Oscar Woolley  is passionate about tea

Oscar Woolley is passionate about teaBushmills

With a reputation for the best ethically-sourced loose leaf teas and intriguing blends, Suki Tea is a champion of the quality brew. We caught up with co-founder Oscar Woolley to discover more.

Based in Belfast, Suki Tea has been specialising in the perfect brews for almost fifteen years. Founders Oscar Woolley and Anne Irwin started with a small stand at a Belfast farmers’ market in 2005. They then hit the festival circuit with their Tea & Toast set up, garnering a loyal fanbase on their way. The brand has grown ever since and now has 50 teas in its portfolio.

Recently Suki Tea teamed up with Bushmills whiskey for the Black Bush Blended campaign. Oscar led a series of whiskey and tea blending masterclass events in Dublin, Galway and Belfast.

Food&Wine editor Dee Laffan hosted the Dublin event and chatted to Oscar about the collaboration, inspiration, and the world of loose leaf tea.

How did the Bushmills collaboration come about?

Bushmills approached us and it was a no brainer. Annie [Irwin] and I had been talking to the industry about the crossover between tea and alcohol. It’s a kind of natural progression, it’s what’s going on in the industry anyway, so we jumped at the chance. This sort of thing takes us away from the day-to-day and it’s exciting, collaborative, and fun.

How did you create the tea blend?

The brief was essentially quite broad so it could have been something to mix with the tea but I thought it would better to create something that was a homage to the flavour profile. I knew Blackbush from drinking it anyway, so it’s a flavour I’m familiar with. You almost sketch ideas out by tasting things that you might familiar with and that really comes with years of tasting and building up knowledge. You’ve got this library of taste profiles and when you’re creating a new combination you go back to that memory bank and start experimenting. Before you even start mixing anything you have to go with what your instincts tell you.

How would you describe the Bushmills blend?

My idea was ‘Right, what are the key elements of this?’ and apple fruit cake came through. What I wanted to do was have something to carry out the flavour all the way through. I knew rooibos would work, not just for the colour but the slight woodiness that it has. That wasn’t going to be enough of a base though, I wanted something with heart. Blackbush has a depth that black tea - Assam - would bring in. So we’ve got this base of woody, almost creamy rooibos with more body and a maltiness with the black tea. Then we wanted to add something aromatic so there’s warm spices of fruit cake in there. We used fig oil to mimic the booziness and that gave it a fruitiness, almost raisin, flavour. All of that combined just gave it a smooth, silky character.

What are your top tips for choosing or serving tea?

  • Tea is great because you’ve got so much choice. Whatever mood you’re in, you’ve got something for every occasion. Pick a brand that you like and stock up.
  • When it comes to blending, you have to be careful with green or white tea. Boiling water for most is okay but green and white teas have never been subjected to high heat in the process of creating the tea. If you put boiling water on that the first thing that’s released is all the metallic starchy stuff. I think a lot of people have been put off green tea because of it - and green tea is actually one of the most refreshing teas if you get it right.
  • Always go for loose leaf tea. You’re going to get a much rounder, deeper flavour.
  • When it comes to brewing, tea is extremely subjective and it's very much a case of each to their own. Tea bags are designed for convenience and to give everything it’s got in the average 30-second 'stir, stir, squeeze’ that people can be bothered with. You can’t rush loose leaf tea in any way. You're going to have to wait, but it's only four minutes. We have a Suki Tea app and it has all our 50 teas on there. You can set your timer for each tea and when you go back it will remember it. 
  • Milk goes in last in black tea, always.