A Cup Of Tea With: Raphael [Interview]

I’m meeting Rapahel - the man behind all things e-commerce at Paper & Tea - for a cup of MILK RIVER N°406 online via video chat, something we’ve gotten used to over the last year. I can see the late August sun shine into his home office. From time to time his cat purrs past the camera. Raphael grew up in Berlin, but his family is originally from Poland. In Poland, tea is an important part of everyday life, Raphael tells me. His mum used to brew strong pots of Assam and serve them with slices of lemon and rock candy. I ask if this is how he ended up working for tea.

Raphael: Actually, it all started with coffee. For many years, I was the head-roaster for a small Berlin coffee roastery. In Germany, the profession of coffee roasting is almost extinct as they stopped any form of formal training in the 60s. So instead, within coffee roasteries, the trade is being taught from generation to generation. You know, just like tea, coffee is a sensory profession, because no two coffees taste the same nor do they always taste like coffee. Coffee can be light and floral, even fruity. At the beginning, this was all very new to me, but when I discovered this world I also realised I was quite talented in tasting the slightest flavor differences.

Since then, Raphael enjoys treating any kind of food like fine wine. He mentions how he’ll sometimes buy two kinds of potatoes at the local market in Wedding, simply to discover and analyse their similarities and differences. I ask him whether more expensive products are generally more complex or taste better.

Raphael: No. In fact, one of the things I noticed early in my time as a coffee roaster was that just because a certain kind of coffee is currently fashionable does not mean it also tastes well. Sometimes, one simply pays for a trendy name. Obviously, there are undeniable costs when producing coffee well and sustainably, but I believe you can always tell the difference with sustenance. We all know what ripe fruit tastes like. What is delicious versus bland. And if we need to add sugar and milk, does it even taste that good to begin with? In the tea industry, there are similar patterns. That’s what I love so much about Paper & Tea and why I wanted to work here, that we offer really good value for money. I see us as ambassadors, we lead people from their supermarket teas to higher quality products, which they can still enjoy in their day to day life. Naturally, we also have exquisite and expensive teas on offer, but that usually stems from our limited harvests only being produced in scarce quantities.

Raphael is now a genuine tea sommelier. He shows me his collection of Pu Erh tea cakes, compressed disks of Pu Erh wrapped in wafer-thin, beautifully designed paper. We chat about the flavor differences between different kinds of tea and Raphael tells excitingly about his travels to the origin countries, where he went to buy the highest quality of, initially only, coffee and later also tea.

Raphael: Many don’t understand how great the quality of tea and coffee is in Germany, or really what a privilege this is. Did you know that the producers in the origin countries export all the high quality produce and only drink whatever is left? There is so much work and passion behind its cultivation, and then we Germans put massive amounts of sugar in our cups. I wish more people would appreciate the work behind the product.

I ask if this means he found his way to tea on his travels. But Raphael laughs.

Raphael: Actually, I got into tea in Berlin. I used to pass this Taiwanese tea parlour on my way back home from work, but I never dared venturing in. Until then, all I knew about tea was my mum’s Assam, weirdly aromatised supermarket brands and very bitter green infusions. On a rainy afternoon I finally followed my curiosity and entered the store. I was immediately welcomed and invited to a spontaneous tea ceremony. This is where I first tried Oolong and very old Pu Erh tea. At midnight I was still discussing the differences and parallels between coffee and tea with the owner, who is now a good friend of mine. He also told me about Paper & Tea that night.

That was in 2016. After this encounter, Raphael began visiting tea plantations on his coffee buying journeys. He retrained, built his own tea line within the coffee roastery he was still working at, and was deeply involved in the creation of Berlin’s tea academy. I ask what his first impression of tea plantations were in comparison to coffee farms.

Raphael: I remember my first tea plantation very well. It was on my birthday in 2017, on a South Indian plantation, which produced coffee and tea. One thing I noticed immediately was how much cleaner the tea plantation section was. Maybe because tea plants only grow to waist height, so it gives the impression of the ideal hedge. The smell is also lighter, almost not noticeable. The smells of the nearby tea factory were more intense, as they were oxidising the leaves to produce Assam, very similar to our NANDANA N°506. So you can imagine the delicious roasty and malty notes in the air. I really like these strong black teas for their natural sweetness, which is why I’m drinking our NANDANA so frequently. But being served tea on a tea plantation is superb, as fresher, finer nuances step to the forefront.

Hot Assam in summer? In South India? As a fan of iced tea, I have questions.

Raphael: It’s a rather western concept to drink cold beverages in summer, particularly with ice cubes. Honestly, it doesn’t really make sense, as your body wastes energy to bring the drink back to body temperature. Hence, in a way, instead of cooling down you are actually warming your body up with cold drinks. Hot beverages have the opposite effect and the people from hot countries know that. Of course, when we travelled through South America, you can order cold drinks in any touristy corner and restaurant as travellers from the US will demand those. The natives stick to their hot mate tea. This fragrant caffeinated herbal infusion is quite intense and earthy in its taste. Traditionally, the mate cup is shared communally and passed around in local tea ceremonies. When I miss South America, I drink our YERBA MATE N°807, however usually simply brewed in a teapot, which makes it a little lighter in taste.

While talking about Raphael’s favorite tea plantations, he mentions travelling to Tanzania, where he truly understood the incredible range tea can produce. He met a tea farmer, who had started a marvellous sounding project on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

Raphael: You need to understand how much passion this woman had for tea. When I asked, which tea she was producing, she simply replied proudly “all of them.”. And when she said all, she really meant all. There was black tea, green tea, white tea. She had even bought machines from Taiwan to produce her own Oolong. It was a real joy to taste all of the different teas she had created from tea plants growing on the same hill. Her Silver Needle was so tender. And her Oolong had so much potential. I was impressed by this willingness to experiment and how strongly you could taste the craft in every cup. Just phenomenal. I was very moved by this meeting. I think that was the final reason why I switched from coffee to tea in the end. When I drink our SILVER SINDANO N°106, which grows just on the other side of the Kilimanjaro, I am transported back to that moment in time. Though this complete absence of any bitter substances is unique to our delicate tea from this African region.

Which is your favorite tea from Paper & Tea, I ask Raphael at the end.

Raphael: I love our Oolong. Depending on my mood, I'll choose a lighter cup of ORIENTAL BEAUTY N°403 or our stronger, creamier MILK RIVER N°406. That's why I want to go to South-East-Asia and learn more about Oolong production. But if I'm honest, I just want to travel the world or at least go anywhere, where there is tea.

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