Lydia Gautier: Vineyards to Tea Gardens

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PARIS, France

Now respected as one of France’s top tea experts, Lydia Gautier’s story proves all the adages about success coming from hard work. WTN contributor Barbara Dufrene sat down with Gautier to hear her story, and shared these highlights with us.Lydia Gautier

Growing from the Earth

After graduating from the National Institute for Agronomy, at Paris Grignon, where she specialized on tropical agriculture, Lydia Gautier found her first job at the recently created Le Palais des Thés.

Duringher studies, she had done internships in wine growing estates in France and Peru. There, she became fascinated with the interdependence between the quality and refinement of the taste of the wine in the glass, crop conditions such as soil, exposure to climate and weather, and of course the production process itself.

Gautier’s background oenology, coupled with her skills as an agricultural engineer, widened her prospects.  After screening some tropical products that fit with her skills and experience, she decided to focus on tea.

At that time, the French tea market was undergoing some fundamental changes: From 1983 onward, new owners were completely overhauling the well-known and traditional Mariage Frères Company. The team of two young men had decided first to go into retail, and then to introduce all sorts of exotic and rare origin leaf teas, thus creating a new, elite tea fashion.

This was a real revolution in a country of coffee drinkers, with onlya smallconsumption of mediumquality tea bags. In the wake of this innovative move, several other companies sprouted up offering whole-leaf tea from origin. Among the most notable were Le Palais des Thés in 1986 and Cha Yuan in Lyon in 1991.

Lydia Gautier PhotoA blossoming industry

Gautier applied for a job with Le Palais des Thés, and founder François Xavier Delmas hired her to be his assistant. An economist himself, Delmas was impressed by Gautier’s technical and product knowledge. She arrived at the company in 1995, just as incremental sales were allowing thetea company to shift from sourcing their tea through the big European tea hub in Hamburg, to importing it directly from producing countries.

“You must have your own solidly established sales volume in order to be able to source the strict minimum orders of 80 kiograms or 100 kilograms directly from origin,” Gautier recalled. “When I joined Le Palais des Thés, the company was just reaching that level of development. It was an exciting and stimulating period indeed.”

At that time, the main producing countries of India, Kenya and Sri Lanka would only sell big tonnage, which was out of reach for small operators. So, Le Palais des Thés focused on small and top end estates, such as those found in Darjeeling and certain provinces in China, which are in line with the premium origin and fully traceable leaf tea cup approach.

Selling such teas profitably – and more and more of them – required a knowledgeable consumer. The question was how to proceed? Gautier’s idea was to use the oenology reference set, together with terroir and traceability specifications, to create a new concept in tea education.

Gautier remembered, “In order to attract tea pupils, and to have a transparent approach, we suggested three levels of initiation: discovery, knowledge and escape.”

In 1997, along with another tea expert, Katrin Rougeventre, Gautier finalized the company’sTea Schoolin Downtown Paris. Rougeventre was fluent in Mandarin and had written her master’s thesis on the different ways of processing teas in China. The training program the pair created has been running ever since, with bookings now made years in advance. In January 2009, it moved to more elegant and spacious quarters nearby.Both Rougeventre and Gautier taught many of the Tea School’s courses and both still talk fondly of its early years.

On dry land

In 2002, Gautier’s life changed completely: “I married and moved to Mali, Africa, where I have lived for five years,” she said. “There was no tea production there – it was too dry – just some gardens with rather bitter leaves. Therefore, I decided to lay down all my knowledge and learning in writing.”

Her six booksresulting from this period have all found an interested public and helped to guarantee her status as a highly qualified tea expert, she added.

In 2008, Gautier returned to France, because she wanted a French education for her son. Her reputation had already led to a series of consulting missions, and in February of that year fine food company Hédiard contracted her to revamp their tea selection.

Since September 2009, she has worked with the family-owned Coffee and Fine Food Company, whose primary business is the more than 100 year old wholesale and food service company Les Cafés Richard. It encompasses a large industrial coffee roaster near Paris, as well as Les Comptoirs Richard, a retail store chain set up a few years ago with fine coffee, tea and confectionery and accessories.

Gautier is now responsible for fully auditing tea lines, food service and retail sales, then introducing innovation aligned with current market trends and aimed at higher quality and more refined demand. This new challenge will allow her to use all her competence and experience.