[H]usband and wife Rob and Michelle Comins first began sourcing and selling tea in 2006, after a trip to Darjeeling and a chance encounter with Rajah Banerjee, fourth-generation owner of the world-famous Makaibari Tea Estates. Prior to the trip, Rob had been a tea skeptic. Among the tea fields of Makaibari, his perceptions were forever changed. Upon their return to England the couple began forging relationships with gardens around the world.
For Rob and Michelle, part of the appeal of rediscovering tea at Makaibari was the stark contrast to British tea as the couple knew it. Though Michelle had been more of a tea drinker prior to their trip, for both, tea had never really inspired. Though it now plays host to a burgeoning modern tea culture, in 2006, London tea was lagging behind London coffee in quality, and tea in the UK was much as it had always been: formal and bagged. Ubiquitous, but lacking.
Not long after the Comins developed a love of finer teas and began creating connections at origin—partly to accommodate their changing tastes and partly to share their discoveries with others—they moved to Brussels. In Belgium, their perceptions of teas were again altered. Not only were they finding better teas, tearooms weren’t as fussy, and the focus was on leaves and the farmers that grew them. Inspired in part by this more contemporary approach, and fueled by a desire for customer interaction (after doing business primarily online), the couple opened Comins Tea House on their return to the UK, settling in the small town of Sturminster Newton, in Dorset.
Since opening in 2012, Comins has retooled the British teatime, replacing stuffiness with a modern British aesthetic, innovative cuisine, Asian techniques, and of course, a focus on direct trade. Inside the shop, British materials are prominent, and leaving room for a focus on tea, the design is simple: white walls, light ash wood countertops and tables, gray flooring and seating. A few tea photos, a picture of the couple’s cat, Anders (the inspiration for Comins logo), and a tea map grace the walls.
Things get fancier on the menu side, where housemade pastries like Assam-infused tea bread and gluten-free cakes share space with savory tartines and specialties inspired by the couple’s travels in Asia: Japanese gyoza, Indian momo dumplings, matcha ice cream, and mango kulfi.
Tea bowls are painted with the Anders-inspired logo, and brewing methods are traditional: loose-leaf is served in English teapots, kyusu, gaiwan, and gong fu services, and while the first cup is served at the table, customers are encouraged to learn brewing techniques and re-infuse themselves.
“The focus is always on experience but also on simplicity,” says Michelle. “Offering people the chance to try something new but ensuring this is enjoyable and not pretentious.”
Part of the decision to move to Sturminster Newton, a rural town of less than 5,000, was to make the person-to-person connections they longed for, and become part of a community without having to sacrifice square-footage or trips to origin because of rent.
“We knew that if we took on a high rent in a high street location we would have to compromise on what we wanted to offer in order to survive,” says Michelle. “On our travels we had always enjoyed discovering hidden, unexpected places, so we decided to create a destination space.”
The market town has turned out to be ideal. The large building the shop is in, the Quarterjack, also houses the couple’s residence. Spring and summer bring many regional markets and festivals for selling and serving tea. The community is close-knit, with ties to food and beverage culture (historically home to the largest calf market in Europe, and a well-known locale for cheese production), Michelle’s parents are nearby, and London is only a few hours away. The couple’s approach to tea fits in well with the size and speed of the business, allowing them the freedom connect with customers, and the resources to source teas themselves—Michelle looks after the Chinese and Sri Lankan tea collection (she just returned from Fujian), while Rob tends to the Taiwanese and Japanese teas. Both look after Comins’ Indian teas.
Ultimately, their shop is a reflection of their travels, and the goal is to bring a world of tea cultures to the shop’s customers. But Michelle says their relationships to other drinkers still guide them.
“Having a space where we can welcome customers to share and experience tea with us has been essential in helping us to learn more about tea service and our place in the UK tea industry,” she says. “We share our knowledge and thoughts on tea with our customers and they share their experiences, travels, and often bring us tea to try.”
—Regan is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.