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Tea in Spain Smiles Again


In the mid-1980s Per Sundmalm, a Swedish University student, came to Barcelona to learn Spanish. He had amongst his group of friends a number of other Northern European students, mainly from Great Britain and Scandinavia, and they all complained about the same thing - how hard it was to find and drink good tea in Spain. As opposed to most European countries, tea is still a rarity in Spain, a stronghold of coffee and cocoa. In 1997, coffee represented 72% of all hot drinks consumed in Spain, whereas tea was a bare 1.2%. In other words, out of the 206,262 tons of hot drinks Spaniards drank, they only consumed 2,656 tons or tea.

The Rise And Fall Of Tea In Spain
The Spanish Queen Victoria Eugenia, daughter of Queen Victoria, brought tea from her native Britain to the Spanish court.

The reasons for such a low intake can be found in history. While British and Dutch colonies produced tea, Spanish ones, concentrated mostly in Latin America, specialized in the production of coffee beans and cocoa. In fact, for centuries cocoa was the favorite drink of Spaniards, being also highly popular among the monarchy. The fine 18th century pieces of cocoa crockery belonging to the Bourbon dynasty and kept in the Spanish royal collections find no parallel in tea. Tea was first introduced in Spain by a British woman. The Spanish queen Victoria Eugenia, daughter of Queen Victoria, brought tea from her native Britain to the Spanish court. The aristocracy and higher strata of Spanish society soon embraced this drink. That is probably the reason why ever since then tea has been considered a high-class beverage in Spain.

At the beginning of the 20th century, coffee shops, as is still the case in Northern Africa, were extremely popular places where men smoked and talked about politics, but where women were rarely welcome. The introduction of tea brought about a new phenomenon - tea salons. The most exclusive hotels such as the Ritz and Palace Hotels in Madrid dedicated beautifully decorated salons to the consumption of tea. These elegant meeting places were quickly adopted by Spanish ladies as their meeting place. Tea salons started to spread throughout the rest of Spain. In Barcelona, they also soon became very popular and were known by such suggestive names as Saln of tea. These elegant meeting places were quickly adopted by Spanish ladies as their meeting place. Tea salons started to spread throughouutiful china was imported from France, Germany and England, and the locations where tea was served had a delicate feminine touch - with flowers, velvet, silk brocades, and crystal chandeliers.

Unfortunately, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) did away with the short period of splendor that tea had enjoyed in the first part of the 20th century. But it was not only tea that suffered. The lack of supplies radically reduced the consumption of coffee too, which, due to shortages and rationing, was substituted by chicory. The post-war period left tea in a very precarious position from which it never recovered. In the early 1980s, the average consumption per person in Spain was one teacup per month - an outrageously low quantity when compared with the five cups per day that U.K. consumers drank at the time. Sundmalm, president of The Tea Shop of East West Company explains that it was not a question of lack of demand but rather of poor supply. “When I arrived in Spain, if you asked for a tea in any bar or coffee shop, they gave you a cup of water, heated with the steam of a coffee machine, and a low quality teabag on the side. That is the reason why nobody wanted to drink tea in this country. It was awful!”

The “Tea Shop” Opens Up
Neighbors came into the shop, patted his back and said to him, “Nice shop, but you have made a mistake: Spaniards do not drink tea!”

Sundmalm thought that it would be a good idea to start a tea business in Barcelona. It was already 1989, but before he started up, he carried out some market research. He found out that tea was mostly sold in pharmacies and in health and herbal stores as a remedy against diarrhea. Kids were forced to drink a concoction of tea and other herbs when they were sick. The leading supermarket chain in Spain, El Corte Inglés, only sold between three and five types of tea. When Sundmalm said he was planning to open a tea shop, people answered: “tea what?” He thought maybe they did not understand him because of his heavy accent, but that was not the reason. Indeed a small number of educated people did drink tea, but most was consumed in the private homes of the upper classes. In Andalusia in Southern Spain, the Moorish tradition of drinking tea with mint was well rooted, especially in the cities of Granada and Cordoba. Just about everywhere else, the consumption of tea was dramatically hampered.

Nevertheless, Sundmalm went ahead with his dream and opened his first “Tea Shop” in Travessera de Gracia St., Barcelona, in the autumn of 1990. Neighbors came into the shop, patted his back and, grimacing, said to him, “Nice shop, but you have made a mistake: Spaniards do not drink tea!” Only as few as 5% of the clients who visited the shop for the first time congratulated him and encouraged him to go on. However, it took some time for most people to become acquainted with the business. Many people thought it was a herbal medicine shop and came in looking for a natural cure for their aching bones, legs, or headaches. Sundmalm thinks it may also have had to do with the way the shop was conceived and run at the time. To start with, it was full to the brim of large tins of tea, all employees had to wear a white shirt under their aprons, and male workers also wore a tie. Since they happened to be Swedish, blond, and tall, it is not surprising that some customers even confused them with Mormons looking for proselytes!

Despite the first setbacks, business slowly moved on, especially during the Christmas period. But in February sales were already stagnating. However, Sundmalm did not give up. He was firmly set to stay in business and thus, in a frantic effort, he started to deliver “Tea Shop” brochures to consulates and embassies, chambers of commerce, English schools and clubs, and wherever he thought there might be people interested in quality tea. With a stroke of ingenuity, he sent a letter to local newspapers and magazines with a small package of tea attached. Then, in the month of April, when he was almost on the verge of giving up, La Vanguardia, the leading newspaper of Barcelona, published an article about The Tea Shop in its Sunday paper, together with a picture of the shop and its telephone number, but no address. The response was so overwhelming that the first thing Sundmalm did on the Monday was to buy an answering machine onto which he recorded the full address of the shop. That was the start of The Tea Shop take off.

Continued on next page...


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