I love taking a few minutes out of my day to savour a cuppa – a little escape ritual that calms a busy mind and instantly helps me refocus. Coffee was always my drink of choice, until a sample of delicious, beautifully packaged loose leaves by VRAC arrived in a parcel of goodies from The Future Kept and completely transformed my perception of tea.
Founded by Pauline Maniere, who hails from France but now lives in Lewes in south east England, VRAC sells a wonderful range of hand-blended teas incorporating local herbs and flowers, together with tea-making equipment and monthly tea subscriptions. I chatted to Pauline to find out more about her teas and the story behind them…
Where does your passion for tea come from?
“Without a doubt from my mum, who’s a big tea drinker. There was a tea shop in my hometown back in France, with shelves full of big black tea caddies. She would take me there at the weekend when I was a child, and I was allowed to pick one. It would take me ages to choose – I loved smelling them all and taking in the different aromas…”
How did VRAC get started?
“After working for a few years as a French teacher and feeling unhappy, I needed a career change. I worked in cafes and restaurants, and trained as a barista. My knowledge of food, wine and coffee got better and better, but no-one was paying any attention to tea, even in top-notch places. I was amazed. That’s where it started: I thought, if I ever open my own business, it will sell tea, and tea only!”
How do you source your teas?
“The search for good tea is the bit of my job that I love the most, although it took me a while to develop the selection I have today. Trustworthy contacts are essential in this industry, as it’s very hard to know exactly what’s going on at the other end of the chain if you’re not travelling to all the tea plantations yourself. When I opened VRAC, I was lucky enough to attract and meet knowledgeable people who helped me source good tea; tea lovers are a beautiful community. I only buy from small, fair-trade farms which work organically, biodynamically or naturally.”
Why is selling ethical tea so important to you?
“It just makes sense to me: buying and selling tea grown in a way that doesn’t do any harm to the environment, and that ensures workers get decent wages. On top of that, buying from small farms allows me to know who’s behind the production and their story. It makes it all so much more personal and exciting, and when you drink the tea, you cherish every sip.”
What do you want people to experience when they drink one of your teas?
“I want to show people how wide the spectrum of tea is. I would like them to think that it tastes deliciously different, and that it’s worth spending a little more time and money to make preparing loose-leaf tea a daily ritual. It’s difficult to change people’s habits and way of consuming – we’re so rushed in our lives that it’s hard to move away from chucking a teabag in a mug.”
Do you have any personal favourites from your range?
“Although I have a cup of Earl Grey every morning, I most love the seasonal blends. I created a Provence blend after my holiday there in June, with garden rosemary, Spanish olive leaf and Provençal lavender.
“I’m also very pleased with the orange Darjeeling. It’s the perfect combo of second-flush biodynamic Darjeeling from Potong, and local orange oil made by Lewes apothecary Amanda Saurin from bittersweet orange blossoms. Heavenly!”
What’s next for VRAC? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
“I would like to find new stockists, including some outside the UK. There are also new collaborations and workshops coming up – keep an eye on the website!”
Finally, any expert tips on how to make the perfect brew?
“It’s not complicated. Water temperature and timing are key, though, so you need to follow the instructions provided with your loose-leaf tea in order to get the best possible brew. Every type of tea requires a specific brewing method and vessel, and it’s fun to discover how to make tea in something other than a traditional teapot (a gaiwan or press, for example). I find those few minutes of preparation truly therapeutic: you’re just focusing on making tea, which is a beautifully calming ceremony and the best way to start the day.”
Most images by Dean Hearne. Portrait of Pauline by Lee Robbins; fourth and sixth images via VRAC