In a few years’ time, you might see a Portaferry Blend added to the existing 39 varieties of Suki Tea. The Belfast company’s director, Oscar Woolley, has plans to establish his own tea plantation there, persuaded that the combination of suitable soils and its sheltered micro–climate on the shores of Strangford Lough, will prove beneficial for the 2000 tea–plants he’s ordered from Tanzania.
And if you consider that unlikely, think again. Oscar already sells tea to Japan, a bit like taking spuds to Comber. In a country that’s been sipping tea since the 9th century, they know a thing or two about the mysterious brew and Suki Tea has made its mark.
Japan has influenced Oscar in more ways than one. He got married there for a start, to a Belfast bride. The elegant Suki teapot is the work of a Japanese designer. It was a Japanese supplier who provided Suki’s first blends, back in 2005. Even the name sounds Japanese – Suki refers, appropriately, to ‘artistic inclination’ (although, really, it owes more to the second verse of that old rhyme, Polly put the kettle on).
From modest beginnings, Suki Tea has grown into a very successful and dynamic young company. Together with Annie, his business partner, Oscar started selling Suki Tea at Belfast’s St George’s Market which proved to be an ideal testing ground for both the products and the concept. Oscar recognises his debt to St George’s and demonstrates his loyalty by maintaining Suki’s presence there every weekend. “It provided us with a springboard but more than that, it was a great place to learn and the camaraderie among the stallholders was amazing,” said Oscar.
The first couple of years were tough as they built a reputation at markets and trade shows but their perseverance paid off when a major UK distributor placed a substantial order. It’s a relationship that has prospered, helping Suki to achieve its ambitious targets for growth. Nowadays, 80% of Suki’s sales are outside Northern Ireland but the distinctive branding can be found in many outlets here too.
The reception area at Suki’s premises is laden with awards – for marketing, for branding, for business development but, most importantly, for taste. The Great Taste Awards celebrate the very best food and drink available on these islands – you might call them the Food Oscars – and Suki has gathered a clutch of them over the past few years.
There are other awards that can’t be seen in Belfast but they’re no less important. In Darjeeling, for example, there are some trees planted in honour of the contribution that Annie and Oscar have made to this region through their involvement in the FairTrade scheme. In the last year alone, Suki has contributed around $30,000 to its suppliers through the FairTrade system. That translates into properly plumbed houses with gas supply for cooking for plantation workers in Darjeeling, or to the construction of schools and medical facilities in the Fairtrade tea gardens of Tanzania.
It’s an aspect of the business of which Oscar and Annie are especially proud. It was an aspiration to source Fairtrade teas when they started Suki but initially they found it difficult to get the right quality. However, through their visits to the tea–growing regions and by establishing close connections with people on the ground, they are now well aware of the real benefits of ethical sourcing. And it doesn’t stop at FairTrade – many of Suki’s teas are also organic and certified by the Rainforest Alliance, proof that Suki Tea is environmentally sound as well as socially responsible.
There are many people who don’t care very much about tea. They’ll boil a kettle, drop any old teabag into a cup and be content with the result. Oscar’s not one of them; he’s a bit of a perfectionist and that’s reflected in the quality of his products, in the efficiency of his factory, through his relationships with his suppliers.
So don’t be surprised when the Portaferry blend starts winning more Great Taste Awards in a few years’ time. His pursuit of perfection is likely to result in a few more of Oscar’s Oscars.