Photography by  Lizzy Hodgins

Photography by Lizzy Hodgins

After ten years working on yachts in Europe, Becci Fowler has landed in the coastal city of Newcastle, Australia, where she's opened a niche boutique tea house. The Tea Project recently won BEST TEA ROOM IN NSW AND BEST TEA MENU IN AUSTRALIA 2015. KILLING IT.

It’s always so exciting and refreshing when I go to interview someone cool about their business, and learn so much more than what I bargained for. It truly goes to show that every single human being has a story to tell and wisdom to offer that cuts deeper than their entrepreneurialism. So goes the saying, ‘People don’t buy what you sell, they buy WHY you’re selling it.’ These were my thoughts when I drove away from spending an hour sipping tea and talking life with Becci from The Tea Project in Newcastle. Open five months, Becci has brought to life her vision for a cozy, comfortable tea house in a city where there’s nothing yet like it. Talk about finding a niche.

The Tea Project recently won Best Tea Room in NSW and Best Tea Menu in Australia 2015. Becci’s eyes were shining when she told me, like she couldn’t quite believe her luck. But why shouldn’t someone be rewarded for crafting dream into reality? After living for ten years in France, Spain and beyond, working as chief hostess on yachts and PA for Aston Martin, Becci has built strong relationships with people from all over the world. Her teas are sourced from all those places, direct from the estate and fair trade where possible, though she’s secretive about giving away the specifics. “You wouldn’t go to a wholesaler and ask ‘Where do you get that?’ You don’t just tell people! All the herbals are Australian; I work with a naturopath who helps with that… the Japanese teas are from Japan.”

Originally hailing from the Sunshine Coast, when Becci moved back from Europe, she visited a friend in Newcastle and immediately fell in love with the place, moving here only a few weeks later. “I just love Newcastle – you’ve got the beaches, the vineyards. Awesome national parks, nightlife, cool people. Everyone complains that Newcastle is so backward and cliquey but I haven’t found that.”

Let’s be clear. The Tea Project is not a café. Becci has no interest in competing with the incredible baristas and coffee houses that the city has to offer. Tea is her thing. And she does it damn well.

“I love tea. I’ve been travelling, have always been into yoga, and tea goes with that hand in hand. But I didn’t like the wank of it. The image of hippies sitting around, tripping out. Tea is actually quite cool, it just needs to be seen as modern.”

Photography by  What Jane Did

Photography by What Jane Did

Choose from delicious treats and light snacks with your cuppa, and if you’re visiting on a rainy day, get in early to score yourself a cozy seat against one of the exposed brick walls, looking out at the timber bench and soaking in the aromas of leafy goodness.

When the ‘cake guy’ came to take her inventory for the next delivery, Becci slipped fluently into French and my jaw dropped to the floor. Then he was gone and, ever-bubbly, she reverted to English and we picked up where we left off, somewhere between yoga and relationships. So cool.

With over 150 flavours to choose from, there’s really nothing for it except to visit 150 times (at least). So get on that.

Becci also sells 50g and 100g bags of tea, from Coconut to ‘Study’, everything in between, and even a range blended with some Hunter Valley wines. Family, you know what you’re getting for Christmas.

by Amy Lovat

The first time I visited with a friend, Becci took the time to talk us through several flavours, offering the jars for us to smell, and explaining the “Western” way we basically ruin our tea by over-brewing, burning, and dulling the flavour with milk and sugar. It certainly threw things into perspective. Dilmah what?! This time, she explained the overuse, and sometimes improper, use of the word ‘organic’: “You also need to consider the carbon footprint. People who call themselves organic tea … it’s almost impossible. You can call the herbal ones organic because they’re from Australia, but who’s monitoring it when it comes from somewhere else? So you have an organic farm overseas, and an organic shop here, but is the truck certified organic, is the shipping container certified? Your tea isn’t organic anymore.”

Years of experience, travelling, tasting, and studying with Australian Tea Masters has led Becci to where she is now. “When it’s bagged, you can’t engage with the tea, you can’t see how fresh it is, or smell it.” And the people are appreciating it. She’s got a lot of regulars, and tells me of the first week she opened when a group of girls – who she’d never met – came in with a big bunch of flowers to thank Becci for opening The Tea Project.

Tell me about the tea. [I ask, as she's busy moulding scones...]

What do you wanna know? I'm no good at this!

You can't be good or bad at this, it's just a chat!

Okay. Well. Scones, right? You need to give them love, or you've got nothing. And that's my problem this morning. [Ed's note: so cute!]

Anyway, so these are the urns, and we do twin filtration of the water to remove the chlorine, sediment, bacteria and heavy metals. We temperature control the teas, too, and each tea has different brew time. You should be able to look at the tea and see it's fresh.

I read a terrifying article about tea bags recently, apparently they're basically scraps off the floor?

Tea bags are the worst. It's called 'fannings'. It's the shake of the bottom of the premium tea. So it's still tea and good quality tea, but it's the shake-off.

What are the challenges you're facing since you've opened?

Just keeping people coming in the door. And introducing people to the idea that I don't do coffee here. I've been surprised by the response. This is a quiet place, with chilled out music for people to come for a cup of tea.

Do you have your moments when you wonder why you're doing this?

Oh yeah. Some days I could cry. [laughs] The same thing day in, day out. But then people come in and it's their sanctuary and I remember why I'm doing this.

Photography by  What Jane Did

Photography by What Jane Did

What are the biggest rewards of what you're doing?

I recently got listed on The Urban List on one of their guides of things to do in Newcastle, which was amazing! I was so surprised. It's kind of spread itself - Instagram and Facebook is great. But it seems like it's what people have been looking for - there's nothing like it here! I've got a lot of great regulars. And just the knowledge that I've built this myself.

After such a huge life of travel, how does it feel being in the one place? Will you stick around?

Yeah, for sure. I've got a six-year lease here. My parents are currently driving around Australia in a van, they're here at the moment, but other than that no family here. I've met so many friends here - girls from my old job, yoga, just people from around. I've got a really cool social circle in the last 18 months. It's such a small city so you meet one person, and then you've got 10 more friends.