It's Tea Time!

(Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten / Guido Leifhelm)

The Kontorhaus office buildings along Hamburg’s customs canal, which represented the first phase of the historic Speicherstadt warehouse district, are among Hamburg’s most magnificent backdrops. The building ensemble is characterised by red-brick facades and green copper roofs, the famous, fully intact “Block E” complex, and, rising high above the other side of the canal, the tower of St Catherine’s Church with its golden crest and its red-white flags bearing the emblem of Hamburg. Yet another flag is hoisted above the heavy wooden portal behind the Kibbelsteg bridge: a golden lion clutching a sword in his paw against a crimson background. Beneath, you will find a brass plate inscribed with “The Consulate of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” – Sri Lanka, the country that was called Ceylon until 1972, lent its name to Ceylon tea from which English blends are traditionally brewed.

And indeed there is an intense scent of tea, dried fruit and herbs coming from the open cellar hatches. Or is it just your imagination? No, it isn’t: looking through the windows of the mezzanine you can catch a glimpse of long shelves stacked with tea caddies. “Hälssen & Lyon”, one of the longest-standing and largest tea houses in Europe, has resided here at Pickhuben 9 since 1887. It is still a family-run business and now the oldest tenant of the Speicherstadt. Since 1974, Olav C. Ellerbrock, partner of “Hälssen & Lyon”, has represented Sri Lanka as its honorary consul. And the 84-year-old gentleman has no intention of resigning: “An office like this is such an honour – you just cannot walk away!”

As early as 1959, Ellerbrock’s father invested in an instant tea factory in Sri Lanka and subsequently maintained close ties with the world’s third largest tea exporter. According to Mr Ellerbrock, Ceylon tea with its “deep black leaf, coppery bright infusion and wonderful aroma” is among the best teas in the world.  It is of course traded in Hamburg, because Hamburg is the European tea capital. About 70 percent of the European tea trade is handled here, which is more than 39,000 tonnes per year. Almost all major shipping companies such as Hapag-Lloyd and Hamburg-Süd are involved with the transportation of tea. The journey from producing countries such as China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya to Hamburg takes eight to ten weeks. Hamburg has been home to numerous service providers such as laboratories, logistics companies and blending companies for many years.

Even the venerable “Haus der Patriotischen Gesellschaft von 1756” on Trostbrücke is home to a tea importing company, and both the German Tea Association and the European Tea Committee have their head offices in Hamburg – one of the reasons being the tea tax that had been levied since 1953. This levy was a significant cost factor and was not incurred as long as tea storage and the further processing remained in the free trade zone of Hamburg’s port. The tea tax was lifted in 1993 – but Hamburg has remained Germany’s tea capital.

This is also one of the reasons why the Laurens Spethmann Holding, Germany’s leading tea company with brands such as Milford and Meßmer, are investing in Hamburg. While the holding’s head office is located south of Hamburg, the company has created the “Meßmer Momentum” right in the HafenCity Hamburg district – offering a tea-themed world of experience on 600 square metres, including a museum and lounge, where visitors can not only taste and buy tea, but also explore the one thousand year-history of tea amidst an elegant setting. The terrace overlooking the Sandtorhafen is particularly beautiful: from here you have an unobstructed view of the historic grey harbour cranes and the proud sailing vessels that are moored here, among them the two-masted JR Tolkien.

The Hellas-Speicher warehouse on Hongkongstrasse is home to the lifestyle tea brand “Samova”. Former journalist Esin Rager founded “Samova” 14 years ago during a time when East Frisians were the world’s most eager tea drinkers with 300 litres of tea per capita annually, while in the rest of Germany tea had a rather stuffy image. Thanks to hip dance hall tea parties, intellectual salon gatherings, impeccable quality, a fresh design and marketing partners from the realms of fashion and lifestyle, “Samova” with its 20 varieties of tea started turning over millions of euro. This small Hamburg-based company has even become successful on the Arab markets: for Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan “Samova” created the “Magic Gold” blend: black tea infused with saffron, rose petals and gold leaf.

(Meßmer Momentum / Ebd.)

While this particular tea blend is not available to mere commoners or tourists, you can still enjoy a cup of tea and tea-spiced dishes in a historic castle in the immediate vicinity: the “Wasserschloss” tea-trading office is situated in the former winch guards’ keep on Dienerreihe. With its oriels and picturesque towers, it is one of the Speicherstadt’s most photographed buildings. Today it has more than 250 varieties of tea on offer. In the adjoining restaurant you can enjoy salad with tea dressing as well as fish marinated in tea or fried scallop of veal coated with Matcha tea breading.

Marketing expert Silke Sasse was part of the team that designed the “Wasserschloss”. While she has relocated to the district of St Georg in the meantime, she has remained faithful to tea: in her T. boutique on Lange Reihe she offers around 100 varieties of the finest tea. The shop’s design award-winning “fragrance wall” displays samples of tea underneath delicate glass coquilles, allowing customers to get a scent of selected teas without having to stick their nose into one of the tea caddies – a practice that is quite common in many other tea shops. “Handpicked happiness” is the slogan Silke has chosen for her shop, and customers are always invited to enjoy samples of house-brewed tea, served with a smile.