From Belfast to Darjeeling – The Suki Tea Story
Every one has their own definition of the perfect cup of tea. For some it’s a strongly brewed cuppa with two sugars, and just a dash of milk, while others are committed to the milk-first school of thought. However, for Oscar Woolley, co-founder of Suki Tea, Belfast boutique loose leaf tea company, a lot more than milk and sugar goes into the perfect brew.
Over the past 11 years Suki Tea has been committed to providing teas that not only win awards for their exceptional flavour, but are sourced in a way that respects people, plants and the planet. Oscar spoke to TheTaste about Suki Tea’s mission to a grow a global community of loose leaf tea drinkers; that appreciate the ritual of drinking a great-tasting, ethically sourced cuppa.
Oscar and his business partner Annie Irwin began their tea adventure while wandering through Asia. Their eyes were opened to a world of sustainable and flavoursome teas, and they wanted to share their experiences. They set up a stall at the local St Georges’ Market in 2005, and from there their adventures have continued; taking them to Tanzania, Assam, Darjeeling and Morocco to source the finest, freshest loose leaf teas, herbal infusions and fruit blends available.
Though Oscar concedes his love of tea was brewing long before he visited the tea gardens in Vietnam, “as a boy I collected children’s antique tea cups. I used to go to lots of jumble sales with my mum and totally forgot about this fact until one day my mum sent me the collection.” “Annie was delivered by the tea lady at a local maternity hospital,” he adds.
Having a strong brand identity, and keeping true to their goals was the focus from the very beginning, and at Suki Tea that goal is producing ‘Tea as it Should be’. “We think tea should taste great, and we have a responsibility to ethically source product. Looking at tea from a consumer standpoint and asking the question ‘As a tea lover, what do you want?’, it became clear there was a need for a better product”. Over decade later, the Belfast-based company still ethically sources and blends teas from all over the world, and has won over 37 Great Taste Awards along the way.
The company has a portfolio of 46 products, each one designed to stimulate the senses through unique blends of whole tea leaf, delicate spices, real fruit pieces and freshly picked herbs. “One defining thing that really gives us the edge is the approach we take to the product,” says Oscar.
“89% of our teas are Great Taste Award winners, a testament to the quality. We create our own recipes, and blend in house.”
A culture of innovation is encouraged at Suki Tea, from new tea blends to the invention of a new teapot, of which Oscar is now a registered inventor. “An intern worked on chocolate based teas as a project, and the success of the ‘Dark Cocoa’ tea has been immense,” Oscar provides as an example.
With blends such as Earl Grey Blue Flower and Rooibos Crème Brulee, it is easy to see how consumers have been tempted away from the dark, traditional black tea, side somewhat. Though Oscar says two of their black teas; Fairtrade Breakfast Tea and Fairtrade Belfast Brew, are still their number one sellers. His personal brew of choice? “I love a good proper cup of Belfast Brew but drink more Rooibos than anything. Annie loves Oolong Orange Blossom.” Three members of the 19 strong Suki Tea team have even been Great Taste judges over the past few years. “You don’t have to like tea to become an employee with Suki Tea, it’s inevitable that you will end up liking it though,” laughs Oscar.
Keen to share their expertise for tea, Suki Tea have established Ireland’s first ever Tea Academy. “The attitude towards tea has been such that it’s been treated as a commodity, and not given the attention of the other food and drink industries, such as coffee or wine for example,” explains Oscar. “This is a chance for any food service staff member, or consumer to come on board and learn in-depth knowledge on the industry. We look into origin, process and flavour profiles as well as give a factory tour and look at tea brewing technique. The attendee leaves with boosted knowledge of the product and how to maximise sales. So far we have seen approx. 150 ‘tea students’ through the doors.”
Oscar and Annie’s thirst for knowledge in all things tea has even spilled over into wanting to grow their own. Oscar says they plans to establish his own tea garden in Portaferry, and are already growing 500 tea plants they imported from Tanzania. Just as important as the leaves themselves though is how they are brewed. At Suki Tea they promote the ritual of brewing the perfect cuppa as an experience to be celebrated.
“It’s been proven recently that drinking tea dates back much further than we thought so there must be something to be said about the second most consumed liquid on the planet next to water. We have created a ritual around the choice and serving of loose leaf tea; the perfect pot for one. Watch the leaves unfurl – it’s not 2 dimensional cuppa!”
The Suki Tea sourcing policy is to choose Fairtrade, Organic and/or Rainforest alliance certified teas where possible. Oscar says demand for ethically produced teas is now growing strongly, particularly among customers in the UK and Ireland. Through trade events and travel Oscar and Annie have nurtured partnerships with tea brokers and tea estates. “We have many sources, the main bulk of our teas come from Fairtrade estates in Tanzania and Assam,” Oscar says.
Travelling to the tea plantations allows them to assess the quality of their tea, “we get to see where Fairtrade money is being spent, and then there’s getting the experience of the process first hand, so we can pass that knowledge on to our customers”. Just as far flung as the places Suki Tea sources it’s leaves are it’s customers. “We have regular orders across Europe, the US and Asia and on the odd occasion get an order from somewhere like Iran or New Zealand,” says Oscar. As well as online Suki Tea teas can also be found in cafes, hotels, major retailers such as M&S, and independent stores across Ireland and the UK.
With a growing customer fan base, the tea academy, new tea gardens, and product development constantly bubbling under, there is a lot brewing at Suki Tea. Though Oscar maintains as they grow their ethos will stay the same,
“we always think long term with our plans so it’s more of the same while keeping the core goal of what we always set out to do. Provide great tasting, ethically sourced tea, whilst having fun!”
Just as steeped in Suki Tea as their commitment to ethical products is their hometown, “I love it here, we all live here and we have no plans on moving HQ from Belfast. We will always value our humble beginnings in St George’s market and continue to trade at the market stall every weekend.”
I couldn’t leave Oscar go before asking an expert’s advice on the ultimate tea dilemma; milk or tea first. “It’s all about personal taste, but we do advocate milk in last so you can warm your cup and gauge the strength of your tea.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.