International Tea Day with OMGTea

21st May 2024

Posted In: International Focus

OMGTea  founder Katherine Swift was burned by Dragons, bashed by Brexit and discovered just how hard it is to sell tea to the British. But now, after major investment, she’s ready for growth.

When Katherine Swift launched her matcha tea business in 2014, most Brits had never heard of the Japanese beverage. It didn’t take long for her to realise that this nation of tea drinkers was going to be a tough sell.

“Nobody even knew what matcha was and, despite massive growth in popularity over the last few years, a lot of people still haven’t tried it today.

“The last ten years have been challenging. If I knew what it would be like when I started I’m not sure I would have done it, but I am so glad I did now,” says the OMGTea founder.

Today, OMGTea is riding high with sales expected to exceed £1m this financial year and listings in well-known retailers such as Selfridges, Holland & Barrett, Ocado, Wholefoods Market, Planet Organic and Harvey Nichols.

The company’s artisanal green powder, made in Japan using traditional methods, has won a string of Great Taste Awards and has a host of celebrity followers.

The business recently received major investment from Aiya, Japan’s leading matcha producer with 136 years of experience and the provider of OMGTea’s product.

“We are the only company Aiya has ever invested in,” says Katherine. “They’ve been a part of our journey over the last 10 years and invested because we are the real deal.

“We only sell authentic matcha made the traditional way. There are a lot of cheaper, lower quality matcha products out there, but our focus has always been on making high-grade matcha accessible.”

Today, celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Jennifer Anniston, Ryan Reynolds and Serena Williams are reportedly matcha devotees and attest to its anti-oxidising health benefits and feel good quality.

OMG Moments

A chance set of ‘OMG moments’ led Katherine to launch her business. One day in 2009 her mother was undergoing surgery for breast cancer and, desperate for a brief distraction, she made a call to a business contact.

“I was an event manager working on The Northwest Football Awards. To take my mind off things I put in a call to Maurice Watkins, who chaired the judging panel.

“On the call, he happened to tell me that he was also chairing a £5m charity appeal for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, now known as Breast Cancer Now. I got goosebumps as it seemed so coincidental. An OMG moment.”

Within a few months, Katherine had taken a job at Breakthrough Breast Cancer and was running the charity appeal. It was then that she met the appeal’s research director, Professor Michael Lisanti.

Lisanti’s research suggested that certain antioxidants and amino acids found in matcha tea could potentially reduce the growth of cancer stem cells. Enthused by the idea and desperate to help her mum, Katherine began to source the best matcha she could find.

“I sourced a high grade matcha direct from Japan and the quality was fantastic,” says Katherine. “It made me and my mum feel great. It gave us a sense of control by doing something positive that might help. We got a mental and physical boost of energy.”

Over a decade later and Katherine’s mother is alive and well and still drinking matcha. “My mum has an indomitable spirit and has an iron will. She practices yoga, runs up and down stairs, eats very well and drinks lots of matcha tea.”

After a few name changes, Katherine settled on OMGTea and launched in 2014. “Organic Matcha Green Tea – OMG! It was just another coincidence. I loved the name and it seemed to fit so perfectly.

“The lettering in our logo represents the delicate lines on the granite stone mill, which is used by authentic matcha producers in Japan to grind the tea leaves into a fine powder.

“We launched on Amazon in early 2015 and went to food festivals and farmers markets to make those early sales. Our first listings were at Planet Organic and other independent retailers in Brighton and Hove, where OMGTea is based. Sales were slow at first, but the feedback was always good.”

Dragons and Brexit

Katherine then braved the BBC’s ‘Dragons Den’ after being contacted by a producer of the show. None of the Dragons invested, which is not too surprising considering most hadn’t even heard of matcha before meeting her.

“I just don’t think they understood what the product was all about. I felt totally devastated as I had so much belief in what I was doing.”

Further trouble was to come in the form of Brexit. The small business was suddenly hit with additional paperwork and import duties and had to pull out of the EU.

“You’re not allowed to import organic goods from a third country via the EU unless they are processed in some way,” explains Katherine.

One of the UK’s matcha pioneers, Katherine’s patience and perseverance has paid off. According to Mordor Intelligence, the global matcha market is now valued at over £3bn and the growing number of health-conscious consumers and changing lifestyles are expected to propel the market even further.

For Katherine, her brand is more than a product, it’s a lifestyle.

“Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, and I think there is a lot we can learn about healthier living from their lifestyle.“For starters, if everyone drank a cup of matcha a day, I genuinely believe the world would be a better place.”

Happy International Tea Day!