Friday, March 18, 2011

'Empressing' the locals

One summer morning in 2004, my mother woke me up and told me we were going to go to the Victoria area on Vancouver Island for an overnight stay.
It was a glorious trip, and we spent time in all the must see places: Buchardt Gardens, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, the Provincial Parliament building, the now gone Royal London Wax Museum, and the Royal B.C. Museum. That was actually the whole reason we were going – to see the Eternal Egypt exhibit. But most spectacular was the icon of Victoria. As the Big Ben is London, the Eiffel tower is Paris, the statue of liberty is New York, the Empress hotel is most definitely Victoria. And what else is the Empress hotel known for other than their overnight accommodations? Well, their high tea of course!

My mother and I diligently went and had tea every Monday at a local tea house. Since we were in Victoria on a Monday, we decided that high tea – even at $50 a person- was a must do. The d├ęcor was beautiful, and even though I was wearing a Harley Davidson shirt (what was I thinking?) we were treated very well. The high tea, on the other hand, was lacking. A very pricy bill got you soggy pastries, tasteless sandwiches, and very simple fair. As my mother liked to say afterwards, we weren’t “Empressed.”

What was delicious, however, was the tea. Simply called "Empress Tea," it was signature blend unique to the hotel -- of course we bought a tin of it to take home. It didn’t have any added flavours or ingredients outside of regular tea. What was special was that they blended different tea together from different regions, and even different countries. It was complex, subtle, and smooth. It is more than a little amazing that the exact same plant could taste so differently from one spot to the next. It is -the- quintessentially perfect afternoon tea.
After we got home, we savored our little tin of tea, and were sorely sad to see it finally empty. It wasn’t as if we would be going over the water anytime soon to replenish our Empress Tea stock.


But then, a few years later, I stumbled upon a delightful store called Murchie’s (the same store that I later found the lovely Lavender tea). To my surprise, and of course delight, I found that Murchie's sold the official Empress Tea blend. It turns out that the Empress (a historical hotel built in 1908) used Murchie’s (a local company established in 1894) as its tea supplier and tea blender. I promptly bought a box, and rejoiced that the Empress tea was only a wee bit of a drive away. I drank it all, bought some more, drank it all, and bought some more again. And then something odd happened. I went to buy another box of Empress Tea, but there was no such sign of the tea in the entire store of Murchie’s. I looked, became concerned, and finally flagged down a staff member to inquire about the tea. The Empress tea was no longer called the Empress tea. It is now known as Murchie’s Afternoon Blend. I grabbed the newly named tea and bought it. So relieved I was, that it didn’t occur to me to ask why – at least not until I was enjoying a cup of the brew at home. Still, no matter what the name was, I thought it the same great tea I had come to know and love.

Time passed, and my mother traveled back to Victoria and bought a package of the official tea the Empress sold (they packaged it in a box rather than a tin) for souvenir's sake. Curious,I did a taste comparison and both tea tasted the same. On examination, however, the tea leaves were a little larger than my Murchie’s blend. It was visually different, but still the exact same blend of tea. Eventually we had once again run out of our dear tea, and once again the tiny pilgrimage was made to pick up Murchie’s afternoon blend. This time however, I was determined to ask some questions. To appreciate the answers, however, it's best to know a little bit about the Empress hotel:

It was built a bloomin’ long time ago, and through most of its existence was owned by CPR. Canadian Pacific Railway was doing well, and building hotels for the guests that used its rail. Yes, the railroad didn’t extend to Victoria, but they also had nice ships (not unlike ferries, but also not unlike little floating hotels either) that would transport people to Seattle, Alaska, ect. Business boomed, then wilted (WW1) and then boomed, and then wilted (WW2) and then only slowly came back around, with many ups and downs in between. The Empress was actually considered for demolition in the mid 60’s, but outcries and the pointing out (rightfully) that it was an iconic landmark caused it to get a cosmetic refurbishment (called operation Tea Cup) instead. Thankfully in 1989 they smartened up and did a true refurbishment that renewed its original grandeur and glory. A year before that, however, the hotel division of CPR was beginning to change. It bought out a large competitor, and began buying small hotels, and luxury hotels in international locations. They became Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts. The year 1999 had them buying the San Francisco Company called Fairmont hotel, and they decided in 2001 that they should call all their large luxury hotels the Fairmont hotel. So technically, the Empress hotel I knew was always the Fairmont Empress hotel. Okay, in 2006, Fairmont jumped into bed with a large LA hotel company called Colony Capital, and remains that way today. But what does that mean for the tea?


Well. The Empress hotel is no longer just a Canadian hotel; it is a half American one. I would suppose that after the merger, the American side wondered why the Empress should spend money with Murchies’s when they could get their tea blended elsewhere for much cheaper. All that truly mattered was that the blend was the same, the guests would know no different. Pfft, way to support your local community. Murchie’s really got the short stick of this agreement. Not only was the Empress no longer their client, but they were no longer even allowed to use the name for the signature blend. Such a treatment despite having who knows how long of a working relationship with each other, though I would assume it would be right at the Hotel’s beginning -- nearly a hundred years ago. From what I heard, they did try to fight back legally. But after spending quite a bit of money, and the cases going nowhere, Murchie’s dropped the suit and limped back home defeated. Which is why you now have Murchie’s Afternoon Blend, which in my humble opinion, tastes significantly better than the Empress blend of tea.

Here is a quote taken directly from the Empress Tea Box.
This blend of seasonal quality was specially created for afternoon tea at the Empress. The Assam component (2nd flush June production) gives a thick malty and full bodied character; the Kenya component (Kiambu region, January productions) gives floral-like flavour and golden coppery infusions; the South Indian Component (Nilgiri mountains, January production) gives superb fruity and sprightly flavour with a lovely finish; the Ceylon (Dimbula Region, January production) gives an airy almost piquant flavour that opens the blend; and the China (Anhui province, April production) gives a burgundy depth with light oaky notes. Truly one of the world's great teas!

You can purchase the Empress tea at the Empress Hotel, or email them at Shop@fairmont.com.
You can purchase Murchie's Afternoon blend in any Murchie's locations, or online.

8 comments:

  1. That was a good story. Nice research (Of course) and tea-enlightening.

    I so so so much... want to start collecting teas. Costco is nice... but after 200 bags of green tea and earl grey, everything else starts to taste better.

    Having said that, the tea blends you have given me are orders of magnitude more tasty.

    I got to go shopping with you. Or atleast put in an order with your lovely and friendly delivery service. ;P

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  2. AnonymousMay 06, 2011

    *thanks* so very much for this post! i went to this hotel with my grandma when i was about 12 for afternoon tea and fell in love with empress hotel tea (& tea in general). she bought a box for home and we enjoyed it for a while as we wanted to slowly savor it. i always thought of this tea as my all-time favorite but alas, being all the way in connecticut i never thought i'd taste it again. luckily, i stumbled upon your blog and thanks to your diligent research, i can now purchase it online @ murchie's whenever i please :-) thank you thank you thank you

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  3. AnonymousJune 15, 2011

    i was wondering why they changed the name thanks for this!!

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  4. THANK YOU for doing the research on this! I am enjoying my last few bags of the "Empress Blend" and realized that I needed to order more (I had purchased several boxes last time so I savored it as long as I could!!). I was confused about the name, etc. so I am grateful that you were able to clear that up. I look forward to trying the Afternoon Blend!

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  5. Thanks for a great story. This tea has always been my favorite memory of Victoria.

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  6. Thanks for such a great post! I was wondering why I couldn't find the Empress Afternoon Tea from Murchies! I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. I'm very "into" teas right now, ever since getting back from Ireland. I love the breakfast and afternoon blends. I will look for this one and give it a whirl. Thanks again.

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  7. You can also buy it online here: http://www.fairmontstore.com/productDetail.aspx?&category1=Teas&category1Name=Tea&category2=OrganicTea&category2Name=Tea+Bags&categoryLevel=1&itemID=FM-501-EHT

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  8. Murchie's here I come! Thanks for the post. I was in Victoria this summer and bought some of the Empress tea at the gift shop. Needless to say I fell in love with it. I would like to get some more and knowing that Murchie's makes the same blend and that I would support a local business as well is a home run!

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