No one believes that Punjana's made here... but it's been in our family since 1896
From trailblazing TV adverts and IRA bombs to sustainable farming, the award-winning Belfast brew has come a long way. Cousins Ross and David, the third generation of Thompsons to run the firm, tell Una Brankin how a taste for quality tea has been in the blood for more than a century.
It's one of the most recognisable jingles in television history, straight from the cheery 1960s advertising style depicted in the American series inspired by the industry Mad Men.
Pick Punjana tea, pick Punjana tea,
Savour the flavour, the big tea flavour,
Pick Punjana Tea
The cheesy but memorable line, 'and tea-bags too-oooh' was incorporated later to the black and white cartoon ad, which aired on the first transmission of Ulster Television, back in 1959.
The iconic jingle, by former local ad man Rex McCaine, has been resurrected to celebrate the company's 120 years in business in Belfast - yes, Belfast.
Like many others, I had no idea that Punjana is blended in a factory close to the city centre, and owned locally by cousins Ross and David Thompson. Yet the company produces tea for over a third of the country's tea drinkers, equating to more than one million tea bags every day, in Northern Ireland alone.
The charismatic cousins are genuine tea enthusiasts and connoisseurs, who do all the tasting themselves for their variety of products, including Thompson Teas.
And their fussiness has paid off. In this year alone, the family-owned business amassed a record-breaking total of 23 star awards in the Great Taste Awards 2016, with Punjana, Northern Ireland's best-selling tea, and Thompson's Irish Breakfast tea-bags achieving top honours with the maximum three stars.
"No one believes that we're a Northern Ireland company, not international," says Ross, a tall, lean man, who resembles the actor Ian McIlhenny. "We only recently came out as the family behind Punjana - people wanted to know the provenance behind the brand. Everyone knows the jingle."
Belfast-born Ross is in awe of his father and uncle's courage in taking out that famous ad on the night of the launch of Ulster Television, and for their ability to have their business up and running again only eight weeks after an IRA bomb destroyed their original premises in Ann Street at the height of the Troubles, in 1975.
The father-of-two is in huge demand by the Women's Institute and various clubs for his tea talks. (He opts for one of his "endless" cups of Punjana, with semi-skimmed milk, when I visit his spacious office in the factory; I have Thompson's Green Tea with Lemon - they use the rind for enhanced flavour.)
"The ladies' clubs tend to want to know about how tea is produced and they love to learn about it," he says. "In the beginning, I found it a bit stressful to get up and talk in front of people I didn't know and I used slides. But they're so interested, it makes it easier. I've had to cut down on the talks - it was turning into a full-time job."
The slides include shots of the original red Punjana packaging, featuring a young, bobbed Una Stubbs in her modelling days, and a more recent Thompson Teas packet with an image of his late father holding a child - "he'd be embarrassed about that".
There's obviously not enough sunlight here to grow the camellia tea bush, which needs rainfall, too. The Thompsons source their tea from the massive seas of tea bushes on the 7000 ft slopes of the Assam Valley in India and eastern Kenya. The plants can grow up to 20 ft but are pruned back.
The lush tea gardens have hand-pickers rather than using shearing machines, which don't produce the same quality of leaves and threaten local employment. Ross and David are regular visitors to the gardens, which provide schooling and health facilities for their workers.
On a recent trip to India, a herd of wild elephants appeared on one of the plantations, nibbling at the shade trees that are planted to protect the tea bushes from the sun.
"We were spellbound - not scared at all," Ross smiles, pointing out the enormous creatures on the projection. "Aren't they beautiful? They come from the jungle to the watering hole there. We had to be careful though, as there was a young calf with them.
"The kids there are amazing - they smile at anything. They'll see me, this big tall white man and they might think, 'He looks nasty', but they look for a reason to be happy, when they've little to be happy about. They're full of joy. It does make you think about the difference in young ones here, with all their gadgets."
Ross and David's grandfather, former banker Robert Thompson, established the business in 1896, after falling in love with tea, and distributed to grocers on every street corner, who sold on quarts in brown paper bags.
His sons, James (Ross's father) and Tony (David's father), both of whom have now passed on, developed the brand and introduced tea-bags in the 1950s. It was Ross's beautiful mother Lillias who came up with the name Punjana after her husband James Thompson, when passing the Gillespie statue in Comber Square, Co Down, noticed an inscription relating to the Punjab.
James thought that this could be the basis for a great brand name, as India was considered the home of good quality tea. Lillias reckoned Punjana was a softer, more marketable name.
Following a brief stint in banking, Ross entered the family business at 24, after spending three weeks in India.
"I could hardly spell the word 'tea' at the time," he admits. "But I fell in love with India and the whole process. I drink Punjana all day. I save Darjeeling tea leaves - the Champagne of tea - which are more expensive, for special occasions.
"I don't like Earl Grey - the bergamot distorts the taste of the tea. "Fruit and herbal teas have become popular - ours have won 10 gold stars - but I prefer plain Punjana. I drink gallons of it."
I'd be awake all night if I drank that much tea and any decaffeinated brands I've tried so far (not including Thompson's) are vile. Ross works in his factory office five days a week. Don't his frequent cuppas affect his sleep?
"I can drink Punjana all day long - nothing stops me from sleeping," he says, chuffed. "Our decaffeinated tea is the best-selling decaff here but I stick to Punjana.
"It's very hard to make decaff taste exactly the same as regular tea, tea leaves don't like processing - they're just left to wither. We use sophisticated equipment from Switzerland to remove the caffeine. It's extracted by naturally occurring ethyl acetate (fruit sugars)."
An absolute perfectionist, Ross Thompson always heats the pot, the mug or cup, and even his spoon before pouring his tea, and never re-boils the kettle to make it, as the process oxidises the water and degrades the flavour.
"We have good soft water in Northern Ireland but purifiers help the flavour of tea," he remarks. "They take out any sediments.
"I put milk in after the tea because you can control it then. In the old days, it was put in first so not to crack fine bone china, but it's a matter of preference. Some say milk in first scalds it.
"And it doesn't matter about the shape of the bags - it's all about the tea leaves. Loose tea is no longer superior to tea bags, by the way - they've become so refined. Three stars for ours says it all."
As for the supposed weight loss properties of Pu-erh tea, Ross brands such claims as absolute nonsense.
"There are no calories in any tea but it is an aid to digestion," he explains. "Tea is astringent. It cleanses and it's an aid to digestion, whereas coffee is an oily bean.
A cup of tea is lovely with or after a fry but you wouldn't think of a cup of coffee, would you?
"Tea is a good form of hydration.
"Coffee has 80mg of caffeine; tea has 40mg. I don't drink that much coffee - I find it unsettling and I don't feel great after it, whereas tea suits my constitution very well.
Coffee can be very physically addictive. People crave a shot of it without realising it's a craving."
He quotes the famous diarist Samuel Pepys' belief that tea drinking leads to "a long and lusty life". A man of culture, he has a Mozart soundtrack on his slide presentation and is always on the hunt for the perfect wine.
His wine tasting is rather more refined than his regular tea tastings at the factory with his cousin David. Tea bushes grow new shoots every 10 to 14 days, so the Thompsons constantly have a whole new range of samples to taste, to know when it's right to pack.
"You have to horse it into you; slurp it very quickly to get the flavour, rather than gently sipping. We can be very noisy - your mother wouldn't approve!
"You have to develop a palate. David and I usually agree but we're not afraid to disagree - which makes the process more interesting. It keeps us competitive, to find the best. We're a wee bit fussy, I'm afraid.
"We can detect the slightest difference between gardens and the sunlight they receive. You can't eat or drink anything strong before tasting and you can't be a smoker. Even David's desperately strong aftershave would put me off."
The Thompsons range includes Titanic Tea, which also won three stars in the Great Taste awards. It is blended with a high percentage of Assam leaves to make it full-bodied, as they liked it back in 1912.
"We didn't want it to be a novelty - it wasn't a marketing stunt," Ross affirms.
"It was in honour of our grandfather, who could see the shipyard from his window. Tourists love it; it's an amazing success."
He is almost incredulous at his products' awards. Three stars is the highest achievement a product can win in the Great Taste awards and is normally reserved for exclusive and specialised products rather than an affordable everyday product. The recommended retail price for a standard packet of Punjana is £2.29.
With tea chests almost doubling in price last year, due to a slight reduction in the crop, how do the Thompsons keep costs down?
"With difficulty," he admits. "You don't always get what you pay for. We have to be prepared to pay more for quality and expect to make profit margins that are more modest.
"We take pride in the product - it has our signatures on the packets. We feel a responsibility so the soaring costs didn't affect our stance. It affected our bottom line significantly but you have to think long-term, in terms of growth."
He shows me a picture of a circle of tea leaves, one third Punjana and two-thirds made up of two other leading brands. Whereas the Punjana leaves are dark and refined, the others are full of tasteless flecks of yellow straw.
"We don't have an accountant telling us what to do, like some of the other big brands you see here," he says, telling me - off the record - who they are, to my shock.
"We're in charge of tasting personally and in control of the blending and quality. We did try selling Kit Kats attached to Punjana once and it was a disaster - they were both sealed but the tea ended up tasting like chocolate. Not good.
"It's crucial never to leave the packet open - it will absorb moisture from the kettle etcetera, and scents from other food stuffs.
"A caddy is very important to keep the tea as dry as possible."
In his spare time, this highly successful businessman loves escaping to Donegal with his family and friends. He enjoys many sports, from marathon running to golf, and is currently experimenting with kite flying, remote helicopters and fishing, as well as rekindling a fascination with motorcycles.
Ross's son and daughter, both university graduates, are pursuing other careers but he hopes they'll take up the reins of the family business one day.
"David and I are the third leg in this relay race," he concludes. "People do what they're interested in but I'd love to see them taking up the baton, one day."
To find out more, visit www.punjana.com or Facebook at The Official Punjana Tea.
A RICH, THIRST-QUENCHING HISTORY
The Thompson family founded their company in 1896, at a time when tea was delivered in chests to grocers’ shops using public transport.
The earliest packs of Punjana loose tea sold for just two shillings and six pence. Despite the rich history and strong family ties, the company has only added the family name to Punjana packaging in the last five years. Today, its 50 employees satisfy over a third of the region’s tea consumption, equating to more than 50,000 cups of Punjana tea an hour (day and night). 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 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. Thompson’s recent diversification into the luxury loose tea sector, serving a growing demand for special tea drinking occasions, was rewarded by a raft of awards for exotic infusions including Hedgerow Heaven, Scent of a Rose and Rhubarb Spritzer. All Thompson’s Family Teas are imported into the state-of-the-art blending and packing facility in Belfast, before being distributed to outlets across the province and beyond, to markets stretching from the United States to Australia.