Perryville man known as a 'tea master'

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 3, 2012 

Bruce Richardson, of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, prepared a pitcher to serve at his Danville store. Richardson has written many books on the drink.

GREG KOCHER | STAFF — Herald-Leader

DANVILLE — When the Boston Tea Party is re-enacted later this month, the tea pitched from ships into the harbor will be supplied by Bruce Richardson, an expert on anything involving the brewed drink.

Richardson, 59, of Perryville is also "tea master" for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, a once-closed tourist attraction that reopened in June to accurately portray the Dec. 16, 1773 event that was a catalyst for the American Revolution.

"We have shipped them 80 pounds of tea, which is not near the amount that was thrown overboard, which was 340 chests at maybe 60 to 70 pounds each," Richardson said.

He and his wife, Shelley, and son, Ben, operate a retail store called Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Danville that imports teas from Asia and Africa and repackages it for sale all over the country. The store takes its name from the Perryville bed-and-breakfast and tearoom that the Richardsons once operated.

As "tea master," Richardson designed a line of teas for sale in the Boston museum's gift shop, and he and his wife designed a menu of pastries to be served in the museum's tearoom. The teas are based on those that were thrown into Boston Harbor in 1773. Richardson also writes a blog for the museum's Web site.

Richardson had experience working as a tea consultant. He blended custom teas for Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and the 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville and Cincinnati. He also designed a tea for gift shops of the National Archives in Washington D.C. He has written more than a dozen books on tea and is a contributing editor of Tea Magazine. So it was natural for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum to seek his expertise.

"In a project where you are re-creating one of the most pivotal moments of American history, you better get it right," Richardson said. "So when they started this project, they said we need somebody who knows tea history, knows about tea today, so that's when they came to me.

"They would call and say, 'What kind of chest was the tea in? Where did the tea come from? What were the teas? How old were they? What's the story of how the tea got into the colonies?"

Richardson has been a "tremendous help" in making sure that the museum's tea blends are historically accurate, said Christopher Belland, chief executive officer of Historic Tours of America, the Florida-based company that operates the Boston attraction.

"Bruce is probably the foremost authority on teas in the United States," Belland said. "He has written many books on the subject."

The Elmwood Inn Fine Teas have sold well at the museum's gift shop and in its tearoom, Belland said. "We sell a lot of his tea. People really like it."

Although the tea at the 1773 Boston Tea Party was brought to the colonies by the British-owned East India Company, the tea actually came from China, not India, Richardson said. Twenty percent of it was green tea, which is popular today, and the rest was black tea.

The East India Company had a glut of millions of pounds of musty, three-year-old tea in its warehouses. The British decided to dump the stale surplus tea on the colonies at a discount but at no loss to the company, thanks to a government tax break.

In 1773 the Tea Act awarded a sales monopoly to the company, and a new tax was imposed. In today's parlance, the East India Company was "too big to fail," Richardson said.

"They paid a 20 percent commission to Parliament just to be able to sell tea in the Western world," he said. "But taxes got so high on tea ... and the East India Company's sales were going down, down, down, and they were sitting on all this tea. They had to get rid of it or the company was going to fail. If the company failed, Parliament failed, Great Britain failed.

"So King George said, 'I'll save you. Here's your stimulus package. I'm going to let you take this tea over to the colonies and sell it. But we're going to keep this one little tax on it.'"

American colonists revolted at paying a token tax without representation, so they boarded the ships on Dec. 16, 1773 to dump 342 crates of tea into the harbor. It was a signature event leading to the Revolutionary War that ran from 1775 to 1783.

"I always said the great crime was not so much that King George kept this tax on tea," Richardson said. "The big insult was he sent over all this old tea that they couldn't sell in England. He insulted our good taste."

Fast forward 200 years. Starting in the 1970s, the Boston Tea Party Museum and a replica of one ship memorialized the event on Boston Harbor. Then in 2001 a lightning strike ignited a fire in the museum's gift shop. The museum closed and a second fire caused a second setback in 2007. For a decade, Boston was without a monument to one of its most recognizable events.

Then the city, numerous donors, and a private company called Historic Tours of America came together to fund the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, which reopened on June 12. The museum has interactive displays and replicas of two ships with a third to come. (One of only two original tea chests known to still be in existence from the Tea Party is on display there.)

Richardson has never written a book solely about the 1773 Tea Party, although he said he's thought about publishing a children's book about the event.

Of course, when people talk about the Tea Party today, it most often refers to the American political movement that advocates strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, reduced U.S. government spending, and reduction of the U.S. debt and deficit.

Richardson, a former mayor of Perryville, fends off talking about politics these days, although he mentioned how a Wall Street Journal reporter orchestrated a sit-down over tea between Richardson and Mica Sims, a conservative blogger who organized Tea Party rallies in Lexington, for a 2009 story.

Asked if he winces at the thought of tea being pitched into the water for the 2012 Tea Party re-enactment, Richardson admitted: "Well, we didn't send them the good stuff because that would be a great travesty."

Hmmm, so he's a little like the British in 1773?

"Touché! That's right," Richardson said, laughing. "I couldn't bring myself to send them good tea to throw overboard, so this is tea that's past its prime."

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader

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