Brewhaha! Company faces probe over claims it sold ‘fake’ Scottish tea
IT was an astonishing claim that had tea-drinkers spluttering into their cups.
Farmer Tam O’Braan announced he had established a tea plantation in Perthshire – and boasted that his gourmet brew had won an award for ‘best tea in the world’.
But Mr O’Braan and his Wee Tea Plantation company are now being investigated by Scotland’s official food watchdog over claims some of the tea was not grown in Scotland – and did not win such a prize.
The 49-year-old caused a stir when he declared his Dalreoch Estate smoked white tea – costing £35 for 15g (half an ounce) – had been named ‘best in the world’.
He received orders from customers including Edinburgh’s five-star Balmoral hotel, the Dorchester hotel in London’s Mayfair and luxury store Fortnum & Mason.
At the time, the Wee Tea Plantation founder, known in Companies House records as plain Thomas O’Brien, said: ‘I suppose you could call me Mr Tea after winning such a major award. I’m proud to say our tea is the best in the world.’
But four years on, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) is investigating allegations that the ‘awards’ do not exist, while his tea is no longer sold by the Balmoral, the Dorchester or
‘Questions over whether the awards exist’
Fortnum & Mason. FSS said that ‘for legal reasons, FSS cannot discuss any matter that could be subject to an investigation’.
But a well-informed source confirmed that Mr O’Braan was at the centre of an ongoing probe.
The source 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.
‘FSS is investigating whether tea has been described as Scottish when it is not, and whether people have been told awards were won that don’t exist.’
In 2015 the tea allegedly won Gold at the prestigious Salon de Thé awards in Paris and Mr O’Braan claimed he had previously received a silver award from the Tea Exchange in London, reportedly ‘the UK tea grading body’.
But France-based independent tea expert Barbara Dufrêne, who formerly ran the European Tea Committee, said: ‘Several people have asked me about this and apparently this does not exist.
‘I haven’t been able to find any proof of this award and nobody has ever heard about it.. Apparently this is auto-proclaimed.’
Jane Pettigrew, who has worked in the tea industry for more than 30 years, has written 16 books and received the British Empire Medal for services to tea, said there was no UK tea grading authority. She added: ‘Nobody here in this country has ever found anything about it.’
Mr O’Braan, known as ‘Tetley Tam’, took over his Perthshire farm in 2011, reportedly propagating 14,000 plants by November 2014 from an original three.
A colourful character, he told interviewers he was once bitten by a deadly snake in Brazil and had spent four years living in a canoe in the Amazon.
In September 2017, the Balmoral hotel announced the world’s first ‘full Scottish tea menu’. It said: ‘Having launched the very first Scottish tea with The Balmoral in 2014, The Wee Tea Plantation owner, Tam O’Braan, has spent the last three years working with other garden owners to provide the hotel with a tea menu made up of Scottish-grown tea.’
But the hotel has recently taken this off the menu. A spokesman said: ‘The Balmoral aims to serve the highest quality of produce to our guests. We do not serve any tea from the Wee Tea Plantation.’
Fortnum & Mason did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr O’Braan helped the Dorchester to establish a rooftop tea garden and his brew featured on the afternoon tea menu. But a spokesman said the garden was ‘no longer there’ and Dalreoch tea was no longer served.
Mr O’Braan also founded the Scottish Tea Growers’ Association, which no longer exists. Tea Scotland, a group of independent growers which succeeded it, transformed its constitution and severed all ties with him.
Chairman Richard Ross said: ‘We would be pleased to support investigations into anyone suspected of damaging the reputation of Scottish-grown tea.’
Mr O’Braan could not be contacted at the house in Amulree, Perthshire, where his tea was said to have been grown.
A woman there claimed he had rented an outbuilding from her, but had left months earlier.
She said: ‘I think he has gone to Ireland.’
‘Suspected of damaging reputation of Scots tea’
UPPER-CLASS CUPPA: But Balmoral hotel no longer sells tea grown by Mr O’Braan, above, nor does the Dorchester, below
DOWN TO A TEA: Tam O’Braan checking his tea plants at the Dalreoch Estate in Perthshire