2014 White, green, and black teas grown in Scotland and cupped at Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Kentucky.
Would you be surprised to learn that a Scottish tea garden produced a ton of tea last year? I’ve been to Scotland many times and I assure you the climate is not that of Sri Lanka! Somehow, a tea garden nestled in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands in Perthshire has become the largest of its kind in the UK.
The latest news is that the owners have just signed on with Fortnum & Mason who will sell their tea at the not-so-wee price of $300 per quarter-pound tin. That’s $15 per cup! Tam O’Braan is the agri-brains behind this new scheme to improve upon the world’s favorite beverage. He called me recently to explain his tea husbandry techniques.
This unusual agribusiness is the brainchild of Jamie Russell, Derek Walker, and Tam O’Braan, who set up The Wee Tea Company after meeting in a pop-up shop in Dunfermline. Last August, they completed their final flush and the “plantation” has yielded 1,100 kg this year. These tea pioneers have also propagated 20,000 new tea bushes for 2015.
A major part of their innovative growing method for this cold climate involves stripping back 80% of the leaves from their Camellia sinensis plants. (Traditional plucking calls for just the top two leaves and bud.)
The slender bushes are then enclosed by a polymer sleeve. Similar to the way sunglasses filter UV rays, these open-ended tree guards hold back 99% of the light spectrum. This retards photosynthesis and forces the bush to reach for the sun as new leaves appear. This also makes a very light leaf with less chlorophyll. The leaf stripping is repeated every six weeks throughout the growing season.s we need to allow our Camellia sinensis time to re-establish a chemical equalibrium, if we are to repeat this year-on-year.
The difference this technique makes to the new growth of our young plantation, as opposed to regular yields, is a fourfold benefit in the most tender leaves to make the finest teas.
Polymer sleeves keep the plants warm and protected from UV rays. 80% of the leaves are stripped every six weeks.
“By using degradable polymers around the plant, we reflect the sun’s own goodness upwards, doubling the effect of Scottish sunshine but also reducing the shade these critters prefer,” says Derek. “The same degradable membrane traps the heat already within our soil and heightens humidity while reducing the need for any secondary watering.”
All this effort seems likea lot of work for such a small yield.But like the single-malt whiskeys distilled up the road, the rarity of a commodity can translate into higher profits. A tea that would normally fetch $9 a kilogram may eventually go for $90 or more.
In southwest England, this hyper-retailing model has already been successful in Cornwall where Tregothnan Tea Garden has been growing a small plot of tea for a dozen years, and selling it through retailers such as Harrods—at very high prices I might add!
These Wee Tea Garden Scotch teas are not yet available to the public but I had the opportunity—thanks to Jane Pettigrew—to taste samples of their 2014 white, green, and black production.
Scottish green tea from the Wee Tea Company. Photo by Bruce Richardson.
I was most intrigued by their green tea. It’s a long wiry leaf (and stem) that has been pan-fired in tiny batches. The resulting liquor is silky smooth, bright, and somewhat vegetative. It’s certainly unlike any green tea now on the market. I suspect tea customers would pay a premium for this tea because of the fascinating appearance of the dry leaf alone, and the fact that it is made is such small amounts. This article was updated in 2019 following the discovery that O’Braan was probably blending his Scottish grown tea with tea from another country. Read the update…
The Scots celebrated their newly-found tea independence by hosting their first national tea festival in August 2014. And they have quite a bit of tea tradition to motivate their celebration. Some of the biggest names in tea history hailed from their native land: Robert Fortune, Thomas Lipton, James Taylor, and Kate Cranston.
It looks as though the Wee Tea Company has channeled a bit of Lipton’s salesmanship to generate a wee buzz in the world of tea – for those who can afford it.