Turning over a new leaf for our drinking habits

Mother and daughter team Julie and Rebecca English are on a mission to change how we drink tea. Together they run the Birdhouse Tea Company in Sheffield. Catherine Scott reports.

Rebecca and Julie English at the Birdhouse Tea Company in Nether Edge.
Rebecca and Julie English at the Birdhouse Tea Company in Nether Edge.

Rebecca English was 12 when she tasted her first cup of “proper” tea.

“I was in London with my mum and we stopped at a lovely cafe and I tasted loose leaf green tea for the first time and I was hooked. I was fascinated with it, until then tea was just a bag in a pot,” says the 26-year-old.

At first it started as a hobby, but after Rebecca learnt more about Japanese culture at an after school club she became even more enthralled and an idea for a business started.

“We learnt about the Japanese Tea Ceremony and was enthralled. I loved all the ritual and the tea itself is amazing.”

Now Rebecca, and her mum Julie, are on a mission to spread the word about loose leaf tea.

Together they run Birdhouse Tea Company, which has already won accolades including The Yorkshire Post Deliciouslyorkshire Taste Awards best overall beverage.

The pair started their business from the kitchen of Rebecca’s home in Mosborough but, as their popularity grew, they decided to look for premises where they could not only blend their own tea, but offer tastings and workshops to spread their message.

And in September the Birdhouse Tea Company moved into the former Nether Edge Post Office in Sheffield.

For Rebecca it is the realisation of a dream.

“When I left school I worked in a number of coffee shops and cafés such as Starbucks, and it struck me then that tea was always the poor relation.

“No one these days would serve you instant coffee in a café, so why do we still get a tea bag dunked in boiling water? We really want to see all that change.

“It has been my dream for about five years to have somewhere like the Birdhouse Tea Company where we can hold tastings and introduce people to the joys of loose leaf tea.” After Rebecca decided that her future lay in tea, she backed up her own extensive research by attending a course to London to learn more.

“I got the chance to try different teas from all over the world and to learn how they are made and where they are grown. After than I started to put my own business ideas together.”

However it was 18 months ago that Rebecca and mum Julie started to set up the business from Rebecca’s kitchen.

“Mum is very much into the herbal side of things and the health giving properties of tea. So we were a good fit. We work really well together.

“I started to look at the best places to source tea. We started with five different teas and started to blend them ourselves in my kitchen.”

The mother and daughter team received favourable responses to their blends.

“We did some market research to find out why people preferred a bag to a loose leaf tea and most of it came down to price and convenience,” explains Rebecca.

“Lots of people think of loose leaf tea back in the old days where people would pour boiling water on not great quality tea leaves and let it stew.

“You’d end up with bits at the bottom of your cup and it really wasn’t very pleasant. But it isn’t like that. There are so many accessories out there now, many of which we stock, which make it so much easier and nicer to make a great cup of tea using loose leaf tea.

“One of the great things about loose leaf tea is that you can rebrew it, in some cases a number of times, which makes it very cost effective. You can’t do that with a tea bag.”

The business took off so well that Rebecca and Julie soon needed more space not only to carry out their blending but also to allow people to taste there teas.

Rebecca also desperately wanted somewhere they could hold talks and events in a bid to pass on her knowledge and love of all things tea.

“The shop is brilliant, although we still need to create a proper blending room. But it means that we can spend time talking to people and they can see what we do.

“We have had a lot of positive feedback.

“People really want to know more about what they are eating and drinking. I do think people are becoming more adventurous when it comes to tea drinking.

“A lot of people know about the health properties of green tea but the problem is most of them buy it in bags, where the tea leaves are so small they almost disintegrate, and they brew it with boiling water for five minutes so that all the anti-oxidant properties will have disappeared.”

Rebecca says using boiling water and brewing for three to five minutes is okay for black tea, but green tea should be brewed using water heated to 65 to 85 degrees and left for just one to three minutes.

“Any hotter or longer and it will become bitter,” she adds.

Rebecca’s passion for her product is infectious and she talks about her teas as if they are well-loved members of the family. And the same goes when I ask her to chose her favourite.

“That’s so hard, it depends what mood I am in, but if I had to choose I would say oolong. You can get different oolongs from different areas.”

Birdhouse Tea Company now stocks more than 60 teas, plus the same number of their own blends. They are also on sale in a number of independent shops across Sheffield and via email. They very much want to interact with their customers and take them on the tea journey with them.

“We make bespoke blended teas, and we are always open to suggestions,” says Rebecca. “We have a Facebook site where we ask people for their ideas and we are busy getting together a diary of events so that we can really help people enjoy and understand tea.”