Thursday, June 18, 2020

Tea culture in Sweden

I was talking to an online contact about her own tea preference, a Spanish woman now living in Sweden.  A familiar idea came up, that coffee is typically preferred to tea there.  This is how things go in many countries, with tea enthusiasts in any of them dealing with not so many others sharing their preference.

It made for a potentially interesting starting point for exploring tea culture in a random place, where "specialty tea" awareness is in Sweden.  And for a potentially awkward process looking up people to ask about that, with mixed answers about their own preferences and local tea culture.

It seemed that one nice approach would be to describe the perspective of a number of "tea enthusiasts" there, both on what they like and how they see the local tea culture.  The answers should vary a lot by person, given that context, but the range should describe where it all stands, more so than any one interest-group's input would.  It all kind of worked.

It was a bit of a slog trying to turn up interviewees, and to get them to answer such limited questions, versus just talking about it all.  Here's how that went.

Northern Teaist

A conventional Western tea blog author writes based in Sweden.  I'll stick with the convention of adding no personal details, one way that some blog authors go, more or less how they all would normally have seen privacy concerns in the past.

What teas do I like?

Although my stash contains tea of all types from almost every tea producing area in the world, if I was to try to rank them then top of the heap would be sheng pu-erh, closely followed by white teas, then shou pu-erh. I'm also partial to an occasional Oolong, and I have a penchant for experimental teas, where a cultivar gets the treatment normally reserved for another class of tea, such as processing Yunnan Da Ye leaf like an Oolong.

Where do I see tea culture and awareness in Sweden now?

Fragmented. Even though tea shops offering decent quality tea exist and seem to be prospering, it seems as though the people who buy from them don't see themselves as part of a distinct culture.

Even when you consider the kind of speciality or boutique teas those shops don't deal in, the ones almost exclusively available from on-line retailers, it feels as though that scene is composed of a small number of individual enthusiasts with a limited knowledge of who else is out there, what they are drinking, and where they are getting hold of their tea.

Not to ruin the ending but that's pretty much where the rest of the input is going to lead too.  Maybe hearing that will be comforting to tea drinkers who are isolated in places with limited tea culture, and maybe other interesting details will justify reading the rest.

That blog is worth a look; it's really well done.  His intro / philosophy adds background to that:

This blog is about the practical and the metaphysical aspects  of tea. The how, the what, and the why.

It’s about the search for a better cup of tea, refining techniques, using better equipment.

It’s also about that elusive “something else“, the thing that is “there but not there” every time you drink tea, like your shadow on a sunny day...

Very Zen, like a practical New Age inspired version of Mattcha's mission statement.

David Qi, a Facebook tea contact 

David is one of those international type people, with ties to here and there.  I think maybe even the kind with language skills, so the other kind of international type than I am.

What teas do I like?

Definitely rock oloongs, Da Hong Pao and such, and also high mountain Taiwanese oolongs.  And also good sheng puers, and shu, but for that I need a certain mood.

Nice!   Add in Dan Cong, a bit of white, and some dabbling in secondary regions and that's enough for lifetime of tea drinking.  Or maybe already enough.

Where do I see tea culture and awareness in Sweden now?

Most Swedish tea drinkers have a sense that tea bags are not the real thing, but think that the caramel mango flavoured whole leaf which they bought in the specialty tea/coffee shop is.  The tea culture in Sweden is very elementary, and the gongfu people do not have a real market. The specialty tea shops mostly sell flavoured whole leaf, and maybe they will have a few cans of real tea in the corner, but mostly mid range and nothing fresh or exciting. 

I can only speak for the west coast and Gothenburg, where I am of course, but the situation might be different in Stockholm. Romania is basically the same, but Budapest has a living tea community and many great tea shops.

See, international.  His other comment on personal approach would ring a bell with some:

Since I’m working in healthcare and studying medicine, tea helped me to see the broader perspective of what health means, not only body but also mind. I love to set up a tea and meditation tent at gatherings or just with friends.

It sounds quite balanced, a well-grounded but open perspective.  I'd love to check that out.

Xenia Blanco, owner of the Japanese Tea Hub 

She's the one I was first talking to.  Again she's foreign (Spanish), and so far none of these people are Swedish, so I'll need to move on to actually mentioning a Swedish take on Swedish tea culture before this closes.

Her FB profile description is "Japanese Tea Evangelist. Matcha Advocate."  And vendor; that sets context a bit too.  She studied Japanese tea types and production under the Global Japanese Tea Association, formerly part of the Obubu Tea Farms.

what she looks like, photo credit her FB page

Her post "Everything you really need to know about Japanese tea" is probably a starting point on what she's into, but it's just background, about the types and processing.  This article covers more on different regions.

The background page / "philosophy" in the same blog is a bit general too, about making Japanese teas available outside Japan.

Japanese Tea Hub Instagram photos

All that covers what she likes in tea, the first question, except that her favorite tea type is gyokuro.  This covers the part about tea culture in Sweden:

Regarding tea  culture in Sweden, while I have noticed some shops sell some supposedly Japanese teas, they actually carry matcha from China, for instance, or teas that are generic & in bulk. And when asked, they don't know the names of the farmers, cultivars, regions and so on.  I usually source from small farmers as much as I can to help the shrinking tea industry in Japan. 

Swedish tea culture remains largely non-specialised & the use of lower quality teabags is widespread. Also, there are smaller more specialised vendors like myself, well hidden & scattered around the country. 

I run tea & food pairing sessions on IG daily. The reason for this is to promote tea through food since it will be much easier for people to accept Japanese tea if they can do more with it than just drinking it. This is how I intend to make Japanese teas more popular in Sweden. 

Catrin Ruding

She is both Swedish and a tea enthusiast, with a formal training background in tea, which is normal in some places and very uncommon in others.

Her take on the local tea culture issue:

Coffee is still far more popular in Sweden than tea. But on the other hand more and more people turn to tea, they are often fascinated by all the aromas and flavors, for health reasons or they simply want an alternative. Also the “new Swedes” that enrich our country in many different ways, are often very much more into tea than coffee. When I was a kid we were given tea when we were/had been sick.

Catrin is also a vendor; even the founder of a local branch of Tea Masters (which seems to not be related to either the one main training agency or the international competition group using that same name, and of course not tied to the blog and shop based in Taiwan).  Her website covers their general scope and mission statement:

We support customers in choosing the most suitable teas, building a tea menu for a brunch or afternoon tea service, train staff, certify tea sommeliers, create private label teas & herbal infusions, organize tea cupping events and more. We supply high quality, sustainable teas through a transparent supply chain from the plantations to your cup. The company behind Tea Masters was founded in 2007 by Catrin Rudling and we choose the name to honor how much there is to learn about tea and to acknowledge and remember to learn something new about tea everyday from both the old masters and present ones. 

Sounds good.

Kenneth Rimdahl

A Swedish friend (or contact, if you are conservative about that designation) owns a local chain of tea shops in Thailand, in Chiang Mai and in Bangkok, Monsoon Teas.

He hasn't been living in Sweden for awhile, so he really didn't have a lot to say about current tea culture back there.  It's more developed now than back when he did live there, he said.

meeting Kenneth--in the center--at a friend's place (Sasha's, on the right)

He recommended a local Stockholm shop that has good teas, In the Mood for Tea, and their website content does look good.  One might wonder, why not ask them about tea culture then?

Vendors kind of always are aware of culture related to their customer base, and that perspective can be a bit biased.  Of course they all say that high quality tea interest is somewhat developed and growing faster all the time.   Their website even agrees with me on that:

In a time when we are awash with advertising and everyone uses words such as quality, expertise, ecology and crafts for marketing purposes, we have let the teas speak for themselves since the store opened. We are happy and grateful for the ever-growing crowd that finds and listens to them.

To some extent this section entry is more about getting a mention of Kenneth in, since he is nice, and I've reviewed a number of his teas.  They're interesting, covering standard Thai oolongs, and "wild" sourced versions of different types.  Kenneth is into promoting "forest-friendly" teas, which he talks about in this Tedx talk.  Monsoon also sells better flavored versions than I've ever ran across elsewhere, using natural essential oils versus chemicals (like this tropical fruit flavored version).

I think, anyway; this is no ad promo or environmental impact endorsement, they just seem good.  I really don't even drink flavored teas much, beyond an Earl Grey or jasmine black here or there.  There's nothing wrong with flavored teas or herb blends, it's just not what I'm into.

from the Monsoon Tea mission description

Reddit's input

I asked in a Sweden themed Reddit sub-forum about tea there and they more or less told me to get lost.  At least as an American I can appreciate that directness, if not the tone.  The most upvoted comment, and the consensus take:

Sweden (like the rest of the Nordic countries) is a coffee country, unfortunately, so there isn't really a tea culture.

That said, further discussion led to the finding that some shops sell a limited range of teas, at local "Coffee/Tea/Chocolate" stores:

Usually they stock all forms of black, and green tea, as well as red tea (Rooibos), but you can also find white tea. All of these come in various flavors; such as fruit, flowery, mixed spices, herbs etc. Earl Grey is of course also popular, but you can also find Lady Grey, or local blends such as Söder Tea (Södermalm is an Island in Stockholm) which is a black tea typically flavored with tropical fruits and rose.

The only thing I have not been able to find (yet) is a high quality Ceylon tea. 

Sounds familiar, a bit like the old Teavana range, or David's Teas, T2 (the current incarnation of it), Adagio, etc.

a shop image referenced in that discussion


With all those exceptions turning up specialty tea interest must be cropping up here and there, just slow to take broad hold.  Language issues would skew what I find towards English, but beyond that it may be no coincidence that most of the tea enthusiasts I found there are foreigners.

Catrin even mentioned that, in relation to "New Swedes" preferring tea.  Is it just me or does that sound a little odd, that terminology?  Maybe Kenneth is a Swedish "New Thai," as I am, but we are just called farangs here, foreigners.

Scattered better tea interest is something of an exception here too, or really in any country where tea traditions don't have older roots.  It's a little odd that Thailand has been a tea producing country for well over a century (some of the tea plants are that old), with very old connections to Chinese culture, and most of that faded so much that bubble tea and matcha can seem like starting point introductions to the subject. Most of the people drinking those here have never actually soaked loose tea leaves in hot water.

It goes without saying that this is only part of the story about tea culture in Sweden.  I have surely missed more than I've ran across.  But it has been interesting filling in a partial snapshot of how tea culture ramps up in a mostly coffee-drinking country.

eating dinner at a Bangkok IKEA, my main contact with Sweden

beyond the furniture and the rest they have nice kids' play areas

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