Will Dixon and Yorkshire Tea
Helen Soteriou

Traveling and Tasting for Yorkshire Tea, the UK's No. 2 Brand

Will Dixon roams the tea-growing world, looking for 'briskness' and flavor

The company that makes Yorkshire Tea — now the second most popular tea in the U.K. after PG Tips — dates its origins back to 1886, when Charles Edward Taylor and his sons founded CE Taylor & Co. in Harrogate, near the northern English city of Leeds, to import coffee and tea and sell it out of stores and kiosks all over Yorkshire. In 1962, the enterprise was bought by a rival group, Betty's Tea Rooms, to form the Bettys & Taylors Group. The descendants of Frederick Belmont, who started Bettys in 1919, run the company today.

Yorkshire Tea, a blend of black teas from Asia and Africa, was first blended in 1970s, formulated specifically to match the mineral content of Yorkshire water, and at first sold only in the immediate area. Since then, the tea has become widely popular and is brewed not only in Yorkshire but all over the U.K. and in other countries worldwide.

Taylors blends 90 to 100 tonnes (about 100 to 110 U.S. tons) of Yorkshire Tea per day, in seven varieties, and makes 30,000 Yorkshire teabags per minute during working hours — adding up to more than 34 million a day, 180 million per week, and nine billion a year.

Despite its scale, the company has a warm, family feel to it. I recently visited Taylors headquarters in Harrogate, toured the factory floor, and had lunch in the staff canteen, and never did I feel a sense of "them and us." There was a real sense of camaraderie and shared pride in the work. The managing director casually sat next to us at lunch. Everybody cooed over a baby somebody had brought into the office. The factory foreman boasted to a PR woman that his son had been accepted into RADA, the prestigious performing arts school in London.

One of the people I met was Will Dixon, one of four tea tasters and buyers (plus one trainee for the position) for Taylors. Dixon was born in West Yorkshire and moved farther north to the Scottish Borders region when he was 8 years old. "I grew up on our family farm, where we grow wheat and barley and breed sheep," he told me, "and studied economics at university."

He'd had no background in tea when he joined Taylors in 2012. The company advertised an opening for the post with a short film on BBC Look North, a regional TV news program. "Essentially it was promoted as one of the best jobs in the world," according to Dixon, "and the successful candidate would get to spend their time drinking tea and traveling the world. The job obviously appealed! So I put in a speculative application, not really expecting to get too far in the process, and luckily, after three separate interviews with all the members of the team, I was fortunate to get the job — beating hundreds of other applicants."

What, I asked Dixon, did a tea taster actually do? "The job," he replied, "is essentially to taste tea and assess it for a range of characteristics, and then value it. The main things the taster will comment on, and which will impact his/her grading of the tea, are leaf size and appearance (is it the normal size for the specific grade, is it clean and without fiber, does it have a high or low tip content — tips being the small, unopened leaves of the tea plant, usually considered to be of higher quality than the older, opened leaves); the appearance of the infused leaf (the wet leaf after the tea has been brewed), an indication of how well the tea will keep over time; the appearance of the brew, including color and brightness; the body of the brew — how heavy it feels on the tongue; the 'hardness' of the brew (hard tea lingers on the palate, soft tea disappears quickly); briskness (that is, does it leave you wanting another mouthful or is it flat and unmemorable; flavor (teas from different places have different unique flavors, and the taster assesses how much of the desired character it has); and finally manufacturing errors — any taints on the tea which have occurred during manufacture, such as a burnt or smoky taste."

I asked whether single-origin or blended tea was better. "This comes down to a matter of preference," Dixon said. "It all depends whether the consumer likes a mixture of characteristics which they would get from a blend or a specific characteristic from a tea from a certain area. Blending tea is an art. In blending, we select a tea for specific desirable characteristics — for example, an Assam tea for having a lot of body and a malty taste — and blend it with a tea from a different origin which has different desirable characteristics — for example, a Rwandan tea for being bright, golden, and brisk — so that the finished product has a combination of the best from both types of tea."

Dixon attributes the popularity of Yorkshire Tea to the company's focus on quality. "The teas which go into Yorkshire Tea are from some of the best tea estates and factories in the world," he says. "Our team of buyers work closely with the people who grow the teas so that they know exactly what attributes we look for to make the best possible brew."

Unlike coffee, tea has no futures market to buy and sell against. "There are some large tea auctions around the world each week, and people use these as a gauge to set prices and to see how demand is changing," Dixon explained. "To help our suppliers plan for the future and to give them long-term security, we sign long-term contracts with them so they can be confident that they’ll be getting good prices and that their teas will be going into Yorkshire Tea for years to come."

"Tea manufacture is a relatively high labor-intensive process, so in tea-producing areas, huge proportions of the community are reliant on tea for income,” Dixon continued. “So paying good prices for tea helps huge volumes of people. But we also work with organizations such as the Ethical Tea Partnership to help promote diversification and generate new income streams for small-scale farmers, so that they are not just reliant on tea for income."

Taylors works with the Ethical Tea Partnership and other groups in another direction, too: "Traditionally," he told me, "the weather was always predictable in tea-growing areas. People knew when the seasonal rains and changes in temperature would occur. This is no longer the case, though, and weather conditions are becoming more erratic. As tea is very reliant on rainfall and temperature, the impact of global warming is going to become a bigger and bigger issue going forward. We are working with several organizations to promote tree-planting and increased education to help mitigate the impact of global warning where possible. Over the last couple of years, for instance, we have been running a tree-planting campaign running across the U.K. and Kenya to raise awareness of the importance of trees and promote the planting of them."

As it turns out, Dixon does indeed get to travel the world, as promised by the film that interested him in the Taylors job. "We visit the estates and factories and taste with the factory teams, ideally twice a year to each location," he told me. "We work on quality improvements, work on bespoke leaf grades, and discuss in general how the year has progressed. When visiting the estates we stay in the managers’ houses, which are in the middle of the estates, which is always a nice experience — and the food is always amazing.

"We have been working closely with some tea estates for many years and they are always happy to see visitors from Yorkshire Tea. There is always a lot of wildlife on the estates — birds, monkeys, and sometimes even elephants — so you get to see all sorts of things. Because the tea estates in some countries are long distances apart, you can sometimes spend up to eight hours a day in a car, which means you really get to see a wide range of landscapes and learn about local customs and activities.

"I really love Rwanda, for instance. The tea from there is great, which helps, but the landscape is stunning! It is known as 'the land of a thousand hills,' which is not an exaggeration — every time you turn a corner, there are just more and more hills. There are also some very beautiful lakes there, too, and the people are very friendly.

"The travel is obviously great, and you really get to experience countries in a way which wouldn’t be possible as a tourist. But one of the most rewarding parts of the job is seeing the impact that paying good prices for tea has on the tea-producing communities. As a company, we also invest in projects at origin such as supplying water and building classrooms, and you can see firsthand the positive impact that these projects have."

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