English author Henry Fielding is known in tea circles for his quote “Tea and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea”.

But a simmering Scottish scandal has left a bitter taste in the mouths of tea drinkers who paid inflated prices for teas touted by a self-proclaimed “Mr. Tea” as the “world’s best”.

Extravagant claims by the owner of Scotland’s Wee Tea Plantation resulted in a tempest in a teapot last week as Food Standards Scotland (FCC), the country’s food watchdog, debunked the brand’s claims of prestigious international awards.

The FCC began looking into allegations that some of the firm’s “award-winning” Dalreoch Estate tea – priced at £35 for 15g – was not even grown in Scotland.

Tam O’Braan (left), the owner/grower behind the project, took over his Perthshire farm in 2011, reportedly propagating 14,000 plants by November 2014 from an original three. He boasted that his Wee Tea Plantation had been awarded gold at the prestigious Salon de Thé awards in Paris and proudly named himself “Mr. Tea” after announcing the prize.

However, my French friend Barbara Dufrêne, who formerly ran the European Tea Committee, cast doubt on O’Braan’s claims. “Several people have asked me about this and apparently this does not exist,” she said.

There’s a question over whether it’s possible to have produced the amount of tea sold as Scottish from the plants grown in Scotland’s Wee Tea Plantation.
A source told Dawn Thompson, writer for The Scottish Mail: “There’s a question over whether it’s possible to have produced the amount of tea sold as Scottish from the plants grown in Scotland. Food Standards is investigating whether the tea has been described as Scottish when it is not, and whether people have been told awards were won that don’t exist.”

After claiming to have won the non-existent Paris prize in 2015, O’Braan received orders for a smoked white tea from customers including Edinburgh’s five-star Balmoral hotel and the Dorchester hotel in London’s Mayfair. Even the BBC picked up the incredible story.

I first heard from O’Braan in October 2014 when he phoned me to inquire about channels to expand his brand abroad. He boasted that he was an agronomist who had grown plants in extreme conditions around the world and that he had devised a scheme to produce tea in the cold climate of Scotland by growing plants in polymer sleeves.  He sent samples, which we cupped at Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, and I wrote a blog about his venture.

I put him in contact with Kevin Gascoyne at Montreal’s Camellia Sinensis. Kevin was a bit more skeptical of the scheme, as was Jane Pettigrew in London – although Jane and I included a description of the teas in our new edition of The New Tea Companion.

Scottish actor Alan Cummings (left) joins Wee Tea’s Jamie Russell and Scotland’ First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for brand launch at The Lowell in Manhattan in June 2015. The hotel has since switched to the French brand Dammann Frères.
In June 2015, I received a press announcement from O’Braan with news of his tea launch at the Lowell Hotel in New York City. The Scottish actor Alan Cummings and the first minister of Scotland were present for the posh event. A few days later, I received samples of the teas which had premiered in New York. Presentation cases of the “rare teas” were also sent to the Obama White House.

 
By November of that year, O’Braan’s teas were for sale – at exorbitant prices – at Fortnum & Mason. He told me that Harrods also wanted the brand but he didn’t have enough stock to supply both as he could only produce 2000 pounds annually from his garden. Like the Pied Piper, he began to build an association of tea growers in Scotland who might supply the ever-growing demand for Scottish tea. 

 
Following the launch of these recent investigations, all of Wee Tea Plantation’s prestigious retailers ceased carrying his tea brand and the website weeteaplantation.com has been shut down.

 
Several Scottish newspapers have attempted to contact O’Braan but he is not to be found. A woman at the property claimed he had rented an outbuilding from her but had left months previously. She told The Scottish Mail that she believed Mr. O’Braan had moved back to Ireland. 

 
Be skeptical if you receive a call from a man selling Irish-grown tea, especially if he introduces himself as “Mr. Tea”.


**This article has been updated with new information

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson and London’s Jane Pettigrew are the authors of The New Tea Companion, Third Edition.

 

Leave a Reply