Entering TWG’s tea salon in Vancouver, British Columbia, is akin to stepping into a tale from the Arabian Nights. It’s a wonderland of exotic flavours, aromas, and colours. Bejewelled columns and lamps are surrounded by artisan tea tins decorated with images inspired by TWG Tea’s Singapore roots, as well as iconic destinations of the world — geishas in flowing obis, moonlight shimmering on lily ponds, beloved landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge or the Empire State Building.
A collection of gold and white porcelain teapots reminiscent of Art Nouveau’s elegant simplicity, displayed alongside ornate copper samovars that would be completely at home gracing the sideboard of a royal banquet, demonstrates that teapots, too, can be works of art.
Co-founded in 2008 by Taha Bouqdib, Maranda Barnes and Rith Aum-Stievenard, TWG Tea has steadily expanded its tea collection, which is comprised of over 800 single-estate, fine harvests and exclusive blends, making it the largest tea collection in the world. The Vancouver salon, TWG’s flagship debut into North America, opened with 477 blends featuring names like Geisha Blossom, Jade Dragon, Red Balloon, and Moroccan Mint.
Bouqdib considers selecting the best of the world’s teas his personal mission. “When I go to the gardens, I sleep there just like the locals do,” he says, adding that frequently, accommodations are little more than temporary shacks. “Often we wake up at four o’clock in the morning and it’s extremely cold. But when you are laughing with the people who work there as you share conversation and a nice cup of tea, they cannot give you anything but leaves of the best quality — it’s impossible. When you go to this level to connect with people, they will give you the best because they respect your passion… not because of your money.”
A passionate destiny
Bouqdib’s journey into the world of tea reads like its own fairytale. During his youth, the family lived near the Chinese Embassy in Morocco where his father was head of the King’s security guard. It was a prestigious career, and one some of his siblings continue to enjoy.
“Every holiday, people from the Chinese Embassy brought us a calendar, candles and tea,” he recollects. “Always, when I tasted it, I didn’t like it because it was very different from the sweet Moroccan tea I was used to. When you go from something with a lot of sugar to something with none, you think it has no taste. But it’s actually completely the opposite — a quality tea doesn’t require anything else.”
His epiphany came after a chance meeting with a tea merchant in Paris when Bouqdib was in his early 20s. “He took me into the warehouse and poured me a few of the teas I’d had when I was young. That was when I learned they were actually some of the most precious teas in the world. I fell in love with tea leaves that day in Paris — and I’m still falling deeper in love day after day.”
Like many surprise romances, Bouqdib then had to break the news to his father that he would not be following the family tradition of working at the palace. “When I said I wanted to work in the tea industry, he asked if I was sure. I said yes, I was. Then he told me it would be good for me to write this in black and white, because the day I came back and admitted I was wrong, he would show me that paper.”
Bouqdib smiles at the memory — clearly still deeply fond and respectful of his father. “At 22 years old, I was convinced tea was my destiny. I’ve never changed that opinion.” Nor has he ever been confronted by the note he wrote for his father.
Bouqdib returned to Paris and began studying the Cha King, written by grand tea master Lu Yu. He transformed his bedroom into a laboratory where he could train his palate to recognize tea’s variations and subtleties — fruity, floral or spicy. He began travelling the great tea routes of China, India, and Japan, tasting his way through hundreds of harvests and comparing the unique terroir of different tea gardens.
“Today, I am still learning,” he says with an irrepressible enthusiasm. One recent revelation came during a visit to Sri Lanka, where mornings traditionally begin with a cup of the black tea this country is famous for. On this occasion, Bouqdib’s tea appeared uncharacteristically crystalline and colourless. “I thought perhaps the person who had prepared the tea was inexperienced, so I said to myself, ‘Well, never mind. I’ll just have my hot water.’ But when I tasted it, it was amazing.”
To Bouqdib’s astonishment, he learned it was a white tea his host had painstakingly cultivated and nurtured in the garden just outside. “You have to realize that the best white tea is traditionally always from China. I hadn’t even considered white tea could come from Sri Lanka. Now I know better.”
In 2008, during the midst of the worst global economic downturn in recent history, TWG opened not one, but three concept salons in Singapore. “Our stores were full. All our [local] bankers came in to discuss the financial crisis over tea,” Bouqdib says with a twinkle in his eye. “It was an amazing experience. Plus, we could negotiate real estate at a very good price, so it made good business sense.”
Bouqdib explains it was Vancouver’s cultural richness and diversity that made this city the natural choice for TWG to debut its flagship North American salon. “People here already understand tea’s cultural significance and have an appreciation for niche and artisanal beverages.”
“You can smell the world in tea,” Bouqdib says. “They may be countries and cities you will never visit, but you can share stories of those places over a cup of tea anywhere. I believe people need to take some time every day — perhaps only half an hour or 15 minutes — to experience the spirit of travelling. Tea is, for me, above all things, a sentimental beverage. My dream is to make this passion contagious with new generations.”
He pauses to sip from a delicate, almost transparent porcelain cup that’s just been filled with Nuwara Eliya, a golden amber tea from a renowned garden in Sri Lanka. A smile of sheer delight lights up his eyes as the precious liquid seems to momentarily transport him back to a place where magic still exists, a world where the simple pleasure of sharing a cup of tea can change worlds and unite people. This is his world and his joy.