Mike Prestage meets the man whose home brew is regarded as a regional delicacy
It's at this time of year that holidaymakers in the Somerset resort of Minehead begin contacting local tea blender Derek Miles to enquire if the decent cup of tea they have enjoyed during their stay can be found nearer home. Happily, the answer is yes, as these regular requests prompted Derek to offer his blended teas by mail order.

Locals, who can buy Miles tea over the counter,hail it as a great regional luxury. High praise, but a bit strong for the modest Mr Miles. "The basic blend isn't that different from the major companies," he explained, "but we like to think that because we blend and buy on such a small scale we can be very selective with the teas we buy. That is our strength."

The firm produces a small range of speciality teas like Earl Grey, China and Darjeeling but it's the breakfast blend which Mr Miles started with over 30 years ago that makes up the bulk of the business. A traditionalist at heart, Mr Miles would prefer to sell only loose tea, and the rise of the tea bag does not really meet with his approval. "We do produce them - and it is the major part of our business - but at home I still use loose tea. The tea bag is not something I particularly like, but nowadays everything is about convenience."

Mr Miles comes from an old Midlands tea dynasty begun by his grandfather, Henry Miles in 1888. He himself learnt the trade at the London tea market before moving to work at the port of Avonmouth - then the major port of import for tea - to work as a tea inspector, checking the quality of the tea as it arrived in chests from India, China and East Africa.

At the same time he began blending his own brand of tea from the front room of his cottage. Using up to14 individual varieties of leaf, Mr Miles would weigh out his personal blends against an old sixpence in a set of apothecary's scales. The success of his tea was such that by the time bulk containers had replaced tea chests, and the importers had switched from Avonmouth to the east-coast, Mr Miles' tea blending could become a full-time affair.

In the early days he would blend ten chests of tea a week. Now, having bought the old family firm with a partner, his company Henry Miles and Co blends 120 chests a week. Apart from a major new operating centre and a larger staff, little has changed. "For the basic breakfast tea I have stuck to the blend I started out with - using Assam and East African teas," he says. "In an ideal world you would blend with local water so there would be regional variations, but that's not possible."

Even if there is little variation in taste Mr Miles will be tasting nearly every day, trying tea samples sent from brokers. Because the quality on individual plantations varies at different times of the year there is a lot of fine tuning to ensure that standards are maintained.

The tasting room is filled with little boxes - 120 in all - which contain the tea samples from which the blends will be made. These match the 2,000 chests of tea stored in the warehouse which will be mixed when the final formula is decided upon.

Water from a specially-made copper kettle is poured onto the standard amount of tea - it is always balanced against the sixpence - and is left to infuse for exactly six minutes. Then it is sucked to the back of the palate before being deposited in a spittoon, The leaves are also inspected.

"As a general rule if there is a bright coppery infusion when you examine the leaves it is a good tea and if it has a greenish infusion it is poor quality," he explained as he tested the blends that will be on the production line in seven weeks time.

The skill is ensuring that though the quality of the tea leaves may vary, the packets leaving the warehouse taste the same on the palate all year round. The essential rituals that have remained unchanged since the time his grandfather was blending are part of the art.

"It is still a very gentlemanly occupation, where trust and word of honour count for a great deal," he said. "Many involved in the industry have come from families with a long background in tea. Personally, while I shall probably try to ease my way out, I really don't want to give up. It's fascinating and there is always something more to learn."

Miles Tea mail order: 01643-703993

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