Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

One lump or two?

Eric Knowles lets us into a secret about where he goes for his favourite cuppa.

As the Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee has been one of my favourite haunts over the years I have to admit a certain reluctance to extol its virtues and report its new location. Alongside the Wallace Collection, also in London, and the Frick Collection in New York City, the Bramah Museum provides a quiet oasis of tranquillity amidst the mayhem and general humdrum of a bustling city.

The museum is the brainchild of Edward Bramah, who is proud to include amongst his relations Joseph Bramah, the 18th century engineer, and also Sir Joseph Banks, who suggested the feasibility of growing tea in North East India in 1788.

Edward Bramah is unquestionably one of those rare individuals who is able to combine his undisputed passion for all things tea and coffee, with an ability and determination to create an environment in which he is able to share and explain his enthusiasm.

Established in 1992 and originally situated near the Design Museum, the Bramah Museum has recently relocated to Southwark Street situated in the re-invigorated South Bank. Edward Bramah explains his reasons for the new location slightly further up-river: "Not only do we have the tradition of the early 18th century tea gardens in Vauxhall and Waterloo, and the old coffee houses like the 17th century 'George' on the South Bank, but the museum is within minutes of the Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre."

Inspiration for such a museum looks back to the age when a young Edward Bramah worked on a tea plantation in Malawi, over 50 years ago. Ever since those twilight days of the British Empire, Edward might be described as a tea and coffee aficionado. He was particularly active during the 1950s in the London 'Coffee Bar Scene' before returning to Africa to further his study of all things coffee. Whilst there, he found employment with the rather exotic sounding 'Kilimanjaro Native and Co-Operative Union' and later, with 'Kenya Auctions'.

During the 1970s Edward designed several coffee filter machines, and in 1972 was the author of a book entitled 'Tea and Coffee'. In 1990 he followed this with his definitive 'Coffee Makers - 300 Years of Art and Design'. As he further explains, "The British have made many significant contributions in the pots that serve and the machines that extract coffee."

The museum has on display a fascinating selection of coffee pots and coffee makers that span the 17th and 18th centuries through to the ingenious years of the early and mid 20th century. These years witnessed the introduction of steam-operated, vacuum, siphon, percolator, filter and pressure machines.

The actual history of coffee drinking is illustrated in an informative and exciting manner, supported by a fabulous selection of tableware, advertisements and other related literature. The story of tea and tea drinking benefits from similar fascinating exhibits and literature alongside Edward Bramah's own experiences of having worked on an African tea plantation, where amongst many things he learnt to become a tea taster. This section traces the history of tea drinking from 1650 through to 1950. The story begins with the early involvement of the East India Company followed by the growth of the London tea gardens and beyond. Other topics covered are smuggling, tea auctions, the Boston Tea Party, opium trading, clippers, tea growing in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the English ritual of afternoon tea.

The display also encompasses more recent times, and shows how the big tea companies met the challenge of the instant coffee boom with their own secret weapon - the tea bag. The museum's own tea rooms specialize in English afternoon teas, where both loose-leaf teas and quality tea bags can be consumed. They can also be purchased from the museum shop or on their website. Needless to say, the tea rooms also serve a mind-boggling selection of coffees, not to mention cakes, scones and sandwiches.

When I looked through the museum's visitors' book, I was devastated to learn that the museum had now been discovered by not only the Americans and Australians, but also the Japanese, Koreans and Russians. I realised that I was fighting a losing battle in keeping this quiet haven to myself ! All I can say is that if you do make the effort to visit, mum's the word, and mine's an Earl Grey with a slice of lemon!

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