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Bellying up to Ireland’s other famed brew: Tea

Oliver Cunningham prepares to scoop loose-leaf teas at his Dublin shop, Wall & Keogh.

PHOTO BY LYNN FREEHILL-MAYE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By LYNN FREEHILL-MAYE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2017

A nice cuppa isn’t new to cool, rainy Ireland. The republic drinks more tea per capita than any other nation but Turkey — a fact that won’t surprise visitors who have arrived at one of its traditional bed-and-breakfasts and immediately been offered a fresh pot.

Still, global coffee culture has jabbed at classic black tea’s popularity over the past decade, and scores of third-wave coffeehouses have opened in Dublin. In recent years, demure and comforting tea has slugged back in the Irish capital.

Dublin’s fresh tea offerings include expanded products, from hibiscus to matcha, often delivered with Irish wit. A spate of stylish urban cafes also take the brew outside its old bounds of home and prim tea rooms, giving tea new cachet with millennials and foodies.

Former software engineer Oliver Cunningham, 41, helped start the wave when he drew on his time backpacking and working on Indian and Vietnamese tea plantations to found Wall & Keogh in a former hardware shop in 2011. His cafe now serves a changing roster of 150 exotic teas. Wall & Keogh has also become Dublin’s highest-profile tea wholesaler, supplying about 120 of even the most serious coffee shops, plus the Irish headquarters of companies including Twitter and Airbnb, with their loose-leaf offerings.

Coffee had gotten “pretty aggressive,” Cunningham said, sitting back with a pot of nettle tea one of his baristas identified just by its smell. But “there’s a real strong link to tea in Irish culture,” he added. “Even though coffee culture is booming, when you go home, you always have tea. Tea is like a classic tailor-made suit. Coffee is something new and trendy you buy off the peg. So no, I don’t think tea is panicking. It’s confident on its Chesterfield chair.”

Wall & Keogh serves teas with such in-your-face names as Virile Man, Pineapple Express and Rooibos Unicorn Tears alongside porridge, house-made granola or avocado toast rather than dainty pastries. Music alternates between acid jazz and electronica in the slate-gray cafe, set in the trendy, techie Portobello neighborhood.

“We always get asked whether we do afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. We wanted to strip away all of that,” Cunningham said. “Everything is tailored to take away the granny-with-a-blue-rinse aspect of tea.”

A crew of millennial Dublin housemates took off on “tea-pusher” Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper on the classic Irish comedy “Father Ted,” in 2012 to create a popular line of Mrs. Doyle’s Teas. “Sure, and didn’t our Lord himself on the cross pause for a cup of tea before giving himself up for the world?” Mrs. Doyle would say on the TV show, giving the title priest his own pause. The tea line her character inspired ranges from “Decent Irish Breakfast” to “Chill Out Peppermint” to best-selling “Hangover” and “Happy” varieties, all packaged for next-gen appeal.

The friends launched Mrs. Doyle’s Teas at Ireland’s Electric Picnic concerts as a charity fundraiser. They continue to sell thousands of cups, including a hangover variety and some that are infused with rum, at festivals with entertaining twists. Co-founder Vivian Pucher, a 24-year-old business strategist, was a sensation on Twitter last year when she dressed as Mrs. Doyle at the London Coffee Festival. The team surrounded her in mock-protest of coffee, carrying picket signs that read: “Down with this sort of thing.”

The company recently developed a Mrs. Doyle’s Irish Cream liqueur as well, and following afternoon tea, Pucher hit a favorite local pub, O’Donoghue’s, to talk drinks.

“The branding does the work for us. Irish people totally love it,” Pucher said. “Right now with coffee culture, people take care with what they consume. That’s where tea fits in really well. We bring in something fun.”

Teas the likes of Wall & Keogh and Mrs. Doyle’s are increasingly available in the well-designed coffee shops that have made big inroads into Dublin. Clement & Pekoe, for one, gives the two bevs equal billing in its Creative Quarter cafe, which is brightened by skylights, filled with neo-soul music and outfitted with a front stoop for people-watching and industrial racks of Teekanne teapots and Uji Hikari matcha pouches in the back.

Fumbally, a funky lunch spot and neighborhood hub, grows its own lemon verbena tea and serves Wall & Keogh-sourced varieties, one with a distinct bacon flavor.

“There is definitely a better understanding, little by little, of tea,” co-owner Luca D’Alfonso said as he stood under the cafe’s minimalist cord-bulb-and-wire lighting, taking an order for an ultraheavy iron pot of the smoked tea. “It started with wine, then coffee, and now we are just entering with tea.”

In Smithfield, a working-class area on an upswing, tiny coffee stand Proper Order gives tea a reverent brew. Owner Niall Wynn, 28, presented boiling water and green leaves in what looked like a French press, advising: “The first infusion will be light, citrusy, with a grass tang. The second infusion will be way more citrusy, with a bit of candied lemon.”

The special prep was logical, given that Wynn holds a master’s degree in chemistry and is Ireland’s 2017 national-champ barista, slated to represent the country at the World Barista Championships in November.

Proper Order sells 40 cups of tea per day, up from two per day when the micro-shop opened last year. “I knew little or nothing about tea before I started,” Wynn said, explaining how he’d learned from the world-class steeping at London’s Postcard Teas. “I realized it’s as complex, if not more complex, than coffee. Coffee’s still our main bag, but tea is on the rise.”

Next, Wynn is investing nearly $3,500 in a new under-counter boiler that rapidly brings water to different temperatures for different tea varieties.

Other spots almost completely dedicated to tea have opened in the past few years. Burlap-heavy, patchouli-scented Joy of Chá brews world teas for the backpacker set in Temple Bar. Peacock Green & Co. feels like a wealthy aunt’s redecorated parlor, with ornate gold and teal wallpaper, two dozen kinds of tea in glass jars and slabs of cake for customers ranging from a uniformed schoolgirl to dignified older gents. And Oolong Flower Power offers a meld of afternoon-tea culture and evening lounge, pouring maté and red wine to drinkers lounging on Chesterfield sofas. Its dozens upon dozens of tea varieties include Dirty Dancing and Irish Cream.

Two men discussed Heidegger over cups at Oolong on a recent afternoon. They turned out to be philosophy grad students at Trinity College and University College Dublin: Benjamin Errington, 37, a native Briton in a polo shirt, and Damien Lennon, 45, a pierced-up Irishman whose teenage daughter introduced him to the cafe.

Tea has long been a cultural fixture on the British Isles, the two agreed, but a decade ago two guys might’ve felt odd meeting for drinks anywhere but a pub. They reflected a bit about how Irish tea now feels both modern and classic.

“There’s been a definite cultural shift,” Errington said. “Tea shops are actually quite cool. Coffee’s taken off all over the world, but tea - it feels homey, a bit like you’re in your own house.”
 



 

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