Tam O’Braan, Scottish Tea Grower

Tam O’Braan’s tall tale of Scottish-grown tea continues to steep in the pages of the British press. Dawn Thompson, writer for The Sottish Mail on Sunday reports this week that Aberdeen scientists have proven that the Scottish Dalreoch White Tea O’Braan sold to Fortnum & Mason and other posh merchants – retailing at $45 per 8-gram tin – had not been grown in Scotland.

My original article on Tea & Scandal in Scotland appeared on April 30.

Professor David Burslem, a plant science expert at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences, led the research team. Their laboratory analyzed 105 teas from Scotland and abroad using ionomics, which can differentiate between teas grown in different countries and even within the same country.

Every tea has a unique chemical footprint.

The study found: ‘Authentic Scottish teas are chemically distinct from those sourced from overseas. Dalreoch teas are distinct from authentic Scottish tea but indistinguishable from any tea samples sourced from overseas.’

The professor went on to say ‘the Dalreoch teas appear more similar chemically to teas from overseas than authentic Scottish grown teas. I am confident the Dalreoch teas we analyzed are not 100 per cent Scottish.’

The article also reported that O’Braan purchased over 20,000 tea plants in recent years from an Italian tea grower who asked not to be named.

Some readers might jump to the conclusion that the deception was using Italian plants to grow tea in Scotland. Not so. The tea profession would say that once the plants are in the ground, they are indeed Scottish.

Purchasing Italian stock to grow Scottish tea is no sin because the importation of tea plants has been a common practice in the tea industry since the time of Robert Fortune. For instance, Japanese tea plants are found in gardens on the Big Island of Hawaii and both Chinese and Assam stock fill the mountain tea farms of Taiwan.

Several of us in the tea industry always suspected that O’Braan’s tiny amount of manufactured teas were being blended with teas grown elsewhere – perhaps Sri Lanka. We faulted him for selling blended teas as purely Scottish teas. That would be misleading the customer at a high cost.

Sadly, the lasting effects from this scandal have spilled over to taint the credibility of truthful Scottish tea growers. Susie Walker-Munro, the founder of growers’ group Tea Gardens of Scotland, which part-funded the study, said consumers were willing to pay more for high-quality tea.

She said: ‘This situation has left itself open to abuse, as we can see.

‘Passing off tea as Scottish is stealing from those who are doing this properly. While genuine growers are so busy planting, growing and tending their tea, there is little time for building their story.

‘But if you are putting a tea from overseas in the package with none of the work involved in growing it, then there is plenty of time to dream up fake awards, publicize and profit from passing off tea that is not Scottish.

‘Such despicable behavior discredits Scottish tea and this ruins livelihoods and hampers rural regeneration. One bad apple can ruin it for everyone.

‘There needs to be energetic enforcement against passing off a product as genuinely Scottish when it is not and stiff penalties for abusing the public’s trust.’

The Scottish Mail on Sunday has attempted to contact O’Braan for comment.

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson and Jane Pettigrew are the authors of The New Tea Companion, A Guide to Teas Throughout the World. 3rd edition from Benjamin Press.

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