England, a nation that is pretty downright fanatical about their tea and known for it across the globe. And yet, it is not so easy to find an establishment that offers much else other than your usual Afternoon, Breakfast or Early Grey, with a few herbals thrown in too (we hope). Locate a teahouse and you have stumbled upon a rare treasure. Find one that opens until 1am, swarming with over 60 varieties of tea and offering free movies and art on display? Well, you’ll never leave. That’s precisely what the Quilliam brothers – Tom, Patrick and Sam – brought to the North-Eastern town of Newcastle just one year ago.
Tell us about your business; what is the Quilliam Brothers Teahouse?
Patrick: We are a teahouse that serves a wide range of loose-leaf tea. We think that we’re a bit different in that we brew the tea for the customers, so that the tea that’s left in the pot doesn’t over-brew, get bitter, so that our customers can enjoy a whole pot without it going bad. We serve all these teas in a beautiful building near the centre of Newcastle, and unlike a lot of places serving drinks in Newcastle, we open late but don’t serve alcohol, giving an opportunity for people to sit back, relax and chat into the wee hours if they want to. We’ve also got a little cinema, and a little gallery space, too, to augment your tea drinking experience.
Tom: In a nutshell, we are a café with a difference; an alternative nightlife experience, where you can hear what people are saying, you can talk to your friends, without fear of being in obnoxious company - hopefully! - and making sure everything is quality.
Can you explain the tea-making process? How do you brew it?
Patrick: Normally in a panic. Using a glass jug so we can see the colour change, and to keep an eye on how much tea we’re putting in, we brew them for the recommended brewing time. That’s either recommended by our tea grower themselves, or from our own discovery. We give them the relevant mixings and stirrings, and when the timer’s gone off we pour the liquid through a sieve into the teapot.
Tom: It’s important to know the different times, temperatures and quantities of tea, which makes a huge difference. A lot of people when they buy their green tea from the supermarket will brew it at far too high a temperature thus leading to a horrible taste. We’re not brought up on green tea in England so we treat it as though we would treat our normal black tea teabag, when really it should be treated a lot more delicately.
We give many options of tea here, some for people who don’t like to be adventurous, but some to be able to kind of educate I suppose, without sounding too preachy, to teach people the right way to be drinking these really fine teas.
Sam: But on that point though, by no means do we see ourselves as experts with tea, we’re more like enthusiasts. We like to show our experiences and what teas we know with other people.
Tom: And we’re always open to any information they have for us. We hate this kind of snobbery on the independent café scene, and a lot of independent café owners have this idea that they are there to thrust their views. For example, coffee shops who don’t like you having sugars, syrups or even milk in your coffee. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to preach to people on how to take their tea but we like rather to instruct if they don’t know how to, and equally to take instruction from people who know more than us.
Patrick: A brew is a personal thing and we like to cater to that.
Tom: And if anyone wants their tea stronger, weaker, with more or less milk, they just need to say.
So how and where did you learn about tea, when did this all begin?
Tom: For each of us it was at different points. The foundation is that we were always brought up, as so many British families are, with our day being punctuated with tea. Not only is it a way of quenching thirst; it’s a way of bringing your household together at different points of the day, where you all share a pot.
Sam: A nice excuse to stop work!
Tom: Yes, nice procrastination. But it’s a social thing, it really is. Whenever you go round to see a friend, just like in a lot of countries for example in Italy, they’ll throw food at you: here, we’ll throw a cup of tea and a rich tea biscuit at you.
So we obviously loved tea and the next step with that was our experience with teahouse culture, not tearooms, but teahouses. So this cool, underground feel in the likes of Eastern Europe and other places where there’s no advertisement or anything: you go in there and you have a huge variety of tea and you drink with quiet music on and you talk to people. That was the next thing where we fell in love with tea as a sort of social lubricant I suppose, different from the likes of beer, since tea invokes a feeling of quiet calm and reflection.
It’s something about the steeping process, it’s very different. For me, the steeping process for tea is so different to the likes of coffee. Because with coffee you need high-tech machinery, really high pressures, it’s really noisy.
Patrick: Bish, bash, EUHH!
Tom: Yeah! But with tea you can actually watch the colour and the flavour come from the leaf, and then at the end of it it’s like a quiet, calming process and for some reason, I know it sounds wanky but, that gets reflected in the kind of people who gather over tea drinking. It makes a feeling of calm, reflection and trust.
So that was the next thing. After that the idea was floated that we should start something in Newcastle like these teahouses that we’d seen elsewhere. That was five years ago when it was first suggested, then it was four years ago that we started getting serious when we started the Quilliam Brothers. We did a trip to India, where we stayed in a few plantations, and then to Germany where we get all our fruit teas from. We spent a few days there drinking copious amounts of liquids. Since then we’ve had a trip to China and other educational experiences, including meeting with a couple of tea sellers in England as well.
So yes, the education in tea is never ending, we’re learning everyday. The biggest thing we learn everyday about tea is that nothing is quite as it seems: there are no set rules for anything. People have different opinions on production, brewing, serving methods, everything. And you can never say that you know everything about tea. That’s why we won’t ever consider ourselves masters.
What does the teahouse bring to Newcastle compared to other cafes?
Tom: What I do think that we bring to Newcastle, which I didn’t realise was so unique until this place evolved into what it is, is that we give this feeling of community. The kind of service the staff give everyone here is very human. Yes, ‘The customer is always right’ and all that, but we like to take the approach which is more, ‘We’re all humans, let’s kind of talk about it’. If there’s a problem, if everything’s good, let’s talk about it – we don’t like the traditional separation. So as soon as you come there’s a feeling that you’re welcome and we want you to be yourself.
Patrick: Yes, there’s no front: we are what we are. It’s inclusive not exclusive.
You mentioned earlier you also have a cinema and gallery space downstairs. Could you tell us more about that?
Patrick: One of the initial ideas behind the teahouse was that we wanted it to be a hub for the arts. Having all of us gone to visit various capital cities, coming back to Newcastle there seemed to be not as much grassroots support for that side of things. So the idea behind the gallery is to help local artists have a bit of an opportunity to show their work and to hence show local residents what is happening in their city.
Sam: We’ve tried not to make a big deal of it really, so that more people can get involved with it. The gallery is also a space where we sit lots of covers, we have people going to eat lunch down there and in turn will be able to look at the art rather than be scared to go down and check it out. It’s the same with the cinema, we don’t charge so it’s free entry. We screen films a couple of nights a week, it’s just there.
Tom: It all adds to the idea that the place is for the customers: everyone comes, everyone’s contributing, people who exhibit here are generally either staff or customers who’ve been here and realised that they can put work on – we’ve gone along those routes. Same with the cinema, people can suggest movies they want and then we’ll talk to the staff, the ones who are choosing the movies at the moment.
The place is always going to be about the customers who come here. It’s the mood they bring, the conversation they have, the board games they play, the art they put on and the movies they suggest. Hopefully without it being disorganised, it’s like a community project – you can contribute and we understand the importance of their input.
Have you enjoyed working together? Do you work well as a team, being brothers? Sam: A formidable team! It’s great because we all understand each other, we’re on the same wavelength, it’s not often that happens and it’s harder than it seems to find people with the same ideas. We’ve got the same kind of mindset and focus.
Tom: We’ve had every argument under the sun so any further arguments are nothing.
Patrick: There’s always the pressure to have made up by Sunday Dinner so mum isn’t in the middle of any arguments!
Tom: Had any one of us opened this as a solo project, would we have been able to cope?
Sam: Not a chance in hell. I don’t even think two of us! Three of us had to do it. For man hours, for strength and mental sanity…
Tom: To have someone to vent to, someone who understands no matter how niggly the point is. It’s so beneficial to have three of you, three people initially that you can trust to manage a place.
Images and interview by Emma Douty.