Imagine that listening to Michael Wright talk about tea is akin to overhearing a perfumer discuss how to blend the perfect scent, or a top wine producer explain how he cajoles his vines into vintage yields. As a senior buyer and blender for Twinings with 20 years' experience, Wright's responsibilities begin long before the dried leaves of Earl Grey or English Breakfast are packaged into bags and boxes and brewed into your morning cuppa.
The story of tea can be traced back thousands of years to China, and its role in British military, political and cultural history is rich and pervasive. But it is only recently that, as a nation, we have begun to grasp the concept of tea as a luxury product that deserves the same discernment we apply to choosing wines or cheeses. Twinings has even enlisted the help of wine expert Oz Clarke to demonstrate how a speciality tea can be appreciated in the same way in which a fine wine can.
For Wright and Twinings, tea begins with the trusted estates in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Taiwan, Indonesia and Brazil from which the 300-year-old company sources its raw product. Each bush is tracked as its leaves flourish and are picked, prepared and sent to the UK to be tasted by Wright or one of his team of nine, who might taste 600 cups in a day between them.
"I don't want to preach," he says while adding hot water to a semi-circle of teapots, which brew into liquids of varying hues from coppery red to a cloudy green, more traditional brownish shades and the grey-green tint of Darjeeling. "But there's a huge world of tea out there which is really unknown. If I had a mission, it would be to make people taste other types of tea, not just your bog-standard tea bag. There's so much more out there – white teas and green teas, high-grown teas and low-grown teas, and teas from certain valleys. It's far more exciting than people probably realise."
Wright is in the process of seeing his wish come true, and 2009 is the year it will really hit home. A good cup of tea has always been a priority in English culture, but its status as a drink for social occasions was usurped in the 1990s with the onset of the Friends-style coffee culture. It is now back on the agenda as a drink which has health benefits (green and white tea are packed with antioxidants) and can be enjoyed as a luxury leisure activity in the afternoon tea ritual.
Maureen Hinton, a leading analyst at Verdict Research, predicts that tea will be the new drinks fad to engage the national consciousness. This might seem a rather fatuous forecast, given the majority of us already drink tea on most days, but Hinton thinks that tea has the potential to become a stylish rather than an everyday drink, and that when consumers begin to try out speciality teas, their curiosity about the ritual of drinking tea in different cultures will be piqued. "There is a greater interest in different flavours of tea and in the ceremony that goes with it, such as the Japanese tea ceremony," she says. The British high street is undergoing radical changes at the moment, but Hinton believes Japanese tea houses might be one of the establishments to rebuild it. The craze for opening a Starbucks on every corner, she says, appears to have reached saturation point.
When it comes to the tasting, I am surprised to learn that all flavours of tea belong to one of four main types – black, green, white and oolong – and all of these derive from one plant, Camellia sinensis. Wright instructs me to take a dessert-spoonful of a rare white tea, drink with a loud slurp and swill round my mouth before swallowing. Although I can detect the clear, delicate character of the Silver Tips loose tea, I don't quite get the "honey-sweet aroma and suggestions of ripe pears" he describes. I do, however, get the comparison to a bone-dry Riesling – white tea is the most unadulterated tea you can buy, and this blend, taken from a very small and rare harvest, tastes so pure and unsullied I would describe it as clean.
Though black varieties remain by far the best sellers, the popularity of green and white is booming. Euromonitor tipped green tea sales to jump by 61 per cent in the five years up to 2011. White tea was the tipple of emperors and has become a hit ingredient in beauty products promising youth and radiance. Other white teas available in the UK from Twinings are Pure White and White Tea & Pomegranate. This is part of the luxury Tea Deli range developed to meet gourmet tea tastes. The quality comes at a price, though: £7.50 for 75g.
Taylors of Harrogate blend 98 different types of tea but it is white tea whose popularity is rising most quickly. The same goes for sister company Bettys of Harrogate, whose six tearooms across Yorkshire, points out Hinton, have led the way in reintroducing Britain to the leisurely pleasure of afternoon tea. In London, it is advisable to book well in advance for afternoon tea at traditional establishments such as Claridge's, The Ritz and Fortnum & Mason.
By no means have we fallen out of love with traditional black teas, says James Prentice, brand manager for Yorkshire Tea. "People haven't left black tea, they have just diversified," he explains. "People still have a good old caffeine charge in the morning with a proper cup of tea. At work they might have herbal tea and then come home to a black tea in the evening."
Black tea is much more than a ruddy builder's brew pre-commute. How about amber-coloured Orange Pekoe from Sri Lanka, a citrussy Lady Grey or Lapsang Souchong's elegant smokiness?
Wright picks Darjeeling as a case in point for the complexity of tea. "Some teas are seasonal and Darjeeling is only produced in the spring," he explains. "The tea will be dormant throughout winter and might suddenly start flushing [when the bud and first two leaves are ready to pick] at the end of March, giving you a vibrant, wonderful-tasting tea which may only be of top quality for three weeks."
Twinings will preserve and blend the Darjeeling to ensure we can buy it all year round, but if you like the sound of becoming a tea connoisseur, you should try their 1st Flush Darjeeling, an elegant afternoon tea which is described as having a "honeyed aroma and the light, fragrant taste of ripe green muscatel grapes".
Waitrose confirms this trend towards brewing finer blends the old-fashioned way in a pot, and sales of leaf teas over bagged are doing especially well – they are up by 18 per cent. Darjeeling leaf tea has sold 26 per cent more than usual over the past four weeks.
The only drawback to embracing this brave new world of exotic blends of tea and refined drinking rituals is that it transforms a cheap and quick morning habit into an expensive hobby, but if you're happy to blow pounds rather than pence on wine and frothy coffees, why not tea?
Tips from the top: How to make the perfect brew
* Whether loose or bagged, keep your tea fresh by storing it in a sealed jar or tin to avoid spoiling the flavour.
* Oxygen helps the flavour of tea develop, so boil freshly drawn water each time you fancy a cup. Filtered water is even better.
* Make sure your teapot is clean – a grimy build-up will alter the taste.
* Warm the pot first by swirling a little hot water around the inside to keep your tea warmer for longer.
* Use a teabag per person in the pot, or one teaspoon of loose tea.
* Brew loose tea for three to five minutes and stir once before pouring. Less time is needed for loose green tea (two to three minutes) and loose white tea (one minute).
* Milk in first or second? You’ll be glad to hear that this has nothing to do with taste. The “milk first” rule is a throwback to days when people wanted to protect their fine bone china from being damaged by scalding water. Go with whichever you prefer
Create a stir: Three teas of distinction
Twinings Gunpowder & Mint, £3.50 for 75g, Waitrose
Already a fan of mint tea, I was blown away by the pungency of this authentic mint brew.
Jasmine Green Tea Flowers, £18.50 for 125g, www.leafshop.co.uk
These jasmine-scented “flowers” are a work of art, each one created from hundreds of green tea buds. Pop one into a glass teapot and watch it unfurl. 10 per cent of all profits go to charity.
Bettsy Lemongrass & Ginger Tisane, £2.75 for 125g, www.bettysbypost.com
This blend of rosehips, lemongrass, hibiscus blossoms and ginger is to bagged lemon & ginger what artisan chocolate is to a bar of dairy milk.