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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tea-ing off with a Master

Air Date: Week of

Tea Master Giles Hilton sniffing a floral rosehip and Earl Grey blend. (Photo: Dennis Foley)

Master Tea Blender Giles Hilton of London's tea proprieter Whittard of Chelsea, sits down over a cup of tea to talk about--tea.


GELLERMAN: Mmmmm. There’s nothing quite like a crisp cup of freshly brewed iced tea to take the heat off a hot summer day.


GELLERMAN: Yup tea is time –tested. Legend has it that in 2737 BC Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, discovered brewing tea quite by accident, when, sitting in his garden one morning, a single leaf fell into his bowl of hot water. Intrigued by the fragrant aroma he brewed a cup and the rest is ancient history. Today, tea is hot. It’s used in everything from shampoos to face creams. And health conscience consumers increasingly reach for cups of tea rich in antioxidants. Giles Hilton knows a lot about tea. He’s Master Tea Blender at Whittard of Chelsea, proprietors of tea and a London institution since 1866. Mr. Hilton was in Boston recently for the grand opening of Whittard’s first 'across the pond' tea blending store. There he talked about the little leaf that’s steeped in so much tradition.

[MUSIC: Jim Gibson "Tea For Two" from ‘The Art of Tea’ (Hickory Cove Music - 1997)]

HILTON: I think that the rest of the world thinks that we English simply live on tea. If in doubt we make a cup of tea. First thing in the morning, a cup of tea. A moment of crisis, a cup of tea. Relaxation before going to bed, a cup of tea. It is definitely in the English culture.

MAN SINGING: Every nation in creation has its favorite drink. France is famous for it’s wine. It’s beer in Germany. Russia goes for vodka. England loves its tea.

[From, Long John Baldry “Everything Stops for Tea” from ‘Everything Stops for Tea’ (Warner Bros. – 1972)

Giles Hilton sipping his cuppa.(Photo: Dennis Foley)

HILTON: So, the early English traders in their sailing boats found China. So the English took Hong Kong Island as their settlements because the Chinese wouldn’t let them into mainland China. They traded for anything they could get, be it silk, or jewels or tea. The English were trading back into England from the Far East with tea so we hit the tea culture first. Tea is well known for containing antioxidants. These antioxidants are, they are natural ingredients in the tealeaf. And it is particularly good for the health. And the body can absorb these antioxidants and polyphenols. These antioxidants seem to have an ability, if you like, to almost purify the body a bit. Certainly tea is a very good digestive. It will help the body not absorb too much fat from fatty foods. And help build up that sort of immune system to minor complaints and diseases.

When you think of a tea there are endless choices. It’s almost like self-analysis isn’t it? In other words come on what do I enjoy in life? Do I want red wine or white wine? We see you are able to make that a choice. Do I want a strong tea, a light tea, an herbal tea because I’m thinking of my health?

MAN 1: I’d like a pot of tea please.

MAN 2: Earl Gray or Lapsang Souchong?

MAN 1: No, tea.

[From, Bob Hoskins “Mona Lisa (Film Clip Quote)” from ‘Mona Lisa’ (Starz/Anchor Bay – 1986)]

HILTON: It’s an interesting question when people say, what is leading the interest in teas. What is increasing sales in certain areas? The pop culture so to speak, what is on television, what someone drinks definitely has an effect because the word of that tea is suddenly in the public mind.

MOVIE: Tea, Earl Gray, hot. [From, Patrick Stewart “Earl Grey Hot (TV Clip Quote) from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (Paramount – 1987)]

HILTON: And so Earl Gray is one of our best sellers, without a doubt. There are two aspects I suppose to really enjoying tea. One is in the mind, one is in the pallet if you like. So, I will prepare a cup of tea with out great pretension. I don’t have to have great China. I don’t have to have a beautiful teapot. I just make tea.

Tea Master Giles Hilton sniffing a floral rosehip and Earl Grey blend. (Photo: Dennis Foley)

MOVIE: The serving of tea to friends is an old and very enjoyable custom and so it has its traditions. [From, Anonymous “Arranging The Tea Table (Flm Clip Narration)” from ‘Arranging the Tea Table’ (1950)]

HILTON: Sometimes with a pinch of leaves picked up with my fingers and dropped into a cup. So, the pleasure is in that flexibility of making tea. Start with fresh drawn cold water. Bring it to a boil. However you boil it, it doesn’t matter.


HILTON: But try to give a tea two, three, four minutes to brew to get the flavor out. Leaving the tea in longer over brews it and after about five minutes you almost develop a bit of harshness or woodiness because you’ve soaked the best essential oils from the tealeaves. And then pour it almost still bubbling onto your tea bag or onto the leaves. And the reason it’s bubbling is that it’s full of oxygen, full of life, full of brightness. And it has a great effect on the tea. It brings it back to life, it brings out the flavor efficiently. And then don’t waste the leaves just top off the kettle again with boiling water or just very hot water, pour it into your brewed leaves and have a second cup 10 minutes later. No problem at all. You should be being more economical, use less and get two or three brews out of it.

Tea is probably one of the most natural products in the world. If you actually analyze it you have picked leaves, rolled them in a large flat roller, broken them up, applied warm air to dry them, and that’s it. You’ve added no preservatives, no flavor additives. Nothing what so ever has been added to that at all.


MAN: That is actually super.

HILTON: (laughs) And off you go.

[MUSIC: Art Tatum “Tea For Two” from ‘Tea for Two’ (1201 Music – 1945)]

GELLERMAN: Giles Hilton is Master Tea Blender at Whittard of Chelsea. The British company recently opened its first tea shop in America in the city that’s the site of the Boston Tea Party. Living on Earth’s Dennis Foley produced our audio profile. To learn more about the art of tea making, visit our website loe.org.



Whittard of Chelsea


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