Jonathan Nunn: the master of tea brewing

Postcard Teas is one of the teeny tiniest little tea shops in London, but is brimming with character and the aroma of freshly brewed boutique brews from around the world. It moved to it’s current home – just off busy Bond Street in Mayfair – 10 years ago after founder Tim D’Offay found success with its original incarnation ‘East Teas’ at the Borough Market. Khoollect sat down with master brewer Jonathan Nunn for a quick tête-à-tête.

A day in the life of master brewer Jonathan Nunn

What’s your most exciting tea discovery?

We’re privileged to work with many famous producers in China and Japan who make grand teas, but one of our most exciting discoveries was in Assam several years ago. We’ve always worked with small farms in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, but in India we were still working with big estates. Some of these plantations are better run than others, but they are still a remnant of a less than perfect colonial system, which is reflected in the fact that the average wage on Darjeeling estates (including Fairtrade ones) is just over a pound a day (with some welfare benefits).

In Assam we found a farmer called Pallab Nath who grows and processes his own tea outside the estate/factory system. His brother Pranab travels around Assam working with other small farmers. We now have three or four single farm home-processed Assams which have very unusual and distinct taste profiles. We buy a proportion of Pallab’s crop every few months which guarantees them a market and helps increase wages for the pickers as well.

Postcard Teas

What’s the biggest mistake people make when brewing tea?

Probably throwing the leaves away after the first infusion. With a good tea you can use the same leaves again and again as long as you pour off the water once you’ve finished infusing it. You’ll never get the same tasting cup – the flavours will develop with each infusion and you’ll taste notes that you wouldn’t notice in earlier brews. Generally the first and last infusions are the lightest and you’ll hit the peak a few infusions in. It’s a bit like the development of a person across their lifetime – you’re still essentially the same person but you’re also constantly changing.

You can get at least two infusions out of every tea we stock– but for some of our single tree oolongs, you’re talking about ten to fifteen infusions, sometimes twenty. When Tim (founder) was in China with Master Lin, one of our producers in Chaozhou, he was made a single tree oolong which he was told would go on for fifty infusions. Tim tried about thirty-five and then said “ok, ok, I believe you! Let’s try something else”!

What’s the benefit of splashing out on a boutique tea?

With a good loose leaf you get a spectrum of flavours you can’t get in a supermarket tea. I’d also say that by using loose leaf over a tea bag, you also develop more of a relationship with what you’re brewing. With a teabag, you can’t smell it, you can’t really even see it. Even if you just cut open the tea bag and pour the dust into a pot and brew it, you get a better cup of tea. Also if you’re throwing away your teabag every time you make tea it can often be cheaper to buy a good loose-leaf tea and make multiple infusions of it throughout the day.

Best Kept Secrets

What’s the most unusual tea you’ve tried?

Most recently a fermented tea from the 1950s, called Liu Bao, which I ordered from one of our tea friends in Malaysia. It had undergone a quick fermentation when young and was then stored in a basket for over 50 years to ferment further. These post-fermented teas are more broadly called ‘heicha’ or ‘dark/black tea’ in China, as they’re almost completely black in the cup when fully matured. What we call black tea is called ‘hong cha’ or ‘red tea’. These teas have now become part of an investment market and can go for insane prices, but originally they were very cheap commodity teas made in huge quantities and drunk by miners while they were working.

People actually drink tea like this not for the aroma or taste, but because it ties into the Daoist concept of ‘qi’. When you have a really good old tea, you talk about the ‘qi’ and how it makes you feel and affects your whole body. It’s drunk almost like a really sophisticated recreational drug! This tea was quite earthy and simple in terms of taste but the qi was quite powerful in that it loosened up my muscles and joints and I could feel the effects of it for hours afterwards. It cost me £30 to try, which sounds like a lot especially considering it cost almost nothing when young, but I’ve had bottles of wine which cost more and weren’t nearly as pleasant to drink.

Are there any teas you don’t like?

Most scented teas give me a headache, but they can be nice when done well. When I first got into tea I would try absolutely everything available, but now I gravitate towards darker teas – either black, roasted or aged.  The green teas I like tend to be on the extreme end of the spectrum though – intensely savoury with loads of umami.

PostcardTeas

Do you have a daily tea routine?

No, I drink coffee almost every morning. I find all of our customers have their own little routines and rituals. Most go for strong Japanese green teas or matcha as a coffee substitute, but I personally find that too strong first thing in the morning. Tim, on the other hand, drinks second flush Darjeelings first thing and then varies his tea as per his moods from then onwards.

Urban Favourites

What are your favourite places to drink tea around London?

If I’m going somewhere to drink our own tea, I really like Prufrock Coffee in Leather Lane. They are one of the first places we ever supplied. They are still one of the best at brewing. They brew them individually by cup, like we do. It gives the customer a better experience and makes them feel like they are getting value for money. They’re also happy to make multiple infusions for you as well.

If I was drinking elsewhere, I’d say Bao. Their teas are all high quality Taiwanese oolongs and sourced from one of the owner’s family farm. They also cleverly serve them in Yixing clay pots with small tasting cups which many customers will not have seen before, and it provides a different tasting experience. Outside of anywhere we supply, I reckon they have the best tea service in London.

What are your top three restaurants?

1. Thattukada in East Ham.
Thattukada, a Keralan restaurant in East Ham – an area which probably has the best concentration of South Indian restaurants in East London. With the exception of unusual, modern restaurants like Dishoom, I think Indian food in areas outside the centre of London where there is a large ethnic community is generally better than what you can get in Zones 1 and 2.

2. Silk Road in Camberwell.
Silk Road serves Chinese food but from a part of West China you don’t usually see around London. They have dishes like kebabs, stew, lots of lamb and bread on the menu. As far as I know, it’s the only specialist Xinjiang restaurant in London. And it’s super cheap!

3. Tasty Jerk in Thornton Heath.
Tasty Jerk is a very small Jamaican takeaway place. Most of the space inside is taken up by big barrels used to BBQ on. Jerk chicken, jerk lamb, lobster, fish – everything! So many people from South London go there because they have a reputation for doing the best jerk in London – there was actually a jerk competition which they were not allowed to compete in because they kept winning! Their jerk pork in incredible and they make their own jerk sauces too. The only problem is it’s in a location which is really difficult to get to so I don’t go as often as I’d like to!

What’s your favourite type of tea to drink and when? Tell us in the comments below.

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Thirsty for more info on tea? Read about Khoollect’s visit to Postcard Teas, or learn how to brew a superb cuppa with our handy guide to avoid making a mediocre cup of tea.

Postcard Teas9 Dering St, London W1S 1AG

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