In 2015, a tea from Scotland triumphed at the Salon du Thé in Paris. The tea world was dumbfounded. Grown in the cold? In the rain? In the fog? Impossible! But Tam O’Braan knows better.
It’s madness, they told him. You’re crazy. You’re making a fool of yourself. And it was then that he knew he wanted to risk it. He wanted to show that it could be done and prove them all wrong, all those armchair gainsayers, shooting their mouths off! They knew nothing of the ground he trod every day. Did they know the wind the way he knew it? The rain was his friend. And if he should fail, well, so be it. Then the critics, his neighbors, the so-called “experts,” would have had their fun. Bloody hell!
Tam O’Braan throws a log onto the fire with serious mien. There’s no smile inside the beard when he thinks back to the early days. He knows what a close thing it often was and still is. Each winter has the power to shatter his dream. Sparks spit from the fire. A thick mist descends like a white blanket over the hills outside the shed. We are in Perthshire, in Scotland, in den Highlands, between Dunkeld and Amulree, one hour north of Edinburgh. Braveheart, the legendary William Wallace, once made a halt here with his followers. This is where the Macbeth drama was set, where the witches prophesied to the king that he had nothing to fear unless Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane. And it is here that O’Braan has been planting his tea since 2010. And someday, it could also become a Scottish legend, but for now, it’s a revolution. Tea is grown in China, and in India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. These countries are the world’s largest producers. They are hot countries. But Scotland? The very thought seemed so absurd that no one ever considered it. Every day, 165 million cups of tea are drunk in Great Britain, but the leaves always came from the Far East. Then came O’Braan.
He stomps over to the workbench and throws a handful of leaves into cups, first flush leaves, the first harvest of the year – white tea, smoked over wood. The black-green-brownish crumbs squirm in the water. Steam clouds the windows. Not yet, growls O’Braan, when our impatience urges us to drink. The tea has to draw. It wasn’t easy locating Dalreoch Farm. Perthshire is large, with torrential rivers, dark hills, and a few buildings seemingly strewn across the landscape. O’Braan wants to be out of sight; he keeps himself to himself. Down on the road, there’s just an old sign, twisting in the wind. The neighbors who live at the front point out the gravel path leading past their farmstead. The tea maker? Along there! Don’t expect too much. He’s crazy! Then they shut the door. O’Braan swears when he hears about this. He doesn’t like his neighbors, and his neighbors don’t like him. In Perthshire, people either keep sheep, distill whisky or are unemployed. Plant tea and you arouse suspicion.
Did I know it would work? No! We took the risk and are now reaping the rewards
O’Braan used to be soldier, then he worked as a chef, and he also started studying but broke it off again. He even tried his hand on Wall Street for a time. An extensive traveler and a doer, he’s the kind of person who’s always on the lookout for something new. His wife made him promise to return to Scotland if she became pregnant. They met at university. Every day, when her seminar ended, he would follow her, and every day she went to the same shop. One day, O’Braan finally screwed up the courage to go inside – it was a tearoom. When their first child came along, she reminded him of his promise to put down roots. And how do you put down roots? Exactly. You sow seeds.
He started out with 2000 plants seven years ago and brought in a four-kilo harvest. That was not very much. O’Braan had sown poor seeds, too many of them and all too closely together. He was hoping for a quick return. But camellia sinensis is a diva, and she can tell when you’re trying to put one over on her. She doesn’t bestow her charms easily. You have to fight for her fruits, beseech and woo her. That’s something O’Braan has learned. He points to the cups. We can taste it now. This is not just any tea, no, it’s the farm’s premium product: Dalreoch Single Esta te Scottish Smoked White; 100 grams fetch 230 pounds. In 2015, it won him gold at the Salon du Thé in Paris. The tea world was bowled over – an absolute sensation. One of the best teas in the world, grown in Scotch mist? He asks can we taste it? Slurp, gargle, swallow. Yes, we can taste it.
The tea flings itself into your mouth and there’s a hint of, what is it, peach, nut? Then the smoke comes through, the flame, and you can taste the earth, the wind, the Highlands. It’s more of a whisky experience really, an explosion on the palate, in your nose. O’Braan grins – for the first time. “It’s like magic,” he growls. They dry the leaves down to a humidity of three percent. Three! He blasts out the number again. It’s important to him. At four percent, the tea would be too sweet, but at two percent, it would taste too sharp. Tea growing is alchemy.
While it involves a few certainties, between them, the scope for interpretation is enormous. The higher the altitude where a tea plant puts down roots, the slower its growth. Less speed, more flavor. But so much can happen before, during and afterwards! Tea doesn’t like too much rain, but also not too little. Sunlight is good provided the plants don’t scorch. What works in Darjeeling can fail miserably in Assam. Once the leaves have been picked, the tea master takes over. He decides how long the wilting, rolling and oxidation processes should take. If a tea is left to breathe for ten minutes longer than planned, half the harvest can be ruined. You have to picture the refinement of the leaves as a subtle signature. The master makes his mark on the tea – and woe betide him if he makes a slip! Then his signature becomes illegible, his work spoiled. Tea growing is a laborious business even in regions considered ideal for it. But in Scotland, it’s really absurd. Reasons to fail are even more numerous here. So why?
Observe O’Braan as he moves among his tea plants and you will soon see that they mean more to him that just a job or money. It’s more of a vocation, a devotion. Defiance and pioneering spirit drive him on to succeed where success is deemed impossible. You can see it, when he handles the plants with his assistant, Chris, turning them, layering them, sniffing them. There are darlings and troublemakers, too. Some offshoots have suffered in the cold, but the two men can’t bring themselves to part with them just yet. They talk to their plants, play them music, and every year they hope they will be able to bring as many of them through as possible. Tea is drama. Shakespeare. Death and life.
Once, in 2012, they almost gave up. A hard winter swept across Perthshire. Minus eleven degrees. Through the window, O’Braan watched the wind and the rain, and saw how his plants were tortured, how they died. He could do nothing for them. He slept in the hut and buried himself in his rage. It was a tough time for the family, too. That’s it, he thought, they won’t recover. Then one day – it was already spring – Chris called to him from the garden. “Tam! Come here! Take a look at this!” New plants were peeping out from the earth. They had survived. O’Braan and Chris, both of them big, burly, bearded guys, took each other’s hands and danced like children through the tea garden.
Today, O’Braan has 14 000 plants under cover and another 8000 beneath the open sky. He now harvests more than a ton of leaves per year, and that’s more than the small farmstead can process. So now they are converting the barns into a factory. The aim is for Scottish tea to lose its eccentric image and gain brand status. The tea is distributed by the Wee Tea Company, which also holds an interest in the farm. And O’Braan is busy gathering more tea growers around him – and each new admission to the Tea Association must grow a different variety. O’Braan has a vision: 28 tea gardens scattered all over Scotland – because there were once 28 Scottish-run tea gardens in Darjeeling. O’Braan comes back to this story time and again. His source of reference is Robert Fortune (1812–1880), a Scottish botanist and explorer, and the zero point for the tea and what they are doing here. Fortune traveled Asia in the 19th century and collected plants for the Royal Horticultural Society and the British East India Company. He smuggled the tea plant out of China and into India, thereby preparing the ground for large-scale tea production. Fortune, globetrotter and the Empire’s thief, is almost forgotten today. But O’Braan remembers him, and rallies his fellow Scots with the call : “It all began with a Scotsman! We’re bringing the tea back home.”
To find out how far the “Scottish tea revolution” – as O’Braan calls his movement – has advanced, you just have to climb into your car and head northwest as far as Dalguise. Here, 500 tea plants cling stubbornly to life on a steep slope. Half a hectare of gleaming green, plastic tunnels to ward off the cold and fencing to keep out the deer. The sheep bleat as though they, too, just don’t get the point of it all: of tea in and from Scotland. This plantation belongs to Richard Ross. He was the second. He had heard a BBC feature on O’Braan on his car radio and weeks later, mustered the courage to visit the pioneer. O’Braan asked him all kinds of questions, quizzed him, and in the end, Ross went away with his tea seeds. He had passed the test, proved himself worthy. As he says, “Only very few tea drinkers know how to make tea. They just plonk a teabag in a cup, pour on water, and think that’s how it should be done. But it isn’t. It’s a sin.” He sprinkles some first flush green tea into a glass and pours on water – warm, not boiling, because boiling water would scald the tender leaves. He waits. The farm used to belong to his uncle, then Ross took over the land. He has sheds, stables and a millstone here. Everything is just the way it used to be – except for the tea, which is new.
Richard Ross is dressed in jacket and shirt. He looks like Phil Collins and in his day job, he writes about red wine for online platforms. But then Ross shows us his hands. They are bloody, scarred, in tatters – picker’s hands, farmer’s hands, tea hands. And his tea tastes as though it has been growing here for 200 years and not just two. Ross takes an old book off the shelf, Tea Planting in Ceylon. Some black-and-white photos tumble out. They are of his grandfather, who had a tea factory built in India back when Great Britain was still an empire. Today, the grandson is carrying on the family tradition in his native country. When O’Braan started growing tea, there was no one for him to ask what to do. Everyone who came after him, including Ross, had O’Braan to ask. Today, there’s a tea garden on the Isle of Mull in the north, too, as well as one in the Lowlands in the west and one in the south. Little by little, Tam O’Braan’s vision is taking shape: Scotland is becoming a tea country.
There are only two varieties of tea, but 3000 different kinds of tea. That’s the fascinating thing!
At the end of this story, we are sitting in the Palm Court of the Balmoral Hotel, an octagon of floral stucco and pillars, Edinburgh’s most prestigious address. The concierge snaps his heels in servile salute. This is where O’Braan’s harvest winds up, where his Smoked White is on the afternoon tea menu. Here two very different worlds are brought together: On the one hand, the affluent upper class, jewel-bedecked ladies and besuited gentlemen; on the other, Perthshire, gray gumboot country, men with dirt under their fingernails. The Liz Hurley anecdote O’Braan told us springs to mind. Actor Hurley was drinking Smoked White in the Dorchester in London, another luxury hotel supplied by Dalreoch, and twittered about it. In his hut, O’Braan read the post and could hardly believe his eyes. Liz Hurley? Really? He answers, saying that the tea she’s drinking is his. Liz asks whether he would be so kind as to show her the tea garden he has planted on the roof of the Dorchester. And so Tam O’Braan, the tea grower from the Highlands, catches a train to London, knocks on the door of her Dorchester suite and ends up walking over the rooftops of London with Liz Hurley. The man in whom no one had any faith had made it right to the top.