Profiles in Tea: Kevin Gascoyne of “Camellia Sinensis”

Kevin Gascoyne (standing)
Kevin Gascoyne (standing)

Quite possibly the most knowledgeable Darjeeling expert outside of the Himalayas, Kevin is the black tea specialist for Québec-based Camellia Sinensis. Along with popular tea rooms in Montréal and Québec City, Kevin and his partners operate niche retail and wholesale businesses recognized for their high quality teas.

I met Kevin about ten years ago when he had his first tea company and was kind enough to organize a tasting for my husband and me on a visit to Montréal. This is where I was introduced to non-traditional Darjeelings – whites, greens, and oolongs – and where my husband, inspired by these exceptional teas, became a true tea drinker. I also have to credit Kevin with teaching me how to slurp like a tea taster!

With the long-awaited release of the English-language version of their book THÉ: histoire, terroirs, saveurs, Kevin agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

How did you get involved with tea, and specifically with Darjeelings?

Growing up in Harrogate in Yorkshire, tea with milk became part of life before I can remember. Taylors of Harrogate has a beautiful Victorian tearoom called Betty’s, where even back in the 1980s I could buy a fine Darjeeling or tippy Assam – they’d even have single-estate teas now and again. For tea drinkers who remember the ’80s that’s impressive!

At age 19 I backpacked through Asia. In the Darjeeling tea gardens, I sampled the tea I loved in a higher form. Over the following years I tasted, wrote about, bought, and sold Darjeeling teas, driven by a passion for the leaf. My first company, Kyela Teas, specialized in single-invoice Darjeelings selected at source in the gardens. In 1999 I met Hugo, François, and Jasmin, owners of a cool little teahouse in Montréal. Each specialized in other tea-growing regions, and it seemed a natural evolution in 2004 when we merged the two companies together.

What changes have you seen in tea production during your eighteen tours of India?

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, India had to become competitive in new markets. As the specialty tea marketplace developed, and with input from the TRA (Tea Research Association of India), Darjeeling processors experimented with equipment and scientific techniques from China, Taiwan, and Japan in the search for new and exotic ways to present the legendary leaves of the foothills. Western markets also introduced the concepts of organic and Fair Trade to India. 

During the 1990s, first flushes were given harder withers and lighter oxidation to enhance the explosive aromatics at the price of a brisker cup. Now we see a return to milder wither for the sake of a smoother cup as the market’s palate continually ebbs and flows.

What changes have you seen in tea consumers?

As real food returns to the kitchen, and the selection and preparation of raw ingredients is back in our hands, the sensual appreciation of our food and drink has regained its importance in our lives. Handling, smelling, and examining loose leaves, dry or infused, is easier now than it was twenty years ago. Today’s consumers want a taste experience with a good story, and are willing to pay what it takes to make that happen.

What future changes do you predict for the tea world?

In the premium end of specialty tea, we worry about domestic consumers in tea-producing countries. In China, for instance, where tea needs no marketing – it has an innate value in their culture already – newly-wealthy Chinese pay handsomely for teas that are being priced out of our range.

Although flavoured teas seem to be the major “high street” force in the specialty field, I believe that the percentage of new drinkers with a terroir interest will continue to grow, providing the support for producing countries to focus on quality and diversity of product. 

What is your favourite tea, and how do you prefer to steep and drink it?

This week it’s Darjeeling Singell DJ5 classic leaf from the Heritage section of the garden, brewed in a ceramic teapot, sipped from a thin-lipped 150ml cup with a white interior and wide enough for my nose!

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