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A London temple for tea and coffee people.

The people moving reverently from one shining exhibit to the next have about them the look of pilgrims. The air is heavy with the scent of exotic perfumes, and the soft background music is more classic than Muzak. Only, the people have all bought tickets, the exhibits are tea- and coffee-making devices dating back to the 1650's, and fresh teas and roasting coffee, not incense, create the fragrances, writes Special Correspondent Richard Clark.

In fact, in the few months since it opened its doors near Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames, Ernest Bramah's Museum of Tea and Coffee is now a temple for tea and coffee professionals, photographers from glossy style and "Good Taste" magazines, and increasing numbers of native Londoners and tourists.

The museum is housed in the Clove Building at Butlers Wharf, a few yards from the Design Museum in an area which once handled 6,000 chests of tea a day, and where many warehouses which have not yet been converted into elegant apartments, restaurants or shops still handle large quantities of aromatic spices.

All the items on display come from the huge collection which Bramah has built up over the past 36 years, as the result of an obsession that dates back to 1950, when he became an assistant on a tea plantation in Malawi (then Nyasaland). He trained as a tea taster with J. Lyons, had a spell with the Kenya Coffee Auctions and worked as a representative of the China National Tea Export Corporation. The idea for a museum occurred to him as far back as 1952, when he was attending the Mincing Lane auctions in the City of London and encountered American tourists who kept asking him wistfully where they could get a decent cup of coffee.

The single biggest section of the museum contains no fewer than 1,000 teapots, including exquisite antique Chinese specimens, some of the creamware and china products from the English potteries which made good teapots generally affordable in the 18th Century, as well as the more delicate Meissen-ware and examples of quaint, curious and sometimes downright bizarre novelty teapots created by contemporary ceramicists.

There are rare and costly tea services, highly decorated mugs, copper and silver-plated tea urns and samovars, spoons, tea caddies and a great deal of general memorabilia. One of the urns, an elaborate, silverplated affair bought by Bramah after a tea company wound up one of its divisions, turned out to have been used at Buckingham Palace garden parties.

In the coffee section, the accent is less on ceramics and more on the mechanics of coffee-making. The automatic brewing devices in particular show just how much ingenuity and inventiveness our forbears were prepared to devote to the problem of making a good cup of coffee, and the beauty of many of the earliest machines demonstrates how highly they valued the product.

In a sense, the coffee-makers reflect Bramah's own work on designing and manufacturing catering and domestic coffee brewers, a task he pursued while running his own tea and coffee companies, and writing a series of elegant books on both the beverages and their artistic legacy. They include extraordinary English and French push-and-pull brewers which used steam pressure or a partial vacuum to force water through the grounds, urns in the shape of steam locomotives and a dangerous-looking automatic electric brewer from the 1920's. Steam pressure machines from the early 1820s lead on to today's espressos.

The range of American coffee-makers include the semi-automatic "Old Dominion" of the 1850's, and predecessors of the percolator from the early years of this century. But apart from the superb china and silverware coffee pots, the most beautiful of them all are probably the variations on the condenser-brewer patented by the Scottish engineer Robert Napier in the early 1840's, which continued to sell all over the world for the rest of the century.

Remembering the forlorn American visitors, the museum has its own coffee, tea, and snack area which dispenses only fine leaf teas - teabags are a Bramah nono - and a small souvenir shop. And as a sign of the future, a rising number of firms and institutions now use the museum as a venue for meetings and product launches.
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Title Annotation:Ernest Bramah's Museum of Tea and Coffee in London, England
Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Aug 1, 1992
Previous Article:On the market.
Next Article:Provincial profiles of tea in China: Jiangxi and Guangxi provinces.

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