As Editor of OX magazines I receive a lot of press releases claiming to hold the key to long life, good health and eternal youth. Most are met with an eye roll and the delete button but when I heard about local businesswoman, Bethan Thomas, and HotTea Mama, I was intrigued enough to read on.
A former tea buyer, Bethan has completed a three-year degree course in China and is now a qualified Tea Scientist. Along with her friend and business partner, Kate, she has launched a range of teas specifically created to support women’s wellbeing. I wanted to know more…
How did HotTea Mama come about - what was the catalyst that took it from an idea to a reality?
It came about on a long walk at Blenheim Palace in 2016 with my best friend Kate, and our very young children. Kate had two children in the space of 18 months, and thanks to a restricted diet and needing natural support with symptoms, she asked me a huge number of tea questions. She wasn't sure which teas were safe to drink while pregnant and breastfeeding, and also which teas might help with some of the issues she faced like morning sickness and milk supply. As I'd been a teablender and buyer for over 15 years and was also pregnant and with a toddler as well, we tended to have a lot of these conversations. She asked me why no one was making teas to support women through this time of life and that was the flash of lightening which encouraged us to develop a tea range and set up HotTea Mama. Initially we only looked to support pregnancy and motherhood, but over the last six years we've expanded to develop tea blends to support PMS, endometriosis, PCOS and perimenopause.
What is involved in becoming a tea scientist?
I officially became a tea scientist after completing a degree in Tea Science from the Forestry and Agriculture University of Fujian, in Fuzhou, China. I did this after over a decade of being a tea taster and buyer, but the course really focused on the biochemistry of the tea plant, tea production techniques, plus tea culture, Chinese medicinal herbs and mass production methods for things like ready to drink teas. It was such an incredible course, and all done in Mandarin - so I ended up being the first non-Chinese person to complete it.
What led you to Fujian, and what was the course like?
It was the only place where I could study Tea Science. I spotted the university in an article in a tea trade magazine while working for a tea company in the UK. It mentioned that Fujian's Agricultural University was setting up a specialist campus to let students study oolong tea specifically, and this led me to write to the university to see if they'd accept me as a student. I did do two months of language lessons before starting the course, as I was worried my Mandarin wouldn't be up to scratch, but I had lived and worked in China on and off since completing a Chinese degree at Oxford, so I did have a basis to start from.
How does tea affect mood? And how does it affect our physical selves?
Tea has a huge effect on our bodies both psychologically and physically – both from the active components in the leaf itself, but also from the time we take to make a cup of tea and enjoy it. Whilst everyone will react differently to botanicals, there is good evidence from both historical use and a growing number of small-scale research studies, showing that different teas and herbs affect our mood in different ways. If you are stressed and need support to feel less anxious and stressed, then you should consider drinking chamomile, lavender and valerian - these herbs have a huge impact on reducing anxiety and helping reduce stress. In contrast, a highly caffeinated black tea will help your concentration and boost energy levels, but too much can make you feel stressed and jumpy. So, you have to pick and choose what you want, to help with specific issues you face.
Physically, certain herbs have also been shown to have an impact on our bodies, not just our minds. Sage and liquorice have been shown to reduce hot flushes during menopause, and fenugreek, fennel and aniseed are natural galactagogues that have been linked to increasing breast milk production. So you can find physical support in a cup of tea too.
Simply holding a hot cup of tea in your hands will also naturally increase the oxytocin levels in your body (our love hormone) and improve your mood if you feel sad or stressed – no matter what tea is in the cup.
There are a lot of products out there which target women at challenging life stages, like menopause, puberty, pregnancy and early motherhood. You must feel a great responsibility when it comes to marketing specifically to these groups.
I am very aware that we need to be transparent and honest in our marketing and work hard to ensure that we share the specific research that has shown benefits of the botanicals that we use. The blog section of our website is very deep, and we link to key articles on all our product pages and across our social media. We do try to stress that whilst there is evidence that botanicals can help women's wellness, no tea (or natural supplement, gummy or powder) can guarantee a solution to all problems for everyone. But the statistics are in your favour! We test all our products before launching them with a great group of women who we call our 'tea-sters'. And again, if we don't see that the majority of women see benefits, we don't launch them. We had a hair growth tea which we didn't launch for this reason.
Any plans for further tea-based products? I'm thinking skincare but I guess there's a lot of potential out there.
There is a lot of potential to use botanicals in other ways outside of tea, and we are hoping to extend the range into new products in 2024-5. But I can't talk too much about it as we've received some government funding to look into how we could develop something unique and special, but until it's clear we can…I have to keep it under my hat.
Tell us about your support of Colourful Beginnings.
Colourful Beginnings are the most amazing charity that we work with to support their work in the UK. They were founded by Ola, who had two pre-term babies and was inspired by the experience to set up a charity to help families who are in NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and going through the same thing. They work to raise awareness of how difficult this experience is, and also to improve the lives of families going through the experience with both online support, in person support, and support packages.