Belfast Telegraph

Punjana marks 120 years of tea

By Rachel Martin

Belfast tea stalwart Punjana is celebrating 120 years in business.

The Thompson family founded the company in 1896, at a time when tea was delivered in tea chests to grocers shops using public transport. And then, the earliest packs of Punjana loose tea sold for just two shillings and six pence.

The company aired its first TV advert with the iconic jingle "Pick Punjana Tea" on the night UTV was first transmitted, in 1959.

During the Troubles, the company's Ann Street factory was destroyed by a bomb delivered to the wrong address, leaving just one machine unscathed.

Joint managing director, Ross Thompson, explained it was likely the company would not have survived if this machine had also been destroyed by the blast.

Now run by third generation tea blenders Ross and David Thompson, who personally taste every blend, Punjana is the largest remaining tea blender here.

But despite its rich history and strong family ties, the company has only added the family name to Punjana packaging in the last five years.

The move was one of a series of changes which took the brand from "a close second" in terms of its Northern Ireland market-share 10 years ago to a "clear first".

Today, the company's 50 employees produce more than a third of the region's tea consumption, equating to more than 50,000 cups of Punjana tea every hour (day and night).

The cousins also decided to incorporate parts of older advertising campaigns into branding.

Feedback from the public showed there was still a fondness for the old TV ads and especially the brand's jingle.

Mr Thompson said: "It was a very brave decision to advertise on TV, the brand wasn't a major brand at the time and this made a tremendous difference; they showed great belief in their brand and innovation to do such a thing."

The home market continues to account for the majority of sales. Around 40% of Punjana's products are shipped outside Northern Ireland, mainly to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The brand also has a following in the east coast of the US, where it supplies hotels with its premium line Thompson's Irish breakfast blend.

The cousins at the company's helm spend their week tasting different tea leaf samples, picked from just two regions - the Assam Valley in India and East Kenya.

Mr Thompson said: "Tea bushes grow new shoots every 10 to 14 days, so every two weeks you've got a whole new range of samples and you've got to keep tasting to know when it's right.

"Wet weather makes the tea taste more insipid, so we order ahead of production when its dry.

"It takes a certain amount of courage to choose what is best, over what is most profitable, so we stay focused on sourcing only the best possible tea leaves and can't be persuaded by those which can be bought a little more cheaply from lesser gardens."

The Punjana brand has won more Great Taste Awards gold gongs than any other blended tea bag in the UK and Ireland over the last 10 years.

The company also supplies teas for Titanic Belfast, National Trust properties and Hastings Hotels.

Belfast Telegraph