'We formed this idea of a rebellion against coffee shop culture... the plan was to solely focus on creating tea'
From its beginnings at a stall at St George's Market, Suki Tea now sells to 17 countries around the world - all from its factory in Belfast. Co-founder Oscar Woolley tells Linda Stewart how his passion for the beverage began in his early childhood
When Suki Tea founders Oscar Woolley and his friend Annie Rooney decided to rebel against the all-consuming fad for high-end coffee, they proposed setting up their own tea house - where no coffee would be served.
That's why it's deliciously ironic that among the biggest customers of their tea business are independent coffee shops right across the UK.
But those are the cafe owners who are all about provenance and quality in everything they serve - so it makes sense that their priority was to offer high-quality tea as well.
"Most of the companies that we deal with are coffee restaurants - it's the same level of quality," Oscar says.
"Looking back to the fundamental reason of why we did it at the beginning - it's about the origin, the experience, it's about making sure that people have a variety of choice and it's about the health benefits of tea."
The upshot was that the team re-thought their plans for a tea house, and instead Suki became a tea wholesaler.
Originally from Nottingham, Oscar has been living in Northern Ireland for the last 19 years after falling in love with the place on his return from backpacking around the world.
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He has a remarkably complicated CV, featuring everything from fashion design to illustration to working in restaurants. Oscar's dad was an antiquarian book dealer who bought and sold art - a career which had a clear influence on his obsessions.
"Oddly, a few years ago, my mum gave me this box of antique tea cups," he says. "I hadn't remembered, but up until the age of seven, I was obsessed with collecting antique tea cups. Although I also collected Beanos and Lego, so it was quite broad.
"I was a very creative child. My memory of what I wanted to do was to build things - as soon as I knew what an architect was, I wanted to be an architect. At different times, I wanted to be a special effects artist or a prop maker for films. Then I had a romantic idea where I wanted to be a fashion designer or a painter. I studied illustration. I studied all those things - I'm just immersive and deeply into various creative things. My career ended up being design or food."
But life took a fresh turn when he was backpacking in south-east Asia and he bumped into fellow backpacker, Belfast-born Samantha, now his wife and mum to four-year-old Roman.
"We were going in opposite directions, but we couldn't decide which way to go," Oscar remembers. "Within two days of meeting each other, we decided to hire an apartment and we were living together after three days.
"Samantha had just been travelling with her friend, Annie, and I kept hearing about this person Annie from very early on. She's from Killyleagh and she's one of Samantha's best friends."
Annie was destined to become Oscar's business partner in Suki, but they first met when he returned to the UK with Samantha.
"When I moved to Belfast, it was like there was a ready-made circle of friends. Everybody was very welcoming and I was pleasantly surprised," he says.
"It was almost like a continuation of travelling. Belfast was the last leg of my travels, but I kind of fell in love with the place. Samantha's friends were lovely and very welcoming, and I made the decision to stay here and give it a go."
Oscar started temping and went back to college to study pattern-making. There were freelance stints at illustrating and interior design and Oscar even set up a small art-teaching business with Annie.
But he dates the birth of Suki back to a pivotal conversation that they had on September 4, 2004, while strolling around Ormeau Park and complaining about their jobs.
"We had a conversation about how it would be to start up a business. It must have been a day off or something, but we challenged each other with this idea of starting a business," Oscar says.
"We'd both done this Invest NI Go For It programme and it gave us the spark of confidence that we needed to write a business plan. We were confident that we could work together and we knew that we needed some finance - and then came the big question of what are we going to do.
"Tea was one idea, and by the end of the conversation, we had formed this idea of this rebellion against coffee shops, that we would just have a tea house solely focused on tea.
"Annie and I knew we had the background and experience to make it a success and I suppose it's reflective of our rebellious natures that we settled on tea rather than coffee like everyone else was doing at the time."
Oscar had experience in the catering and design industries, while Annie had a research background.
"She sat down and looked at the industry and at what was happening," he says.
The pair were lucky enough to meet tea specialist, Jane Pettigrew, at a market in London - "she's like a superstar in the tea world".
They pulled together £300 each, enough to buy a stock of good quality tea, along with business packaging, labels and some design work - and their very first stall was in front of Belfast City Hall at the Christmas market. They began selling tea from a stall at St George's Market and set up a website.
"There was a great camaraderie at St George's Market - the support was overwhelming. We used to barter for food as we were just scraping enough to pay one of our mortgages in the early days, but we ate very well because everybody in the market was very generous," Oscar says.
"In the beginning, it was a huge challenge, but it was also enormous fun. It was disruptive, a mini rebellion against the mediocre."
Their tea sold out at St George's Market every week and they found an early customer in Jim Beattie, who was just setting up the Coffee Yard in Holywood, a business that proved to be an immediate success.
"Everyone was looking to see what he was doing differently," Oscar says.
"We started getting bombarded with calls. After a year's trading, we had 30 customers around Belfast and we hadn't yet knocked on anybody's door."
At this point, with so many independent coffee shops buying their product, they scrapped their plans for a tea house and decided to go down the path of becoming wholesalers.
Much of the evolution of Suki was about challenging the way things were done, cutting out the brokers and getting tea directly from source, not to mention challenging the kind of tea that was being served up to cafe customers at the time.
They were at a food show in Dublin when they put a handwritten notice up on their stand that said: 'Would you serve instant coffee?'
"It challenged the industry and got people talking about it," Oscar says.
It was also at that show that they met the late David Williamson, the MD of coffee roaster Matthew Algie, the largest fair trade coffee supplier in the UK. Suki signed a distribution deal with the company to get their tea out to cafes all over the UK and Ireland.
Now Suki operates from a factory at the Ortus development on the peaceline between the Falls and the Shankill Roads, and sells into 17 countries worldwide, including Japan.
Oscar says one of the things the company is known for is the Suki teapot, underlining the importance of championing loose leaf hand-plucked Camellia sinensis.
The company was ahead of the trend towards championing origin and food stories.
Oscar reminisces about visiting small farmers in Nepal, who produce only 20 kilos a year - "I've never tasted anything like it".
But the big sellers are the famous Belfast Brew, the Earl Grey, the green tea and Apple Loves Mint.
"A lot of our teas are seasonal - there's always something for a different mood," he says.
Even four-year-old Roman has sampled some of the wares.
"I've made him some iced tea. He knows what I do, he asks about the tea factory and on occasion, he's been taken to visit. But he's too young to pack tea! At the moment, he wants to either be a stuntman or he wants to make tea. He makes a cup of tea for us a lot when he's playing," Oscar says.
"Actually, rooibos tea is a popular children's tea now, as it's caffeine free. It's a trend in the States as people move to healthier choices, but it hasn't quite made it over here yet."
Meanwhile, Suki are also growing their own tea bushes at a site in Portaferry, as the Ards Peninsula has a good microclimate for tea-growing. It used to be that junior staff members in the big tea companies would go to live on a tea plantation to learn what influences the quality of the tea.
"We can't go there, so we bring the tea to us," Oscar says.
"The yield will be small. This is a very long-term project and it's been pushed back, so we will probably see a cup of tea in 2021!"
Oscar says Suki's tea blenders take inspiration for flavours from all over the place.
"New flavour ideas don't always work out, but there's so much fun in the creative process. We travel to source our teas, so getting to experience different cultures always feeds that creativity, and we're always working to identify trends in other industries to inspire us."
They have already teamed up with Shortcross Gin to develop partnerships and the latest innovation - 15 years on from the launch of Suki - is a collaboration with Bushmills Irish Whiskey to introduce a limited edition Black Bush inspired loose leaf tea.
"There's a huge link between the tea and alcohol industries, which makes the collaboration with Bushmills Irish Whiskey the perfect fit for us. There's a real synergy between the arts of blending whiskey and tea," he says.
And Oscar's advice to anyone looking to follow in his footsteps: "Have a plan, a vision and the right attitude. Be open to opportunity at all times and build your support network around you. You can do anything, but not everything!"
Oscar Woolley is joining Bushmills to host a series of whiskey and tea blending masterclass events, Black Bush Blended, at The Menagerie, Belfast, on May 8 and 9. Attendees will enjoy a tea tasting session and the opportunity to create their own personalised tea blends. For more information and to register, visit blackbushstories.com