We are now, it seems, the second-biggest tea drinkers in the world, after the Turks, Victoria White.
BARRY’S Tea is my rock, my saviour, my soul-mate. I can’t imagine what my life would be without those distinctive red packets of Gold Blend, except to say that I might try the Classic Blend. When we’re running out of Barry’s, I ring my husband with a simple message: “There’s an emergency.” He knows better than to arrive home without a box of it.
I’ve had 40 cups of the stuff since Peter Barry died last Friday and I’ve toasted him every time. He was the taster who designed the tea we know as Barry’s.
James J Barry’s little grocery shop, on Prince’s St, Cork, started blending tea in 1901, with the words, “This tea is not blended to catch the eye as showy leaf. My only object has been to produce a choice drinkable liquor.”
His son, Anthony Barry, won the Empire Cup for tea-blending in 1934.
We don’t care. Because that wasn’t Barry’s Tea at all, really. The Barry’s Tea we know and love was created partly by chance, and partly through Peter Barry’s tea-blending expertise.
The chance part was this: Ireland was importing its tea through the London Tea Market when rationing was declared in 1941. The Irish were, at the time, the third-biggest consumers of tea, per person, in the world, but their supply was cut by 75% overnight.
Sean Lemass, the minister for supplies at the time and obviously a man after my own heart, said “There’s an emergency”. He set up a government-owned company, Irish Tea Importers Ltd, with a massive warehouse on the Dublin docks big enough to hold two years’ worth of tea. He charged its four chairmen, — David Coyle, Percy McGrath, John F Punch, and Henry J Simpson, who were later joined by John M. Wardell — with the task of sourcing Ireland’s very own tea supply.
The enterprise was backed by financial guarantees from government. And if that doesn’t toll a deathly bell with you, this will: The company later gained a banking licence and became the Irish Bank of Commerce, which, in turn, became the Anglo-Irish Bank Corporation. But none of this concerns us. What concerns us is tea. When we broke away from our colonial overlords — in tea-drinking, if in nothing else — the Irish discovered that we didn’t have to content ourselves with Indian and Sri Lankan tea alone.
Kenya, and eventually other East African countries, such as Rwanda, beckoned. The Irish adored their teas, which were stronger and richer in flavour than Indian teas and apparently more suitable for mixing with Irish water. I, and the other 3m tea drinkers in Ireland, can vouch for that. I recently spent a number of days poking a Lipton’s tea bag around in horrible Greek water and didn’t like the resulting “liquor” one bit.
But here’s where Peter Barry changed the course of Irish tea history. When Irish Tea Importers became a limited company in 1958, Peter Barry did not join, because he said that was “no substitute for the tea merchant tasting at source”. He insisted the company should travel to the tea plantations of Africa and India, and find its very own leaves, and that’s what they did. The result was African leaves — thanks to the revelations of Sean Lemass’s war-time emergency — mixed with Indian leaves from the Assam Valley, which Peter Barry then began to sell wholesale from Cork.
I love that dynamism, determination, and perfectionism, particularly when it finds its way to my tea cup, and I’m not the only one. Barry’s Tea has gone from strength to strength — if you’ll pardon the pun — and now has 38% of the Irish market. Its website has sold to customers in 60 countries and it dominates the tea market in the Irish north-eastern corner of the US.
We are now, it seems, the second- biggest tea drinkers in the world, after the Turks, but the number of tea-blenders has collapsed. In the 1960s, there were 21 in Dublin, 10 in Cork, two in Limerick, and others around the country.
Now, the big players are Lyon’s and Barry’s, with companies such as Robert Roberts and Bewley’s coming in a long way behind in market share.
For most Irish tea drinkers, the dilemma is Lyon’s or Barry’s. I know of a particularly tragic case of a Cork girl, in my neighbourhood, who is forced to drink Lyon’s by her Dubliner husband. She got to decide where they would live and which school the children would attend, but she was silenced on the big decision, of which tea they would drink..
My children profess to preferring Lyon’s and they even subjected me to a blind test, complete with reality TV show moments — “Victoria, you’ve chosen the red cup. Are you sure?” I never wavered.
What’s interesting about this, from a marketing point of view, is that I have an emotional response to a heritage brand that isn’t my heritage. God knows, I’m no Gaeler, but I couldn’t give up on Barry’s Tea, unlike the staunch Fianna Fáiler, my relation by marriage, who won’t have Fine Gael tea in the house.
I probably started buying Barry’s because of the red packet, sometime in the 1990s. When I was growing up, Barry’s was barely available in Dublin. My father might have been from Cork, but the Lyon’s minstrels played in our kitchen, unless we bought a yellow tin of Campbell’s tea leaves, because it was nostalgic and Protestant.
This identification with a product as authentically Irish, which marks me out as a person with a strong heritage and impeccable taste, should be unblended gold in the marketplace. And it is not exploited half enough.
I can’t fathom why you can’t interact with Barry’s when you go to Cork. Why are there no factory tours? When Barry’s did tours a number of years ago, for Midsummer Fest, 400 punters went through the gates. Why is there no Barry’s Tea House, or, indeed, no chain of Barry’s Tea Houses?
Why, when such a strong brand has been built on tradition by dint of hard work, bold business decisions, and brilliant advertising, is more not made of that brand? I don’t know.
Others have pondered the late Peter Barry’s legacy as Tanaiste, as deputy leader of Fine Gael, and as minister for foreign affairs when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was brokered. No doubt, his family ponders his legacy as a devoted father and grand-father.
But I just wanted to write one column about his tea. Because every day should have its golden moments.
We are now, it seems, the second-biggest tea drinkers in the world, after the Turks
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