Valerie Diederichs on Team Tea’s first foray into licensing – and the company’s mission to banish boring brews

Team Tea founder Valerie Diederichs discusses tea trends, a recent partnership with The Ashmolean Museum and the secret to a perfect brew.

Valerie, it’s great to chat. Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about Team Tea and why you launched the company?
I launched Team Tea in early 2018 because I wanted to banish boring brews and showcase the immense diversity that this single plant has to offer. Believing in doing things ‘right’, the team is driven by our core values of ethical sourcing, sustainability, quality and taste.

Based in Oxfordshire, we source the finest loose-leaf teas, from exquisite Single-Origin teas to classic blends. We share the story behind the teas and brewing notes to help you discover new favourites.

You are a tea sommelier. Can you let us know more about this? How do you become one?
I have always been passionate about tea, and I trained as a Tea Sommelier at the UK Tea Academy in London. The training is fantastic and a really intensive hands-on way to develop a knowledge for tea.

Fundamentally you cover everything that will affect the flavour, from origin, terroir, cultivar, processing techniques, blending and brewing parameters. But more importantly, you develop the language to talk about tea and to help people navigate the world of tea. Whether that be suggesting a tea to go with a particular food pairing, or sourcing a tea that someone had once, or helping someone discover a new favourite.

“The Ashmolean Tea blend is refined, elegant and ideally suited to a moment of quiet contemplation.”

I love when people tell me about a tea that they drank once maybe as part of an afternoon tea on a special occasion, and by asking a few questions I can guess the tea and point them in the right direction.

Let’s move onto your recent partnership with The Ashmolean Museum that has seen you launch an Ashmolean Tea blend. Can you talk us through its development?
Developing the blend has been a fantastic experience. I really wanted to capture the feel of the Museum, so I started by spending a few afternoons visiting the museum. I wanted to get a feel for the collection and the mood of the place.

It was such an interesting process. I would always end up spending far longer than I’d planned, as I would stumble across a part of the collection that I didn’t know about and be drawn into the stories. I always ended my visit by sitting somewhere different in the Museum and imagining the ideal cup of tea that I wanted to drink in that moment. Those musings became my inspiration for the blend.

Valerie Diederichs, Team Tea

Lovely – let’s dig into those musings! What steered the flavour of the Ashmolean Tea?
My thoughts were that the tea should be refined, but not fussy, and I wanted to be a ‘proper’ tea with heritage. This led me to look at teas from more traditional growing regions such as China and India. I began the blending process with a base of Assam teas, and then tried adding various teas. The final blend incorporates teas from the Assam and Darjeeling regions of India and Fujian Province in China.

“Tea drinking in the UK needs to undergo a revolution, much in the same way that coffee did a few years ago.”

It was also important that the tea looked ‘pretty’. After all, we eat with our eyes first. While they are all black teas in the blend, the different origins and processing methods mean that the leaves are slightly different. The Assam has these beautiful flecks of gold, the Darjeeling adds flashes of green and autumnal shades, while the gunpowder has this almost oily shine to the leaves.

The final blend starts with a second flush single estate Assam – this grounds the tea in a comforting maltiness. To this, I added a second flush Darjeeling, which helps lift the tea and brings in some fruitier notes and a lovely aroma. The last component tea is a very special Black Gunpowder from Fujian, China. This is a rare tea that not only provides a fantastic link to Guy Fawkes’ lantern and the Gunpowder plot, but also adds a subtle caramelised toastiness which brings a layer of refinement.

I think the resulting blend is refined, elegant and ideally suited to a moment of quiet contemplation.

Valerie Diederichs, Team Tea

It sounds fantastic. Now this is your first venture into licensing. How have you found the experience so far?
The licensing process has been fantastic. I was a little apprehensive initially with this being my first venture, however the support and enthusiasm from across the Museum throughout the whole process was great. I have really felt that the tea was embraced, and I’m very grateful for that.

My only surprise was how open and collaborative the Museum was. For example, when working on the packaging design, they shared images of hundreds of objects from the collection. It made the process of choosing just a single object quite difficult!

Valerie Diederichs, Team Tea

On that, the Ashmolean Tea boasts really eye-catching packaging. How did you approach designing this aspect of the product?
My background is in engineering and I used to spend a lot of my time on CAD designing components, so the design process is something I really enjoy. I love playing with a concept on screen and refining it.

For me, design is a very iterative process. I normally have a starting point in my head and I try and get that on screen as quickly as possible. Then I walk away, take the dog for a walk, or pack some tea, and come back to the screen and tweak the idea. I keep repeating this process until I get a feeling that I’m almost scared to change it – then I know it’s ready. It always amazes me how different the final concept looks to the initial starting point.

From here, I pass the concept to Will at Full Phat Design. He is brilliant at realising my rough concept into a polished design. His eye for detail is amazing and I love his use of colour and fonts. He has an almost magic ability to make a design feel really luxurious, and yet not fussy – it’s a real gift.

We have worked together since the start of the business, with Will designing the logo and brand identity for the business. Will makes keeping projects on track straightforward. He is an excellent communicator, and I think it really helps that we have a similar aesthetic as we are on the same page very quickly and that keeps the revisions to a minimum.

Valerie Diederichs, Team Tea

Within the wider world of tea, are there particular brands you admire from a design point of view?
I have a lot of admiration for Mariage Frères. They have managed to maintain a consistent branding and – more importantly – high quality, even though they have expanded quite a bit in recent years. Walking into one of their shops always feels like you are entering a magic world of tea, and it feels quite special.

I also really admire Haeckels. I love the work they are doing on sustainability and reducing the footprint of their products. It is inspirational to see that companies can be such pioneers without compromising the amazing aesthetic of their brand.

What do you think the future is for tea drinking in the UK? Are there any specific trends and developments you would highlight?
I know we are seeing a decline in the quantity of tea drunk in the UK, but I am hoping that is an opportunity. Tea drinking in the UK needs to undergo a revolution, much in the same way that coffee did a few years ago.

20 years ago, most people just drank instant coffee. That was the norm, but today I think many more people appreciate the quality of their coffee and are prepared to put more time and effort into brewing that cup, often starting from beans or grounds. I hope we will see the same with tea. I hope people will turn away from cheap tea dust in bags and instead value the tea they are drinking.

I think this will lead to a shift towards loose-leaf tea, where not only is the quality better but the environmental impact is lower too. Loose-leaf also reduces the barriers to entry for smaller tea farmers and independent tea merchants and should see more exciting innovation. This will increase the choice available to consumers, which is exciting.

Great insights. Returning to your Ashmolean partnership, I believe the chef in the Ashmolean restaurant is using your tea on his menu?
Yes, the Ashmolean Tea is being served in the top floor restaurant, and for Afternoon Tea the Chef has created a delicious tea loaf using the blend. I was fortunate enough to try the tea loaf and it was wonderful. Rich, malty and fruity – it was a great accompaniment to the tea. It is great to see the restaurant including the blend, as every purchase supports the Museum.

Finally – and perhaps my most important question – can you give our readers a few tips on how to brew a perfect cup of tea?

The starting point is water. Always use fresh water, preferably filtered, and heated to the correct temperature for the tea you are drinking. Measure out the tea leaves, the amount will depend on the size of your pot or cup and how strong you like your tea. If you like your tea stronger, use a bit more leaf and vice versa if you prefer it less strong. Use a strainer or filter that has plenty of space for the leaves to infuse and allow the tea enough time to steep. At the end of the steep time, separate the leaves from the tea so that the tea does not over brew, as it could go bitter.

Lastly, drink in a comfortable spot, preferably with good company!

Valerie, a huge thanks again for this. Time to put the kettle on!

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