It's teatime in Portaferry: fertile land of the Ards peninsula may soon be producing leaves
A sleepy town on the Ards peninsula is brewing up a climate-defying surprise.
It might be a long way from the fertile hills of India or soily slopes of Africa – but now it looks like a field outside Portaferry will be the first part of Northern Ireland where tea will be grown.
Oscar Woolley, managing director of Northern Ireland firm Suki Tea, is planning to plant 2,000 Tanzanian plants in his friends' three-acre field.
It could take five years or more to nurture the plants, and even then it won't necessarily be profitable.
"But I'm really looking forward to that cuppa in 2019," the 36-year-old said.
If the venture is successful, Suki Tea will join an elite club who have transplanted products from far-flung climes to Northern Ireland – such as RJ Cherry and Sons in Co Antrim, which grows the versatile Chinese vegetable pak choi.
Portaferry is an ideal choice for growing tea as it manages to avoid heavy frost in the winter. The field is also sheltered from the worst extremes of the weather thanks to being near Strangford Lough.
But while a cup of tea is a staple beverage most of us take for granted, the plants are fragile.
"We travel to source a lot of our tea and were taught how to nursery tea plants from very young, but they are notorious for failing to grow, so this isn't going to be easy," Mr Woolley said.
While profit is usually the bottom line in business ventures, the aims here are very altruistic.
Mr Woolley said: "It's not to grow to create a big yield and to be able to say, yes we have harvested 'X' amount. It's because a lot of the big tea companies for generations have cut their teeth going to India or Africa – but we don't have the luxury of spending six months a year out there."
The company also plans to set up a tea house on site with an exhibition space to educate visitors, including schools and tourists.
Mr Woolley said tea-making operations he has visited in India and Africa already have strong links with Northern Ireland. "Many of the rolling machines in India and Africa were made by Sirocco in Belfast in the 1950s. All these machines are still going, so it's a great Belfast engineering story," he said.
At 30p a plant, and with plans to replant 2,000, growing their own tea shouldn't prove too expensive, but Mr Woolley isn't expecting to be able to retire on the profits from the tea operation in Portaferry.
"It would be nice if it was profitable but it's not our motivation behind it," he said. "The motivation behind it is to successfully grow and see the process of growing it, and have people involved."
A firm that serves up award winners
- Suki Tea has won UK Great Taste Awards for its traditional beverages such as Belfast Brew, as well as its extensive range of infusions.
- The company recently secured a contract to supply teas to the successful Patisserie Valerie network of cafes in Britain, and its distinctive tea pots are a familiar sight in many cafe chains in Northern Ireland.
- Suki recently introduced afternoon tea ranges and Matcha, a traditional finely milled green tea imported directly from Japan.
- Suki currently exports teas and infusions to Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Rwanda and Kenya.
- The company employs 10 people in Belfast.