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Ch’a and the Tea-Bird Machine

Brooke Bond’s revolutionary tea brewing machine is the star of the company’s recently opened Ch’a tea bars. Jane Pettigrew visited Bristol to see the bar and its staff in action.

From the silver spoon handle on the front door and the upside down cup and saucer light shades, to the quirky quotes on the wall posters and the limericks on the till counter, Brooke Bond’s new Ch’a tea bars are full of energy and fun. The decor is warm, modern, airy, welcoming, easy-on-the-eye, and self-confident. The staff members are chatty, helpful, smiling, bright, knowledgeable, and most definitely enjoying their work. The tea menu features traditional teas “brewed using the highest quality loose leaves,” power teas, “new styles of tea which allow for tea moments to calm or excite,” and frappe teas “blended with ice and fruit for a refreshing and healthy experience.” And there on the counter, gleaming with pride and attracting lots of attention, is the Tea-Bird. A theatrical structure of chrome and glass - light in its open architecture and eccentric in its appearance - this remarkable invention is set to be as important for the brewing of tea in the catering industry as the espresso machine was for coffee.

The Tea-Bird Machine
The Tea-Bird was created almost by accident. It all started with the Ch’a team and a group of crazy designers in a pub in east London. Discussions about how to brew the perfect cup of tea got them sketching their vision for the ideal machine on the back of a beer mat and they followed that with a world-scouring quest for inspiration, and the eventual building of the prototype in the kitchen of one of the team members. Once the group knew what they were trying to achieve, they called in two teams of British designers, Design Stream and Design Bridge Structure, to try and solve the problem of making perfect tea in a catering situation. The age-old problems of water quality, timing, separation of the leaf from the infusion at the optimum time, among others, are all solved by this innovative machine. Tea-Bird uses a combination of water quality control, ceramic heating, convection currents, and a patented Timed Siphon Filter system to extract the maximum flavor from leaf tea before the secondary bitter stage of steeping (also known as stewing) can take place.

Since the entire tea brewing process takes place in glass chambers in two machines that sit at eye level on the shop’s counter, Cha’s customers can see their individual cup of tea being prepared. They can watch a member of the Ch’a team, a “tipster,” weigh out their chosen specialty tea leaves and deposit them into one of the individual brewing chambers. A lid is then fitted on and freshly boiled water is drawn up through the main struts of the body of the machine to spurt into the chamber. Beneath the chamber, but not actually touching it, are two red hot metal plates which trigger a convection current inside the chamber and cause the tea leaves to swirl around.

As Peter Boucher, Brooke Bond’s marketing personality, explained, “We’re using large tea leaves which we would normally recommend brewing for four to five minutes, but Tea-Bird does it in 90 seconds. Because the temperature of the water is so high and because we’re agitating the leaves, it brings the brewing time right down.”

Each machine can produce more than 100 cups per hour, so with two machines, Ch’a could theoretically satisfy 1,600 customers in an average eight-hour day. And the two design teams who put the machine together are so confident that Tea-Bird is the ultimate tea maker, they claim that “as an automated, commercial system, it actually provides a better cup of tea than most people usually make at home. The purity of the water, its temperature and method of heating, the infusion time and leaf agitation are all constant.” Eventually, the team hopes that the machine may be modified to allow for the timing of each brew to be adjusted for different teas.

The Ch’a team reckon Tea-Bird is going to change the way people think about tea out of the home. At the moment, they say, “some people steer clear of tea when they’re not at home or in the office because they can’t be sure it’ll be made the way they like it. With the development of the Brooke Bond Tea-Bird machine, Ch’a’s highly skilled and well-trained staff can, for the first time in the 4796 year history of tea, deliver a perfect cup every time, whatever your favorite blend or brew.”

The Ch’a Tea Bars
With the two new Ch’a tea bars in Brighton and Bristol, Brooke Bond have taken a completely new direction for both themselves and for British tea rooms in general.

As far as the design of the tea bars is concerned, the approach is that of bringing British tea and tea drinking right up to date. There is absolutely no connection here to “olde world” tearooms.

The Ch’a look is light and contemporary, with modern warm colors - terracottas, pale yellows, bare brick and soft gray slate floor tiles - high ceilings, vast plate glass windows looking out onto a busy shopping street, comfortable, generously spaced sofas and wooden chairs, and with large palms adding interest and texture to the clean lines and sharp angles.

The approach to customers is relaxed and friendly and all sorts of chatty conversations take place in little clusters around the long elegant counter between staff and consumers about what the different teas are like and what to try. A steady, genuinely helpful educational approach is what counts here. As Peter Boucher told me, “Tea is such a rich and varied subject, and in the past, the tea industry has perhaps just thrown things at consumers and expected them to understand the teas’ differences. As with wines, tell someone there are 4,000 different types of tea and it’s totally intimidating. What we’re trying to do is educate people gently. Our staff members are trained to understand the teas and to offer advice about what teas might suit individual tastes and pair well with different foods. They just chat to people, so everyone feels comfortable.”

A sense of humor certainly helps this approach. The limericks featured on the walls don’t simply amuse, they are there to state policy and raise awareness, as with:

There was a young lady from Ch’a
Whose tea was not up to par
To the tipster she said
“Is it meant to be red?”
He changed it, no quibble, that’s Ch’a

(“No quibble refunds” are part of the service and a recognition of the fact that not everyone will enjoy the same type of tea but should be able to try the different varieties without feeling they are wasting their money.)

And amusing touches such as “Ch’a very much!” on the digital till read-out, and mock quotations (“Kissing is like drinking tea through a tea-strainer; you’re always thirsty afterwards” - old Chinese saying!) on receipts, add fun to the experience. As I sat watching customers come in and out of the Bristol shop, some for take-away mugs of tea, others for a relaxed moment away from the office or shops, it was clear that this easy, comfortable venue is already a firm favorite with locals. Customers in both shops are really enjoying trying the new tea creations, with spiced ch’a and tea frappes the number two and three best-sellers in Brighton, coming after the humble everyday “cuppa” (brewed here with PG Tips) that still accounts for four out of every ten cups drunk in the U.K.

Other options include a cup of tea brewed from Lot no. 11 Assam tea bought at the last London tea auction, a nutty-flavored Hellbody from Ceylon, “tchae” green tea blended with mint, grapefruit, peach or chamomile, Indian style ‘ch’a brewed from black tea, sweet spices, and frothy steamed milk, “liquid lunch” whizzed up from iced tea and five exotic fruits, and “sun tea” blended with lemon or black currant. And the creative process is going on all the time with plenty of new ideas coming in from both staff and customers.

Although the tea-bird machine is used for brewing the majority of the loose leaf teas, tea pots are still used for some -- especially the flavored teas because of the risk of contaminating the machine.

Hot teas are served in two different sizes of customized mug, while iced teas and frappes come in glasses. The food on offer (to eat in or take away) has been carefully selected to complement tea, and Ch’a tipsters claim they make the best toast and bacon sandwiches in town. And there are also healthy sandwiches made on interesting breads (malted brown, granary, etc.) with fillings of tarragon chicken, cheese with mango chutney, mozzarella and tomato, and cakes, muffins, and pastries made to order in London and shipped down to the two shops early every morning.

The Retail Operation
On the retail side, as well as marketing the PG teabags we are all so familiar with in the U.K., Brooke Bond has just introduced a green tea and will shortly be launching a range of specialty black teas to suit the growing gourmet tea market. At Ch’a, customers can choose their drink-in, take-away, or loose leaf tea for home brewing from a range of single estate teas and fine blends from all over the world. To help customers choose something that suits, snappy tasting notes inform that the Java is “Old Dutch Hill Estate giving a delicate, slightly piquant tea, ideal for tea-time, (pass the digestives, please!”), that the Ceylon low-grown from Pothotuaa is “a strong malty tea with a gentle Bramley apple finish - goes hand in hand with apple pie,” and that the Assam from Mangalam has “a strong malty flavor with a strong finish, an ideal pick-me-up in the morning, grown to go with bacon and eggs!” There’s also Earl Grey, China Keemun, Malabar, Kenilworth, Uva Highlands, and more.

The fun theme of the shops is continued in the retails shelves’ stock of wacky novelty teapots, fun infusers, and other bits and pieces of tea equipage including Ch’a mugs with logo, insulated travel mugs, and fun glasses. All in all, the approach is lively and it genuinely makes you smile. Just as it should be in a teashop!

Peter Boucher talks enthusiastically about the Ch’a operation (which will almost certainly grow into a chain) - “We are incredibly excited about the way the public react to Ch’a. It draws on the history, heritage, and power of tea as a cultural icon and cornerstone of British life. At the same time it shakes you by the shoulders and introduces you to styles of tea and ways of drinking it you’ve never imagined. And with our tea-bird machine on center stage, Ch’a will seduce the punters and make them fall in love with tea all over again."

For more information, visit the Ch’a web site at www.chatea.co.uk.


Tea & Coffee - March 2000
Coffee & Tea Fest

Tea Fair - China


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