memories! Or it would be the cup of Ceylon tea that I would make in the morning for my best beloved!

What do I think of tea bags?

I think they saved the UK tea trade. Simple answer...

How do you make the perfect cup of tea?

Milk first? Loose leaves or tea bag. Mug or pot. Do we need to warm the pot? How important is the water – should we be using bottled water? Does sugar ruin the taste? Optimum brewing time? Milk (which ‘sort’) or lemon?

OK... Milk in first comes from a time when china teaware was very delicate, and so putting milk in first showed respect to one’s host and didn’t craze the glaze on their delicate and expensive tea service. Leaf tea is often perceived as better than tea bag tea, but it depends on the leaf tea or the tea bag, and I’m very wary of making sweeping generalisations, so I would say ‘One’s favourite leaf tea’, or ‘One’s favourite tea bag’. Mug if you are in a hurry, or just on your own, and pot if you are socialising or want more than one cup... Yes, ALWAYS warm the pot. Water is very important, and it must be 96°C for tea bags and small leaf tea, and about 85°C for large leaf teas. Bottled water is great if you’re being a purist, but if your tap water is like mine, then it makes great tea. Sugar is for personal preference, there is no right or wrong... Brewing times vary, but anything over 4 minutes will make a really strong and slightly stewed ‘cuppa’ for small leaf tea. Really brewing times are a personal thing, depending on how strong one likes one’s cuppa. I use skimmed milk myself, as I think that semi or full-cream swamp the flavour of tea, but again, that’s personal preference. My advice ultimately is that ‘tea should be drunk as the drinker likes it’!

MY TOP 3 TEAS

1 TI QUAN YIN

This Chinese green tea is associated with the Iron Goddess of Mercy and is a proper ‘lift your little finger’ tea with the most delightful characteristics and none of the harshness of many branded green teas. No milk required, it takes about 3 minutes to brew and is the fastest way to my heart!

2 KEEMUN ‘ROSE’

Keemuns are ranked using the names of flowers. This top quality China Keemun has a lovely liquor and a soft flavour, almost like smoked chocolate. The mouthfeel is excellent and it is a really good tea to try if one is considering exploring the teas China has to offer.

3 CEYLON PEKOE FANNINGS

My favourite small leaf tea of all time. Ceylon teas have a character and flavour rarely found in those from other countries. Although the colour of the liquor can sometimes be a little dull, the nuances of flavour really do tick all my boxes. I have a romantic connection with Ceylon tea that will go with me to the end of my days.

MY TOP 3 COFFEES

1 KENYAN BLUE MOUNTAIN

Being from Derbyshire, I appreciate quality, and I really appreciate quality that is good value. Kenyan Blue Mountain, grown on the slopes of Mount Kenya, is exactly that coffee. World-class in flavour, body and richness, with a tangy acidy ‘snap’ that is really refreshing. I drink this at home all the time and always recommend it to my friends.

2 INDIAN ‘TIGER STRIPES’

This coffee is blended unroasted by Allana Co-Operative in India, and then shipped to us direct. When we did the original tasting and sampling at origin, a comment was made that the crema was striped like a tiger! So the name stuck. Tiger Stripes represents what is great about Indian coffees. A soft, fruity flavour, and a smooth, full bodied mouthfeel… Mmmmm. Makes great espressos and beautifully flavoured cappuccinos.

3 BRAZILIAN DATERRA ‘SWEET YELLOW’ COLLECTION

Daterra was the first (and is still the best) coffee estate that I have ever visited. The traceability there is second to none – I can even tell you which coffee bushes the coffee you buy came from – and their commitment to quality and consistency is excellent. I spent four very interesting and hugely educational days here in 2005, even attending planning meetings and working with the gardeners. The coffees I have brought back from here since have, without exception, been some of the best to have passed through my roaster.

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