OUR traditional cuppa is changing. There’s a silent revolution underway in the tea industry here involving artisan businesses like Suki Tea in Belfast and relative newcomer Infuse in Coleraine.
Suki, of course, has been pioneering innovations in tea here since its formation by business partners Oscar Woolley and Anne Irwin in 2004. Infuse Artisan Tea, formed by Aine McGuckin and Duncan Davis in 2016, recently opened Northern Ireland’s first specialist gourmet tea bar in Coleraine town.
What they are doing is to revive our interest in tea, especially the loose-leaf variety, against a background of steadily declining sales, which have tumbled by more than 20 per cent since 2010, according to Mintel research. However, sales of loose-leaf, herbal and fruit teas, especially among consumers aged 25-34, are “going from strength to strength”.
We’ve become accustomed to enjoying the benefits of the burgeoning coffee culture and to seeing specialist single estate coffees being heavily promoted in cafes here.
The spectacular growth of independent coffee shops has really interested people in the different origins and flavours of coffee.
Now Suki is taking a leaf out of the coffee success story by launching Editions, a range of small batch teas from single estates in Japan, Rwanda and Nepal that’s aimed at encouraging cafes to consider gourmet ‘Tea of the Week’ promotions that will tempt the taste buds of customers here and in Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
The first three in a planned handcrafted range of six limited edition teas from Suki are a Japanese Black Tea, a Nepalese Ruby Vine and a Rwandan Orange Pekoe. The teas are all sourced from small growers identified by Suki Tea, which recently marked the 13th anniversary of its formation.
Managing director Oscar Woolley says: “The new range of signature teas is a response to a growing demand from high-end clients in foodservice, especially in the UK and Ireland.
“There’s now an increasing opportunity from their customers wishing to enjoy premium teas that offer different flavours and taste experiences. We’ve seen it become a major trend in the coffee industry in the US and Europe. What we are doing is developing it for the tea industry.
“We are sourcing small batches of teas from very small growers and dealing directly with them. This is why we refer to them as Microlot small batch teas. One of the most obvious benefits of this is that we know exactly where the signature teas come from, who cultivates them and how they are grown.
“Our unique Japanese Black Tea is sourced from a small plantation that’s been owned by the same family for seven generations that have never exported their teas. So, their tea will be available outside Japan for the very first time from Suki,” he adds. The small business sells its teas and infusions to customers in the UK, Ireland, other parts of Europe, including Germany, as well as Japan.
The company employs around 15 people and has established Ireland’s first Tea Academy that’s helping to increase tea knowledge among cafe and hotel staff.
The perceived healthiness of certain teas is also contributing to the trend in Britain where people are becoming increasingly keen on specialist, herbal and green teas. In addition, gourmet teas are being matched with food to enhance the flavours. Afternoon tea sessions are also becoming increasingly popular, particularly in hotels here.
Aine McGuckin and Duncan Davis met at university and found they shared a love of good loose-leaf tea, a passion that led them to set up Infuse Artisan and to begin blending and selling their own specialist teas at the monthly Coleraine market. They realised an ambition to open Northern Ireland’s first gourmet tea bar last year and raised cash for the project with help from Ulster Bank and a crowdfunding drive.
They subsequently kitted out the tea bar in New Row and now offer around 40 specialist teas which they match with luxury snacks and convenience foods. In addition, they run a programme of tea tastings to encourage more local people to enjoy the beverage.
In another initiative to demonstrate the versatility of speciality teas, they’ve just introduced a three-strong range of Tea Mocktails – Matcha Mojito, Goblin Daiquiri and Ice and Fire.
Aine McGuckian says: “Tea is such a versatile ingredient that can be used in a range of food and drink products. We are both tea lovers and have been exploring different ways to harness the tremendous potential of tea.”
Their aim is “to create something truly unique for Northern Ireland and we want people to get involved in the process – hence our development of different products, such as our mocktails, which widen interest in our teas.”