New tea lovers in France

Olivier Scala, managing director of George Cannon and chairman of the French Tea Board, talks to Georgina Gordon-Ham about the family business and the latest tea developments in France.

The Scala family has been in the tea industry for four generations. Lazare Scala, Olivier Scala’s great grandfather, founded The’ de I’ Elephant, the first French tea import and distribution company in France, in 1900. This company remained in the family until 1970 when it was sold to Lipton. And it was around that time when Olivier’s grandfather, Andre, bought George Cannon, which is still run by the Scala family. 


Lazare and his brother Petrus bought their uncle’s tea and coffee business, La Compagnie de l’Indochine, which led them later to founding their own company The de l’Elephant in 1897. 

Andre Scala, Olivier’s grandfather, bought up another firm, La Compagnie Coloniale, which became part of the family business group. Says Olivier, “My father Raymond Scala became head of La Compagnie Coloniale in 1960, turning it into a leading brand for top quality tea in France.” Business was doing well until “unfortunately between the 1960s and 70s it was impossible to find a common strategy for both companies and hence the two companies, The’ de I’Elephant and La Compagnie Coloniale, were sold.” Despite this, Raymond continued his keen interest in tea. And with the purchase of the company George Cannon, explains Olivier, “my father decided to pursue his life long passion: tea, buying tea and tea tasting. His experience and the very high quality of selected tea helped Cannon expand rapidly.” As for Olivier Scala’s direct involvement in tea, he said, “I joined Cannon in 1978 following my studies in commerce. Today Cannon remains a family-run business, and is also well known abroad in spite of the fact that C annon is not a brand. Over a third of the tea we import is re-exported to the U.S., Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Australia, etc. 


George Cannon’s re-exporting activity is emblematic of France’s tea trade: for the year 2001 France imported a total of 17,500 tons of tea and re-exported 3,500 tons. France is the fourth largest tea importer in Europe (exclusive of Russia), but ranks only twenty third worldwide. 

In the last 20 years, France has acquired more and more of an international role in the tea trade following London and Rotterdam’s lead. Scala explained to what extent and how this has happened. “France was behind and had to start from scratch. This took time to develop, and France is still far from being called a real leader in the tea trade.” 

So France has become an important tea exporter. Says Scala, “a third of France’s tea imports goes abroad, of which about 15% is to the U.S. and an even larger quantity to Japan….Japan produces green tea but not black tea. Japan only started to get to know black tea about 20 years ago, through French tea merchants.” Having said that, Olivier Scala said he would “speak of tea in France in terms of its image role rather than of its import role.” 


This image is derived from France’s “tasting” arts and from its salons de the where consumers can taste, discover how to prepare and buy quality teas. In Paris and all major French cities, there has been a revival of tea rooms which has brought tea back into fashion and contributed to increased tea consumption. This revival began about 20 years ago. Paris already had a number of salons de the, including quite a few of its Belle Epoque salons which had managed to survive the ups and downs of French tea fashion. 

“Paris has now become the capital of tea-rooms in Europe because of the large number of ‘salons de the’ old and new,” commented Scala, “varied in appearance and presentation, such as for instance Angelina,” at 226 Rue de Rivoli in one of Paris’ elegant districts not far from the Louvre. “It offers 300 varieties of tea.” This tea-room, founded in 1903, has seen many artists of the Belle Epoque relax and chat over a cup of tea. 

Another famous Parisian tea room is Laduree at 16 Rue Royale, which also offers a large choice of teas. Laduree dates back even further to 1890. In his comprehensive guide book on tea rooms and tea bars in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Quebec, A L’heure du The (Tea Time) recently published by Editions l’Archipel, Gilles Brochard refers to Laduree’s high standards as well as to its chic and aristocratic visitors: “What is perhaps new in Paris, and in Europe, is that each of these tea rooms, offering between 10 to 300 varieties of teas, have their different individual styles that include elements like art galleries, painting exhibitions, cultural activities and meeting points. They are not just places to drink tea. They are accompanied by something which is either artistic or on the art of living.” Iris art and culture, which usually accompany tea. 

To add to the variety of tea experiences, in Paris and other major French cities, tea salons serve tea in different styles, reflecting a world view of tea drinking: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, North African or Middle Eastern. 


Another new facet in France’s world of tea, says Scala, “is that there are also tea drinkers’ clubs and Tea ‘Universities’ where one can learn about tea — the different types of tea, tea tasting and preparing the different teas along similar lines to wine tasting and presentation.” For instance, the Universite du The in Paris was created and is organized by Madame Francoise Schmitt, director of IESA (Institut d’Etudes Superieures des Arts — What one notices, stressed Scala, “is that there is a similar wealth in tea as there is in wine.” 

There is even a Tea Expo, held at the Palais des Congres in Paris for its third edition last December. This event allows the public to discover the world of tea and reflects the French approach to tea highlighting three key aspects: art, culture and health. 


Reflecting tea’s upward trend in France, several products have been created around tea. Tea’s image has had a strong impact on public opinion especially due to its derivatives, such as tea shampoo, tea soap, tea perfume, tea cakes etcetera. Tea is associated with many derivatives, apart from phenomena such as iced tea, where on the one hand, great quantities of tea are consumed, but on the other there is really very little tea content. 


“Tea is certainly going to evolve in the next five years in France,” asserts Scala. “It will also develop because of the health aspect related to tea. Recent medical research carried out proved that tea can help prevent or reduce certain illnesses, such as blood pressure, cancer and high cholesterol. It has also been proved that the effect of green teas and black teas on health are basically the same.” 

For the record, according to Scala, black teas account for 60% of imports and green account for 40%. “Consumption of black teas in France is stagnant compared to green teas whose consumption has increased 15% per year on average over a three year period.”


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