Susie Walker-Munro tells Ewan Pate how an unusual diversification has helped put unused space on Kinnettles Estate, Forfar, Scotland, to good use.
Growing tea is not something normally associated with the east of Scotland, but pioneering producer Susie Walker-Munro is showing it can be a successful venture and the resulting brew can be rather special.
This is why her own Kinnettles Gold single estate black tea can fetch £2,500/kg retail and match the best from Assam and Sri Lanka.
It has not been an easy journey though, and it has taken Susie seven years of experimentation to reach the stage where she and the eight other growers in the Tea Gardens of Scotland (TGS) group are ready to produce commercial quantities albeit for a niche market.
The challenges of establishing tea gardens many thousands of miles north of the natural range of the tea bush have been agronomic and climatic.
Susie, whose husband Euan farms the Kinnettles Estate, Forfar, began growing tea in 2007.
The estate compromises a 600-hectare (1,500-acre) arable unit, including winter wheat, malting barley, oats, peas and oilseed rape. They are in the fourth year of developing a regenerative farming system to minimise tillage activity with the goal of eliminating it alongside enhancing soil biology.
But like many in the area, the estate had a Victorian walled garden.
These carefully sited south-facing enclosures had once been an asset for growing fruit and vegetables in season, but finding a productive use for them has proved difficult in recent decades.
Some have simply become derelict, while others have been used to grow Christmas trees or keep rarebreed livestock.
The Walker-Munros had tried several such ventures with mixed success. It was only in 2007, while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room reading an article on tea-growing, that Susie realised tea could be the answer.
The crop needs to be cosseted and sheltered and it is very suitable for small-scale production.
Susie says: “The article was about tea being grown in Tregothen, Cornwall, and I realised the pH, loamy soils and southerly exposure were all the same as at Kinnettles, so I decided tea growing would be an ideal way to diversify.”
Cuttings were sourced from Tregothen, but failed to thrive until Susie built a polytunnel to give them extra protection. The assamica bush, as grown in Sri Lanka, is too delicate for the Scottish climate, but the sinensis species grown in Darjeeling is suitable.
Susie travelled there in 2013 and learned much about growing tea and top-quality processing. She quickly discovered organic growing techniques were beneficial. In the best tea gardens, the weeds were not sprayed but cut off and mulched around the base of the bushes.
Quite remarkably, Susie also discovered she was not the first person in her family to take an interest in tea. It transpired that her great-great-great- grandfather, Charles Alexander Bruce, had been responsible for bringing the first Indian assamica tea to Britain.
The trade which he pioneered soon saw India exceeding China in tea exports.
It is unlikely Scottish tea production will ever reach the same scale, but Susie believes its value will come from producing small quantities of the highest quality. Like fine wines, tea acquires its character from the land and climate in which it is grown.
The caffeine and other compounds which give tea its flavour are most concentrated in the growing tips of the plants and the growers of premium teas only harvest the tips and the top two leaves.
This makes for a tiny harvest compared to large-scale commercial harvesting but, combined with careful drying and hand rolling, it does create a wonderful tea.
Susie’s original garden has been producing tea since 2015 and her Kinnettles Gold Brand is establishing a foothold in the market.
It is retailed through Pekoe Tea in Edinburgh in limited edition 20g tins. At £50 per tin, it is far from a cheap cuppa, but it is a treat.
A small quantity can also go a long way because loose leaf black tea can be infused several times during a sitting, rather than just once, as with tea bags. The tea planted in 2016 in her walled garden will be coming into production next year.
Susie’s early experience in establishing her Kinnettles Gold garden proved using plant cuttings was not the most reliable or quickest establishment method.
In 2016 she founded Tea Gardens of Scotland group (TGS) with the goal of growing tea from seed, picking varieties selected for cold tolerance and sourced from Georgia and Nepal. These seeds were propagated in a local greenhouse and planted in 2017.
Now they are established in walled gardens and suitable locations outside.
She says: “They look exciting and although they won’t be in full production until 2022, they could last for anything from 50 to 120 years.
“People have to be clear about the risks and the costs of establishment, though. The Walker-Munro Farms arable business has subbed the enterprise here and it would be difficult without backing of some kind.
“We have been fortunate to have had Leader funding. It has been vital in covering 50 per cent of our costs and enabled us to employ a consultant in what is really a fledgling industry.”
Fledgling it may be, but it could be a sustainable niche diversification for those with a suitable site. It could also offer seasonal employment opportunities.
Each garden must be harvested or plucked and tea bushes planted outside are plucked from June to the end of August. Polytunnels offer some season extension, with plucking from April to October.
It needs dedication too. It is not unusual for Susie to be up at 3am to check on the post- harvest drying process. Drying the leaves down gently is absolutely critical for hand rolling the perfect batch.
Food fraud is unfortunately an all too common threat for specialist food and drink producers.
“Our small group of artisan tea producers in Scotland have had to face food fraud problems of our own,” says Susie.
“Scottish tea is grown on a small scale. It is expensive to produce and commands a high price but it is not being properly protected by labelling.
“This has been exploited and we have discovered some product labelled as ‘Scottish Grown Tea’ was imported. Chancers claiming to be Scottish tea growers can undersell as they have no growing, plucking or production costs and against such competition, genuine artisan producers are in danger of going bust.”
Help is at hand though thanks to Food Standards Scotland and Dr David Burselm of Aberdeen University’s School of Biological Studies. Using ionomics, a multi-element analysis technique, he has tested 100 Scottish-grown tea samples.
The results show these teas have a distinct chemical fingerprint different from those grown elsewhere.
“What we need now in Scotland are clearer labelling rules, more energetic enforcement and stiff penalties for those who mislead customers,” says Susie.