My first encounter with Shayne House involved retro wooden surf boards on Crantock beach near Newquay. My second, a series of Twitter messages involving croissants, cakes and a smattering of French and the third, luncheon at Relish, Wadebridge, owned by the UK’s 2008 Barista champion, Hugo Hercod. I say luncheon, but it was actually more a caffeine sandwich: tea and food followed by coffee.
Shayne has been hot on the brew of one of the world’s most ancient beverages since he co-founded the Tea Appreciation Society in 2007 with designer Stephen Nelson. The raisons d’être of the cause are noble and brave indeed: they draw on the 1909 manifesto of The Futurists: flip it on its head and in doing so, destroy it.
Where The Futurists “hurl defiance to the stars” in the poetry of aggression, machines and danger, the Tea Appreciation Society calmly advocates that “beauty exists only in considered brewing” and that “the splendour of the world has been enriched by an old beauty: the beauty of tea.” Where there was speed, there is serenity, where there was feverish insomnia only slumber and where there was darkness, only loose leaf tea.
The philosophy is simple and ancient. We all do it. In a moment of crisis, indecision, togetherness, tea is a distraction, a comfort and a prop. For Shayne, there is “a correlation between drinking tea and being creative.” Have you got work to do? Make yourself a nice cup of tea. This is a statement that is testament indeed to his own prolific, creative output, ranging from film making to photography, writing to surfing, illustrating to music. But he goes still deeper into the leaves and into spirituality. “It’s all about taking time out. Years ago, while I was reading the Tao Te Ching (the Chinese text on the philosophy of Taoism), I realised that the tea in my hand was more than just quenching my thirst. Tea drinking is actually one of humanity’s most noble practices. It transcends borders and nationalities.”
Talk turns to our own local tea estate, Tregothnan, known as the “miracle tea” by the estate’s Japanese distributor. Less than a decade ago, witnessing the success of plants native to Darjeeling growing in the grounds, such as magnolia campbellii, garden director Jonathon Jones planted tea bushes. The estate now sells its single-estate tea for an impressive £1,500 a kilogram and generates just over a million pounds worth of tea every year, exporting to Japan and China, as well as supplying Claridge’s and Fortnum and Mason.
“Tea is like fine wine, “Shayne explains, “there are so many flavours that people aren’t aware of.” And with the growing interest in high-end tea, it seems the market for tea leaves is going the same way as that of gourmet coffee. According to the supermarket Waitrose, specialist teas such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling have seen a surge in popularity year on year, indicating increased consumer concern with flavour and quality.
As further proof of the positive relationship between tea and creativity, Shayne is in the middle of writing a book all about tea. This charming and informative book not only reflects the growth in premium teas, but details the pleasure and preparation of the nation’s favourite drink and showcases 50 of the world’s ‘drink-before-you-die’ teas.
Shayne explains that the original Book Of Tea was written by Kakuzo Okakura in 1901, to which his own pays homage. The opening chapter of the original, A Cup Of Humanity, delightfully describes how tea entered China in the eighth century “as one of the polite amusements.” The Japanese then elevated it into “a religion of aestheticism” out of which came teaism: “a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.”
And that is exactly what Shayne and Stephen aim to do – draw on the heady mix of the spiritual, the historical and the cultural properties of tea over history, analysing the ordinary, the extraordinary and the exceptional in the sector. These elements are all distilled in a website called www.lovetea.co.uk, which brings to readers all things tea-related. There is also a cult tea-shirt ‘I Heart Tea’ whose logo was donated to the eco-clothing company Howies for a limited print run, on the basis that 20% of all sales were donated to David and Claire Hieatt, co-founders of the motivational ‘Do Lectures’ in Wales (www.dolectures.com).
Shayne does confess to one unforgiveable sin in tea circles. When I ask him what his first cup of the morning is he replies: “My first cup is coffee, I need it to kick start me. It’s my dirty secret I’m afraid.” The disciples of caffeine are fickle it would seem. He goes on however, “After that it’s cups of tea all the way. I like a cup of Yorkshire tea, probably the only tea worth drinking in a teabag, the rest of the time it has to be loose leaf tea. I’ve a particular penchant for Oolong and Darjeeling teas. I don’t do milk though, not ever.” Only a purist would advocate no milk. All is forgiven.
Shayne House’s website: www.lovetea.co.uk
Shayne’s copywriting, photography and film services: www.inhouse-studio.co.uk.
Follow Shayne on Twitter: @TeaAppreciation