The good people of Stoke Newington, north London, didn’t know what to make of Anthony Pender and Tim Foster when they turned up on Church Street.
For one thing, they weren’t at all sure what to make of a company called Yummy Pub Co. Then, someone calling himself the ‘Head of Awesome’ started posting on Stokey Business forums, saying how much Yummy was looking forward to being part of the community. But worst of all, they announced they were turning the Daniel Defoe — a good old-fashioned boozer that had escaped the attention of the hipsters so far — into something called the Stoke Newington Tea House.
There was a bit of a social media backlash, so much so that, just before Christmas, when I bumped into Paul Wells, chairman of Charles Wells which owns the lease on the site, he leaned towards me and said in a low voice, “I promise we’re not ****ing up your pub.”
I’ve known both Anthony and Tim for some time via the pub industry, and I told the locals they knew what they were doing. But it looked too much like yet another hipster affectation for anyone to take much notice of me.
And then, the place finally opened.
The consensus in week one was: “Hmm… it doesn’t look quite as awful as I thought.”
Week two: “I’m trying to hate it, but I don’t think I can.”
Week three onwards: “We’ll be in the Tea House. See you there?”
The big secret is that, just like its sister pub, the Somerstown Coffee House, near Euston, it’s still a pub. A beautifully decorated, very well-run pub with staff who really care about what they do.
It’s a pub that changes through the day, offering a great cooked breakfast that’s especially popular with people doing their shopping on a Saturday morning. On weekday afternoons it’s almost a crèche for mums who now have somewhere nice to go. And after 6pm, it’s a smart pub that (so far) is still undiscovered by hipsters, but appeals to a wide cross-section of the community.
Brewing a storm
Oh yes, and then there’s the tea.
The Stoke Newington Tea House stocks 78 different teas. When it was stocking up for opening, the tea order was more expensive than the beer order. There’s a full, detailed menu of all the teas, and a ‘greatest hits’ leaflet that gives a good cross-section of the range on all the tables.
I catch up with Tim and Anthony during a busy mid-January evening in the pub. They haven’t seen any discernible drop-off since Christmas ended, and both are exhausted.
“We came up with the name first,” says Tim. “We just liked the sound of it, and the concept developed from there.”
Anthony then travelled around the world’s best tea regions and learned a great deal in a short space of time. “You know how there are different varieties of hops and grapes?” he says.
“Well there’s only one kind of tea plant. All the differences you get between different types of tea come from when and where you plant it, when you pick it, which part of the plant you use and what you do to it after picking.”
From here, the world of white tea, green tea, black tea and fruit tea opens out. Each broad type has its own style of teapot, optimised for it. Special insulated, transparent teacups allow visual appreciation of what you’re drinking. Apart from the ultra-rare teas, they all cost less than the price of a pint, and come with a free refill of water.
I’m entranced. Here’s a whole new drink to get geeky about, with complexity and variety of flavour, and great stories and provenance.
We’ve just endured another Dry January. I’m sure everyone’s going to be glad to see the back of it. As I’ve written before, while I’m always supportive of this industry, I find it frustrating that we always talk about how pubs are so much more than drink shops and then, come January, pubs complain that people abstaining for the month have deserted them.
I’ve taken January off booze for 15 years now. I’d still like to visit pubs when I’m not drinking but you need to offer me something non-alcoholic, premium and grown-up. It’s shocking how few pubs do. The Stoke Newington Tea House does, and that’s why it’s had all the custom I’d normally spread between other pubs.
Maybe you should take a tea leaf from their book.