There is a one woman export drive brewing up in Liverpool as Alison Appleton aspires to opening a chain of teahouses across China
By Michael Cape
The Alison Appleton headline story is that she sells tea (in small quantities) and teapots (in large quantities) to China from her base in her native Liverpool. Not just to China though but to 15 countries, making her a one-woman export drive in her own right from the North.
Nor are these teapots just your ordinary teapots but are award winning ceramic ones beautifully designed by Alison herself to function perfectly. As a result they can be found in prestige stores such as Fortnum and Mason and Twinings here in the UK and now in similar stores of that ilk round the world.
Yet she also has a dream that one day she will transform the way the 1.4 billion Chinese drink their tea by opening up a chain of teahouses there, modelled on the one she set up in Liverpool 18 months ago.
But for now that remains a dream although she admits she is giving it “some serious thought”.
For the time being she is continuing to build on the international success she has enjoyed as a designer of teapots and maintain her mission to restore the cup of tea to its rightful place as the pre-eminent drink in British society.
This personal crusade can be traced back to the time when she worked as a Product Designer for La Cafetiere when the company was still owned by a French family and based in Wales. For though the company was best known for designing cafetieres, it also manufactured a range of teapots.
And La Cafetiere, as part of its ongoing objective to make the best cup of coffee and tea, brought in a range of experts to talk to the staff – including Alison – on both subjects.
This is when Alison became aware of just how steeped tea was in the history of Britain. Good tea has always been associated with privilege; think of afternoon tea and London’s tea gardens.
Unfortunately over the years the art of tea drinking gradually fell from favour, helped along by coffee and coffee houses, until it hit the skids with the arrival of the teabag dumped in a mug.
“To throw a teabag in a mug is a bad habit,” insists Alison. “You need time to make the perfect cup of tea.”
Today, tea is making a resurgence; we are now discovering the huge selection of fabulous loose-leaf teas and infusions available to us from plantations all over the world, including our very own Tregothnan tea plantation in Cornwall.
It was during her time with La Cafetiere that Alison attended the Canton Show where she met Sidney Huang. Shortly afterwards, Alison worked with him on a project to supply John Lewis with teaware and they have enjoyed a mutually beneficial commercial relationship ever since, supplying outstanding products to all major tea merchants around the world, and which saw her sell 6,000 units in the first year alone.
Today Alison is not only well versed on teapots; she also knows how to make the perfect cup of tea as found in her Tea House in Liverpool.
Her guide to making the perfect cup is as follows:
Ideally you need to have a ceramic teapot with an infuser, the infuser being the stainless steel part in which the looseleaf tea sits inside the pot.
There needs to be the right amount of tea – typically one spoon per person and not an extra one for the pot.
Then the water needs to be the right temperature – and this can vary with the type of tea – so a temperature controlled kettle is a good investment.
And finally the infuser needs to be taken out once the tea has been brewed. This is really important as otherwise it will ruin a great tea by becoming too strong and bitter.
Naturally the tea drinker needs to taste and try a range of teas to decide which they like – and there are a lot. In Alison’s Liverpool Tea House alone, there are some 50 varieties to choose from.
She first got into selling tea itself as a result of providing free samples with every teapot she sold. This worked so well that once they had drunk the tea customers began to re-order through her website, and it is now a growing part of her business.
Liverpool even has its own blend, which can be found in Alison’s Tea House. This is made up of Assam from India and Keemun and Golden Yunnan which both come from China.
“The end result is quite a feisty blend – like the Liverpool people,” says Alison.
Meanwhile she has not forgotten her dream about opening a chain of teahouses in China.
“I go to China quite a lot and while it is the greatest tea drinking nation in the world (and the Chinese will spend more money on tea than is imaginable in the UK) varieties tend to be limited to what’s available in each region. The youth of China, like the youth anywhere, are looking for something different; they want to discover new experiences like Caramel Assam, Rose Darjeeling or Cherry Rooibos for example.
“And that difference could well be teahouses offering a much wider variety of tea. So the idea is not out of the question.”
For more information visit alisonappleton.com
Passport to Export was the first step to 15 countries
Alison Appleton, like many prospective exporters, was “good at the things I was good at” but didn’t relish tackling the day to day issues such as the administration needed to ensure her business succeeded in overseas markets.
So, though she had regularly worked abroad for companies as a successful freelance surface designer, she initially opted to attend a Passport to Export programme run by the North West region of UKTI, now DIT.
Initially this saw UKTI people provide subsidised flights to trade shows – the lifeblood of the global teaware sector – as part of trade missions. But more importantly it was the day to day handholding that was available that continues to prove the most useful in terms of exporting.
This is provided by Margaret Burke, the export mentor assigned to support Alison’s business. She has ensured that both her luxury teapots and now tea itself have a smooth passage by ensuring the successful completion of the complex regulatory paper work required to supply customers in some 15 countries including Europe, Dubai, North America, Canada, Mexico and of course China.