The Porter Hill Tea Company: Inside the treasure trove of tea based at a historic Yorkshire arcade
It is a place steeped in tradition and where the kettle is always on. Within seconds of stepping foot over the threshold talk turns swiftly to all things tea. Shelves of glass jars, illuminated by elegant string lights, contain a selection of some of the natural dried ingredients of the 100 teas stocked at The Porter Hill Tea Company.
Launched in December 2022, the business occupies a unit within Huddersfield’s The Byram Arcade. Dating back to 1881 the three-storey building’s original ironwork; wood floors and colourful period floor tiles are reminders of its Victorian elegance.
Yet, for all its tradition, it is fascinating to think this building didn’t exist when tea originally came to Britain from China during the mid-17th century. Originally a drink for the well-to-do, tea was a precious commodity stored and secured in ornately carved and decorated caddies.
The importation of the different types and grades gradually opened up the mass market, and led to Britain becoming one of the largest tea drinking nations. Millions of cups are consumed in the UK every day and, despite tough competition from the coffee shop dominance, tea continues to be Britain’s best-loved brew – just ask Matt Porter, co-founder of The Porter Hill Tea Company.
“I have always liked a milky sugary cup of anything, but the first time I drank tea I was 24 and travelling around East Asia. I ended up in Malaysia and was trying to get away from the tourist destinations. I met a local guy who was from Kuala Lumpur, he was there on holiday to the Cameron Highlands which was Malaysia’s tea plantations.
“At 24 I had no interest in it and no knowledge about it, but this incredibly nice guy went and sourced a safety helmet for me and I rode on the back of his bike touring tea estates and drinking it. I found what I was looking for in the Cameron Highlands; real people; real culture and tasting what was made there. The tea was stunning, like nothing I had ever tasted. It was the first time I thought there is a real product here.
“The Cameron Highlands has all different forests and mountains. We were riding through clouds the fog was so thick.”
Tasting teas at the side of the road made by local families are among the many memories Matt recalls from the trip he took 12 years ago.
“I came back to the UK and had a decade long career in local authority children’s services in Leeds working with children with disabilities in children’s homes,” says Matt. “I had a career, I was really proud to do what I did.” But memories of the tea tasting tours, the stunning vistas and the families he met along the way never left him.
It was following a routine operation on a fractured jaw in 2017 – and the Covid lockdowns - that prompted Matt to put life into perspective.
“We were separated from our families and friends; there was a lot of loss, of times passed and you are apart from people. Life was passing me by and I thought if I am going to do something I want to do something that fulfils me, that makes me happy. I thought it is time to work for myself. I booked a flight to Sri Lanka, hired a motorbike and rode around tea estates and I learned as much as I could. I had a couple of estates in mind that I had read a lot about. Sri Lanka is such a beautiful country with some amazing people. After three weeks there I came back and I don’t think I have stopped since. I think when you get captured by something it’s not work anymore.”
Living in Huddersfield, Matt knew the Byram Arcade provided the perfect opportunity to bring the joy of tea home. He set up the shop with his co-founder Tim Hill whose surname remains part of the brand name, but Matt takes care of the day to day running of the shop. A huge map hangs above a sofa in Matt’s cosy shop and plots out the tea plantations around the world giving customers an indication of the scale of the teas stocked in the shop. Africa; India; Sri Lanka; China and Japan are just a selection.
Matt explains buying tea from wholesalers ensures it is ethically sourced. “We started with 40 teas. We now buy in about 60 to 70 teas and we blend 20 to 30. We want it to be like a sweet shop so people tell us what they want.”
Blending is about experimenting with different tea flavours and seeing which work together. Inspiration can also be found from tea forums. Raspberry leaf mixed with hibiscus and rose petals can help women in labour and is said to be beneficial for menstrual health.
According to Matt green tea contains the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate which can boost Metabolism. He says it has also been scientifically proven to facilitate in weight loss.
‘Weavers Blend,’ is a smoky infused tea The Porter Hill Tea Company created for Golcar Textile Museum to reflect Huddersfield’s textile industry.
Matt’s favourite tea is Lapsang souchong. “It is a pine smoked tea, really strong, really smoky. The vast majority of all tea we drink, be it black, green, oolong, white comes from the same plant, Camilla Sinensis,” explains Matt. “The best tip I can offer anyone getting into tea is the general rule of the lighter the leaf the cooler the water.” Teapots and infusers are some of the accessories The Porter Hill Tea Company stock, along with Tea Kits and non-woven home compostable teabags. There is an ethos here that tea drinking shouldn’t cost the earth.
“People are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of un-necessary packaging. A teapot with an infuser in is equivalent to a bag for life,” says Matt, who is working closely with the University of Huddersfield on developing a sustainable community. “All packaging is recyclable and everything that can be is home compostable.”
There are exciting plans for the future too, including the launch of a mini retail outlet in Hive Café close to Huddersfield Train Station. For Matt the journey has just begun and he is enjoying sharing his love of tea. “It’s like winning the lottery.”