Tea drinkers who hate jiggling bags do not have a lot of choice in Sydney when it comes to brewing top-notch leaves. So when a new tea merchant makes a splash, aficionados start taking notes. And putting on the kettle.
Strictly speaking, Larsen & Thompson is already known in local restaurant circles. Damien Pignolet, the former chef of Bistro Moncur, has had its Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Assam and Good Morning breakfast blend on his menus for 12 years. At his latest venture, the Bellevue Hotel, Pignolet has the breakfast blend and Earl Grey on offer.
What is news is Larsen & Thompson's single-origin and estate teas are turning up in pots on cafe tables and on shelves in shops from Turramurra to Balmain. In pretty cartons for retail sale and with a tiny steel clip to seal your cellophane bag after you have opened them, these first-class teas are an attractive package. They are even cropping up in fashion and home wares stores.
The bloke behind the label, David Thompson, is a calm, gentle personality, who started selling tea in 1992 as a sideline to his antiques and furniture business.
Thompson started selling furniture when he was at university studying degrees in archaeology and fine arts. On a buying trip to Delhi, he visited a friend, John Larsen. He complained to Larsen about sending containers back to Australia full of furniture but with empty drawers and cupboards - a waste of space and money. Larsen suggested he fill the empty spaces with loose-leaf tea - inexpensive to buy and light to ship - and introduced him to people in Delhi.
Thompson liked the idea. He bought well-known brands and, with Larsen's help, selling tea was a serious hobby and a part-time business for eight years. He went solo after Larsen became ill in 2000.
That year, Thompson made a trip to Darjeeling, where he saw how much pride the managers of the tea gardens took in their teas. He tasted the first- and second-flush teas that appear before the monsoon rains in early spring and summer. ''These were teas of a quality I'd never seen in Australia,'' he says.
Germans and Japanese are the biggest spenders on these scarce, seasonal teas, such as Castleton from Darjeeling, paying up to $400 a kilogram for them.
At a Darjeeling broking house, Thompson sampled seasonal teas. He realised the discussion about defects and attributes was similar to a wine-tasting session, with its use of terms such as body, terroir, notes and fragrance.
His gut feeling was there had to be room in the Australian market for high-quality, speciality teas. So he began focusing on the best farms in regions such as Darjeeling and Assam in India, and Fujian and Yunnan in China.
In 2004, the Melbourne-based Thompson sold off his antiques stock to concentrate on selling tea. He did good business with gift stores and home wares shops where he had developed contacts through his furniture dealings. He began bringing in tea trays, teapots and other accessories. He sold into David Jones but it was still hard to sell people the concept of single-estate teas.
Then speciality coffees broke into the food scene about four years ago and Thompson's teas were carried along in the wave. Suddenly, people started to understand terms such as single estate, single origin and custom blending. They were excited about coffee roasting and flavour profiles of different coffees. Thompson could now get cafes and retailers interested in the flavour profiles of different teas.
Thompson's pretty cartons are packed with a curated range of black, white, green, oolong and flavoured teas, and herbal infusions. Iron Goddess, pu-erh, Australian sencha, chai, Yunnan green, lemongrass and ginger, and the wonderfully named Golden Monkey are a mix of top sellers and tea specialities.
In a recent trip to Sydney, Thompson signed up to supply Cafe Jen, Runcible Spoon, Fleetwood Macchiato and Eugene's, which have joined Bambini Trust Restaurant & Cafe and Fratelli Paradiso in selling his specialty teas.
''I used to put people to sleep talking about the complexity and sophistication of speciality teas,'' Thompson says. ''Now cafe owners who've put in good coffee realise they need to update their tea list.''
Larsen & Thompson
(03) 9354 2328.
Granny Smith Natural Food Market, Turramurra, 9988 3787; Wild Basket, Neutral Bay, 9908 7868; Bacchus, Balmain, 9818 8081; Food Stuff, Mona Vale, 9999 3033.
Good Morning breakfast blend tea, $10.99/75g.
Sencha green tea from north-east Victoria, $14.99/70g.
White Peony Chinese white tea, $12.99/35g.