The man selling tea to China - and brewing a premium culture
Tony Dick suspects his passion for tea could have a hereditary basis - one of his ancestors started a tea merchant's business in Glasgow in 1840. Dick arrived in Hong Kong in the 1990s as an engineer. He worked on the Hong Kong International Airport, among other projects. But when his company decided it was time for him to return to England, he realised Hong Kong had become home, so he quit his job and stayed in the city.
Having been frustrated by the perfunctory way tea was served in local coffee outlets, he set up the H-Tea-O chain of tea shops - a short-lived venture that laid the foundations for a more successful wholesale business, Tea Concepts (www.tea-concepts.com), supplying hotels, restaurants and retailers with specialist high-end teas.
What sparked your interest in tea?
Being English, and the way I was brought up, I was exposed a lot to tea. When I was very young, there was a place in my hometown called Robertson's Tea & Coffee Merchants. It was one of those places that have been there seemingly forever. They had a coffee roaster at one end of the shop and all this ancient tea at the other end. I'm sure all the tea was contaminated with the smell of coffee, but there were all these wonderful old Chinese teas. Afternoon tea at home was the most important meal of the day, and we always had fantastic teas. I found that very interesting.
Did coming to Hong Kong expand your horizons as a tea lover?
I got exposed to a lot of Chinese tea, and that was something of a revelation to me because all I'd known in Britain about green tea was that it was a bit like mouldy grass - probably because it was quite old - and that it wasn't very interesting. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to drink it. Once I came here and had really good quality Chinese tea, and I saw the Chinese tea ceremony, that got me interested in the whole idea of tea again.
As an Englishman selling tea to Chinese customers, you must get some interesting reactions?
When our franchise in Guangzhou opened, the press in China all came down, astonished that I had the impertinence to try to sell tea to the Chinese. But then they saw the range, including teas that they hadn't been exposed to, and in the end were quite excited and saw that we had something to contribute.
So, what do you have new to offer?
More flavoured, herbal and low-caffeine teas are available now, and more premium teas - especially in the US and Europe, but now more so in Asia. There are high-quality teabags like Tea Fort? with full-leaf tea, which tastes pretty much the same as loose-leaf tea in a teapot. Then there are things like the Ticolino, which is a sort of improved teabag. It's an aluminium foil tube with holes for the tea to infuse, coated with plastic so the aluminium doesn't taint the tea. It can be used to stir the tea.
There has been a lot of discussion of the health benefits of green tea. Do black teas confer the same benefits?
Green tea has more polyphenols than black tea. The other problem is that if you put milk into tea it blocks the action of the polyphenols, so drinking black tea without milk is better for you, but drinking green tea is generally better for you - although white tea leaves have even more polyphenols. A great number of population studies, and some clinical studies, do indicate that tea has beneficial effects. There are variations in the studies, but it's pretty conclusive overall that drinking tea is good for you.
Your original interest was in tea retailing rather than wholesaling. Would you like to give the H-Tea-O concept another try?
We're too busy doing what we do at the moment, and rents make it difficult. It might be possible in other countries. We've looked at Singapore and possibly Taiwan, where there is more of a premium tea culture than there is in Hong Kong. We stock more than 220 teas, including many of our own blends, but we're keen to set up our own brand, which we want to be the first Hong Kong international label for tea. We want that to happen in the next six months.