Hi! My name is Bethan, I live in Oxford with my partner and 2 kids, and I have been a tea buyer since I left university. I worked in the UK and China (where I got a Tea Science degree – I studied Mandarin at university and lived in and out of China for over 7 years) for big British tea firms for over 15 years. However, I set up my own tea company – HotTea Mama – after having children and realising there was a niche in the market to support women with delicious teas that were also designed specifically for their needs in pregnancy and motherhood.
You met your business partner Kate at university, can you tell us what it’s like working with your best friend?
We’re a good balance so it works well – I’d say she’s the positive, optimistic drive, and I’m the negative, utter realist! She recently moved back to Australia where she was born, along with her husband, so the biggest issue we face is the time difference and juggling that with kids in tow!
I’ve always loved tea. My Dad can’t leave the house without stopping for a cup of tea first – we’ve been late for many an event because of this! But I moved to China after completing a history degree for my undergraduate degree, and I went down the proverbial tea rabbit hole. I was working in marketing in Shanghai but was amazed at the variety of teas there were in China, and the fact that bus drivers drank loose leaf tea, and people filled up flasks of tea from hot water taps at the sides of the roads – I just wanted to learn more about it. I spent my weekends in tea houses and long weekends going to nearby tea producing areas. It inspired me to do a masters in Chinese so that I could learn to read and write Chinese, and I wrote my thesis about the Chinese tea trade.
From there, I got a job in London for a Chinese focussed specialist tea company and didn’t look back.
Where does your tea come from?
Our blends are primarily herbal so the ingredients are sourced from all over Europe and packed into biodegradable whole leaf tea bags in the UK. We have one blend with Chinese white tea in it – I couldn’t totally abandon my Chinese roots and it’s an amazing blend!
Your website says you have a degree in Tea Science, how fantastic, can you tell us a bit about that?
I was the first non-Chinese person to get a degree in Tea Science from the University of Agriculture and Forestry in Fujian, China. I convinced my partner that before we had kids, I wanted to do something utterly selfish and this was it. Luckily we’d been together for a long time, and he had to be in Ethiopia for his work for long periods, so he was supportive of me having an adventure and being there for as much of it as he could.
You can’t do this kind of study anywhere in Europe, but Fujian is where tea was first cultivated in China, and it’s the home of black tea, white tea, and oolong tea. I had lessons in tea biochemistry, agronomy, blending, tea culture, manufacture and advanced tasting. Biochemistry was my absolute favourite and I love to understand why different teas taste so different, and how you can shape the flavour in a blend, not just with what you put in it, but also how you brew it.
This snippet from your website is very interesting and we feel many pregnant women may not know this:
“…it wasn’t until she got pregnant, that she realised how many of the caffeine-free blends she was making were actually unsafe for pregnancy. She added a lot of liquorice to herbal blends to make them sweeter, but this can lead to high blood pressure and is extremely dangerous for anyone at risk of preeclampsia. So as her friends were immediately cutting out caffeine in their diet, they were actually adding a new dangerous herbal ingredient…”
…Can you tell us a bit more?
I will always shout this from the rooftops!
I started to realise once I was pregnant, that a huge number of women completely give up caffeine when pregnant. This isn’t required as NHS guidelines state you can have 200mg per day – but many women swap immediately to herbal/fruit teas. However, liquorice is used in the vast majority of these to make them sweet. It’s an amazing ingredient for this, but it raises your blood pressure as well. All tea packs with liquorice in are legally required to have a statement saying: ‘may lead to hypertension’ on them, but no one knows what this means! During pregnancy, many women experience higher blood pressure, in extreme cases getting life-threatening preeclampsia. A colleague of mine had this and had no idea that the tea she was drinking was making it worse. So I became quite impassioned that you can’t just presume that something being ‘caffeine-free’, means it’s good for you.
It’s similar for an ingredient called ‘raspberry leaf’, which is not safe to have until 32 weeks of pregnancy. At which point it can really help your body prepare for labour, as it makes the muscles in your uterus contract slightly and strengthens them for labour. However, I have seen it put into many ‘pregnancy tea’ blends, and this is also another danger women may not realise about until it is too late.
You started your business when you and Kate (your biz partner) had 2 small children and you were on maternity leave. That sounds very challenging! How did you navigate that?
I’m not entirely sure – we just got on with it. It’s amazing how much you can achieve in nap times, and if you are willing to work around kids. We also had to swing to meet each other’s needs -I couldn’t do much when in the fourth trimester after having my baby, and Kate stepped up. I recently repaid the favour when she had her 3rd baby! But breaking down essential tasks to manageable chunks, and being ruthless in prioritising helped a lot. You can’t do everything – so just do the important stuff!
What advice would you give to expectant Mums out there now starting a business, as you were then?
Trello and other time management tools are brilliant. Whilst you have a lot of structure in your day as a Mum, it tends to all revolve around your kid. So if you can set up a list of tasks at the start of a week, and then commit to doing these, you are winning. It’ll focus you and stop you from getting distracted by the small stuff.
I’d also hugely encourage people to work while their kids are there for some of the day. My daughter helps me pack sample orders, and take photos for Hot Tea Mama. She loves it. And it also means if I have to ask her to have some screen time while I take a call, she doesn’t mind. She feels involved and wants to work at Hot Tea Mama when she grows up. So rather than competing for my attention against work, she supports it. Obviously, there’s a fine line with the amount of time you can get away with and the tasks they can be involved in, but it works well for me!
Is there anything you wish you knew before starting your business, a pearl of wisdom you could offer someone else?
Never be afraid to ask. I’ve been amazed at the brands we’ve been able to collaborate with, at no cost to us, just by asking. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And also, if they say no or ignore you, it really doesn’t matter. Don’t be proud, be proud of what you achieve!
Which online sites aside your own do you find useful for your business?
Trello for time management. We use Shopify for our website which is great, and Xero for accountancy – also great. They allow you as a total novice to achieve something that a few years ago would have been impossible.
We’ve seen that you have a sleep subscription (frankly, we all need this! Pregnant or not) can you tell us about the benefits?
Our Night Owl tea is our sleepy tea – with natural muscle relaxants to calm and ease you into bed. It has whole chamomile flowers, valerian root, lavender, lime flowers, cornflowers, and rooibos. Valerian has actually been shown to be more effective than a medical sedative in sleep trials! This is a tea that is for anyone really, not just mums. My dad and brother love it!
To give you a lift after a good or bad night’s sleep, we have our Newborn Wonder which gives you a slow release boost of caffeine. It is made of white tea, which is higher in caffeine than a normal cup of black tea, with c. 90mg per cup. But it’s also higher in theanine, a relaxant, which gives the caffeine a slow-release effect. We add in whole rosebuds too, to make a really soothing brew.
And if you want to avoid caffeine entirely, our Get Up & Glow is brilliant as a caffeine-free tea with a boost. We use grapes as the base, this is quite unusual but means that you get a natural sugar lift to kid yourself on that you’ve had some caffeine!
Do you work from home (outside of pandemics) and how do you juggle childcare and working?
I do work from home. My oldest is now 5, so goes to school, and Hector is home with me part-time, with 3 half days a week in pre-school. I am very efficient in the time I have, as I don’t have much of a choice! And then I work in the evenings – making sure I take 1 or 2 evenings off during the weekdays. It’s a fine balance, but the time with the kids is brilliant – I don’t regret any hours worked in the evenings, as for me it’s important to get my hit of them. And luckily, as our major channel of communication with customers is through social media, I can always quickly answer questions when the kids are there. I just try not to do it too much!
You’ve won awards for your products, can you tell us how that came about and do you recommend small/medium-sized businesses enter themselves into award programs?
From my work at other tea companies, I know how much an award can do for your brand perception. It’s a great way to build trust in your product, as verified proof that customers don’t just need to take your word that it’s good! It’s important to get the right award though – for us, we consider ourselves as much a baby/maternity product as a tea product, so we don’t intend to enter ‘tea awards’ but instead focus on baby awards. It’s more our market and the awards mean more to mothers when we win them. So I’d say be targetted and sensible. It can be expensive to enter an award, so also take your time on completing applications and getting a perfect product to judges to test.
We’ve just read about your oat cookie recipe to support breastfeeding and can’t wait to try it. Will you be expanding the range to include accompanying foodstuffs alongside the teas?
We don’t intend to at the moment, but there’s definitely room for this in our 5-year plan. For now, we want to solidify our place in the market before we dilute the offer. Also, product development is a long process. Even with my 15 years of tea blending experience, it took us c. 9 months to make our blends and test them with pregnant/breastfeeding mothers. We wouldn’t be comfortable doing it any other way, but it means we can’t rush it.
Can we buy Hot Tea Mama teas in supermarkets (if not will this be available soon?)
Not yet! We hope to make this a focus for 2021. We are in some amazing baby stores – Natural Baby Shower, Hugo & Me, Mini Mench. Plus we have a big online presence in places like Chemist Online, Amazon Prime and more bespoke companies including the Pregnancy Food Company. So we know there’s a lot of potential, but we want a strong base before approaching big retailers.
Will there be a tea for little ones in due course (should little ones even be drinking tea?) Shocking that we don’t know this.
Kids can drink any teas! Our Get Up & Glow is enjoyed by a lot of them :). The only requirement is to ensure that you add boiling water when making the tea for children. You can’t cold brew tea for them, as they’re so sensitive to any microbes that may be on the herbs. Herbs and fruit aren’t generally heat processed as it reduces their flavour dramatically, but it means you have to add cool water – (or wait to cool) – to make them safe for kids to drink.
Will you stock teapots soon or whole tea sets?
We have a range of mugs – a splash-proof keep cup, and some cheeky logo mugs, including: ‘I don’t want to sleep like a baby, I want to sleep like my husband’. Mothers, in general, don’t have a lot of time for tea sets, as the washing up involved is unappealing – that’s why we have whole leaf tea bags and mugs!
…Is this something that parents could do with little ones, take time out to have a tea with a lovely old school tea-set (seems so many of us have zero time these days and a teabag just gets slung into a cup)?
My daughter adores her tea sets – I have a lot of traditional Chinese tea sets with a big water tray that she can play with. And we often do tea tastings – but kids tend to like the cake component of any tea ceremony more than the tea!
In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a teabag, provided it’s got the right thing in it. So our whole leaf tea bags are ideal to give you the flavour and quality of a tea ceremony without the faff and cleaning up requirement. Before I had kids, I used to have friends over for tea ceremonies a lot, but the truth is, your life changes so much post-kids, that this isn’t really practical. Hot liquid, breakable cups, and small children aren’t appealing. So we shouldn’t feel too guilty about it – just adapt and let your kid play while you enjoy a really delicious, hot cuppa!
What’s next for Hot Tea Mama?
Our international growth is going really well, especially in the middle east and Asia. We hope to develop this alongside the UK D2C, before branching out into retail. Product development wise, we have a few blends in the works, but they’re in consumer testing so I couldn’t say anything yet!