Melissa Blease meets Esther Thompson, the food hero behind Tea Huggers

Chill Out or Magic Breakfast? Skinny Fit or Hangover Help? Detox or Guilt Free Choccy? Or perhaps you’d simply like an elegant Earl of Bath with your crumpet? Whatever your tea-total preference, it’s likely that Esther Thompson – founder of the award-winning Bath-based company Tea Huggers – can offer you the perfect hug-in-a-mug to match your mood, satisfy current cravings or even alleviate health niggles.

“Tea is similar to wine, in that there are so many different blends from different regions that can really impact on the taste,” says Esther. “It is, quite simply, a wonderful world to explore. Tea is also a fantastic accompaniment to fine food, and I’m increasingly noticing high quality teas offered with high quality restaurant menus – I love that! So of course, I’d encourage everybody to take the plunge, buy some real tea and enjoy the journey.”

Esther is keen to embrace us all with her passion for the leafy brew. But her own personal voyage into tea waters began a very long time ago when she was swimming on a tide of a very different kind altogether. “After leaving university, I went straight to London to work as a political lobbyist,” she says. “But the long hours and late nights started impacting my health – one year, I had four bouts of tonsillitis on the trot.

Founder Esther Thompson

“Then my doctor suggested that I cut out coffee and allow my body to sleep when I was tired instead of fuelling it with caffeine. I took the suggestion on board, and I’ve never had tonsillitis since.”

So, Esther became a herbal tea devotee instead. But her adventure didn’t end there. “I always found that herbal teas smelt good, but often the taste didn’t deliver. After a decade of searching for the perfect herbal tea, I eventually launched my own range; three years on, and Tea Huggers is stocked in high-end food halls such as Selfridges, some of the UK’s loveliest cafés, in shops across the country and, on my website.

“I started the business in London, but thanks to the internet I have the luxury of basing my business anywhere, so my husband and I chose beautiful Bath to live in and grow my business and our family.”

But while the city has become known nationally as caffeine central as business in multiple specialist coffee bars, retail outlets and even coffee-making masterclasses is booming, Esther, believes the rise in the popularity of real coffee has been beneficial to the increased interest in real tea.

“Because people are used to paying more for a cup of really good coffee these days and are far more educated about how and where their favourite beans are sourced, tea has naturally begun to share the same spotlight,” she says.

“As a result, the good tea market is becoming crowded too, so my main challenge is to keep awareness of the Tea Huggers brand buoyant, which I try to do by connecting with our fans through social media and keeping my word-of-mouth reputation positive – it really is all about awareness, because consumers aren’t so passive about their choices anymore. I’ve noticed that many folk have become very savvy about how the different types of tea, where the leaves are grown, the processing and the blending of the ingredients that can really affect the taste. Also, lots of people are sensitive to high amounts of caffeine, or may be intolerant to milk. But even if they’re not cutting out coffee altogether, a lot of people now limit themselves to one cup of coffee to get them going in the morning, but look to tea to revitalise themselves throughout the day.

The Hangover Help blend by Tea Huggers

“I’ve got a wonderful range of both caffeine-free and naturally caffeinated teas, so there’s something for everybody!”

What, er-hum, even a self-confessed big brand/big deal shopper who sloshes milk on to a one-cup tea bag before adding boiling water? “Oh please, ditch the paper tea bags and buy high quality, whole leaf tea instead,” Esther urges me. “There’s simply no comparison in terms of taste. I sell a handy taster pack on our website which offers new or dubious tea converts an opportunity to try a selection of our best-selling teas for every moment of the day.”

So how does that particular magic happen? “All our teas are blends of lots of different ingredients including fruit and herbs, and we’ve used ingredients which have been used for hundreds of years for different health benefits, too; lavender and lemon balm in our fruity Good Night tea, for example, which helps to relax your mind before you drift off to sleep, or calming chamomile and basil with lots of fruit pieces in our Chill Out blend. My teas can help you feel good at any stage of the day – personally speaking, I literally couldn’t live without my specific morning and evening brews. I particularly love the ceremony of having a bedtime tea and taking time to unwind and be grateful for what I’ve achieved throughout the day.”

When she’s out and about Esther enjoys taking tea somewhere really special, recommending Comins Tea House in Monmouth Street in particular for its selection and lovely service from the friendly owners, who are as fanatical as Esther is about their brews. “They also serve awesome dumplings too, which are a great alternative to the traditional afternoon tea selection,” says Esther. As for the notion of ditching that horrendous one-cup habit (not that it was me I was referring to earlier, of course) and taking all of Esther’s advice – well, I can honestly say that, having chatted in depth to the goddess of leaf-related brews, I’m henceforth on the path of real tea righteousness.

Esther may be pleased to learn that the writing of this very feature was fuelled by a refreshing pot of Tea Hugger’s Ever Green blend. “Our fans are what makes me most proud of the whole Tea Huggers venture,” says Esther. “We’ve found and connected with so many like-minded people who literally love our teas as much as we do, and I’m blown away by the feedback we receive every week to say how our teas have really helped people sleep, or feel better if they’ve been under the weather. It’s those people who have spread the word, and now our teas are sold all over the country and across the world in locations from Japan to Canada.” From Bath, with love to the world: that’s one great big hug-in-a mug indeed.

Tea Huggers, PO Box 5219, Bath BA1 0UQ. Tel: 07967 822719; email hello@teahuggers.co.uk; web: teahuggers.co.uk; twitter @Teahuggers