Northern Tea Merchants, Chesterfield emporium
PUBLISHED: 14:10 28 April 2010 | UPDATED: 20:55 23 October 2015
A visit to the Chesterfield tea and coffee emporium of Northern Tea Merchants
I've been visiting a Chesterfield emporium that is the epitome of good taste (in every sense). The double frontage of the premises of Northern Tea Merchants on Chatsworth Road has a wonderfully traditional appearance, with a deep-green faade topped by a gold-painted shop sign. Four huge windows carry neat white lettering bearing the promise of 'high quality teas' and 'freshly-roasted coffee'.
The bright interior is a shrine to tea and coffee; tiers of shelves are filled with boxes of tea from all over the world; display cabinets contain ideal Christmas gifts, such as novelty teapots, V & A mugs decorated with Victorian prints, bespoke-packed tea caddies and a range of coffee and tea-making gadgets; the central aisle is lined with cases of coffee from South America, Africa and Asia; and the café area has glass-topped tables that double as showcases for a huge variety of teas and coffees.
Northern Tea Merchants is an award-winning Chesterfield company that imports, blends and distributes the world's finest tea and coffee. The firm is owned by David Pogson, whose son James is a very hands-on director. Thanks to the pair's unrivalled expertise and their absolute belief that 'it pays to buy good tea' (a slogan that appears on all their products), 50 million cups of their own blends are drunk every year.
The company will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next May, but its origins actually go back to 1926, when Albert Pogson, the father of the present proprietor, took a job with the Nottingham-based Ceylon Tea Growers' Association with a brief to develop their door-to-door trade in the Chesterfield area. Albert approached his task with enormous enthusiasm and gained rapid promotion to become superintendant of all van sales, which were carried out at that time in Model 'T' Fords.
After ten years with the company, Albert decided that he would go it alone. He bought an Austin Seven van, emblazoned it with the name 'Spire Tea Company' and set off to build up his customer base. Wearing plus-fours and a bowler hat as he moved from door-to-door, Albert became a well-known figure in the Chesterfield area, where he cultivated many loyal customers, some of whom are still purchasing tea from the Pogson family over 70 years later.
Eventually, Albert was joined on his rounds by his son David, who says, 'Some of my earliest memories are of the delightful smell that filled my father's office and the fascinating markings that were stencilled on the tea chests from faraway places.' Having been seduced by the tea trade from an early age, David opted to work full-time with his father when he left school at the age of sixteen.
Although father and son shared a passion for their business, they had a volatile relationship. In fact, David was 'sacked' several times during their six-year working partnership. At the age of 22, he decided that he would leave his father's firm and go it alone, albeit on an initial one-month trial basis. Exactly one month later, on 1st June 1959, he resolved to carry on with his new enterprise. Having saved up £100, he acquired a Ford Thames van, which had no passenger seat and no heater, and began trading as Northern Tea Merchants.
In the early 1960s, David became one of the first merchants in Britain to sell tea bags, at a time when many people regarded them as a silly American fad that would never catch on in this country. Prompted by a suggestion from one of his customers, he then started to supply tea bags to groceries, caterers and other businesses. In 1971, Albert Pogson retired, at which point father and son finally settled their differences and merged their two companies.
In 1989, David's son James joined Northern Tea Merchants and was soon helping the company to add classic coffees to their portfolio. James is enormously proud of the achievements of the family company, which has won six national awards in the last four years and now supplies over 3,000 cafés, wholesalers, retailers, councils, caterers, hotels, shops, supermarkets and other commercial organisations. He is equally delighted that the firm employs 26 local people with a total length of service of over 250 years. He says, 'Our longest-serving employee has made over one billion tea bags in her career!'
James can service and repair all the company's blending and tea-bag manufacturing machines on the first floor of their Chatsworth Road premises and he is a driving force behind the firm's expansion, but he is quick to say, 'I could not possibly have achieved what I have done without the mentoring provided by my father.'
David and James import tea and coffee from all over the world, including Fairtrade and organic brands, but they are very careful in their selection. Every sample of tea is meticulously tested by an age-old method. Small cups of equal dimensions are placed in a long line. A 'silver sixpence worth' (2g) of each sample is weighed out; 200 mls of water at a temperature of 96 degrees are added and an infusion time of three minutes is allowed before the addition of 5 mls of milk. A special spoon is used to taste the tea from each cup and the contents are spat out after each sampling.
When I suggested that this ritual bears a close resemblance to wine-tasting, James insisted that he has absolutely no time for the type of snobbery that is often associated with sommeliers. He said, 'Even if people know very little about the finer points of production, it doesn't mean they can't recognise a good cup of tea. Given we've all got taste-buds, I believe that anyone can be trained as a tea-taster.'
As well as blending the world's finest teas to produce a range of 'house' products, the company distributes scores of speciality teas from around the globe. These include: Japanese Gen Mai Cha tea, which contains hulled rice kernels and popped corn; Darjeeling tea that comes from plantations 6,000 feet up in the Himalayas, where the monsoon climate gives it a distinctive flavour; China Green tea, which has health-giving properties; and a very rare China White tea, which comes from a bush that has distinctive silvery-white leaves and is covered by a white down.
As I carried on talking with David and James, my tea and coffee education continued. For example, I learned that Sri Lanka and Taiwan retain their old names of Ceylon and Formosa in the tea world; that Columbian coffee is excellent for decaffeination and helps you to sleep at night; that all Kenyan coffees have a full-bodied richness and a winey after-taste and that Ethiopian coffee has the 'winiest' taste of any coffee that exists.
My teachers not only demonstrated their vast knowledge, but also their great enthusiasm. Seventy-one-year-old David says, 'Tea is my business, my hobby, my love, my life.' Although he has just finished building himself a house in Tenerife, he plans to continue working in the family firm for at least half of each year. James is equally committed and says, 'I certainly wouldn't want to do anything else in life.' In fact, David and James are two people who wouldn't change their jobs for all the tea in China!
Northern Tea Merchants are situated at 193 Chatsworth Road, Chesterfield (01246 232600). James Pogson is happy to answer readers' queries about tea or coffee - email firstname.lastname@example.org