As many small business owners know, it takes an inspired vision and conviction to take an idea, and grow it into one of Australia’s most respected specialty food service companies. Ben Kelly and Nathan Wakeford founded Somage Fine Foods in 2006 - a time when cappuccinos looked like muffin tops, chocolate drinks were flavoured sugar and it was still okay to serve teabags in polystyrene cups to take away. The pair had a vision for something better.
Our first product, Kali premium drinking chocolate, was created in the lounge room of Nathan’s 3-bedroom rental terrace. After extensive research into cocoa, including travels into remote cacao growing regions of Venezuela and Colombia, we created a recipe that has stood the test of time. Some 9 years later, Kali is Somage’s top selling product line. The high quality cocoa, and single origin couverture still win the affections (and tastebuds) of consumers throughout Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The success of Kali chocolate was the foundation on which Somage was built.
With the success of Kali and the palpable desire for higher-quality products from our customers, the idea came to develop a superior tea offering. Driven by passion - and an innocence that allows action without considering the full consequences - Nathan jumped on a plane to Sri Lanka in search of specialty tea. On arrival in Sri Lanka, the airport looked more like a military base, as the 25-year civil war had only recently ended. The environment was tense, and vehicles were stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Despite this, Nathan had a romantic notion of “roughing it” in search of the ultimate tea plantation. Traveling with locals on crowded buses, packed trains and rickety tuktuks, he ventured down bumpy roads and dirt tracks to find tea suppliers with the potential to make our Chamellia tea a reality.
Through our extensive travels and time spent pondering in cafes, Somage became the first company to popularise the use of panela sugar in cafés. We discovered that refined white and raw sugar caused a decline in the taste and flavour balance of coffee, whereas unrefined organic panela sugar maintained the structure and balance, even as the coffee cooled. In travelling to the panela farms of Colombia it became clear that the toxic chemicals used to refine white and raw sugar were the cause of the decline in taste of coffee. Conversely, panela underwent a very simple manufacturing process, free of synthetic chemicals. With the success of panela, we decided to offer the added convenience of panela sachets, allowing consumers to add it to their drinks on the run.
More years passed, soon we realised that our passion and enthusiasm alone was not enough to inspire an industry appreciation for specialty tea. We decided it would be necessary to educate the industry. After seeing the success of the specialty coffee movement - and Nathan’s experience leading the Victorian chapter of the Australian Specialty Coffee Association (AASCA) - Somage decided that an industry body for specialty tea was required. In collaboration with two other founders (May King and Sarah Cowell), the Australasian Specialty Tea Association (AASTA) was established. Nathan, its inaugural president, is currently presiding for a third term. The association has continued to grow and prosper and now includes the majority of Australia’s leading specialty tea companies.
More recently we observed the lack of knowledge and expertise in the preparation process in tea producing nations. We have commenced educating tea producers on tea infusion and tea tasting in Sri Lanka and China, and also educate café and restaurant owners through the formation of the World Tea Championship. By leveraging our knowledge of specialty coffee judging, and from our role in the Victorian and Australian Barista Championships, we were able to develop a set of rules that evaluates a participant’s tea knowledge, preparation expertise and service. The inaugural event was held at the SIAL Tradeshow in Shanghai, and is quickly becoming the leading event in progressing innovation, and creating an international community for the tea industry.
The knowledge and experience gained from our extensive travels to more than 100 organic tea, cocoa and herb farms, has equipped us with a unique point-of-difference. It is the application of our specialist knowledge that enhances the product and service offering of many of Australia’s most iconic restaurants and cafés. Notable names include Andrew McConnell’s Restaurant Group (Cutler & Co, Luxembourg, Supernormal), Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde), Est. (Merivale), The Grounds of Alexandria, Kitchen by Mike, Sonoma Bakery, Mac Forbes and Nolan Hirte of Proud Mary. We also support numerous coffee companies, distributors, and franchises including 5 Senses Coffee, Pablo & Rusty’s, Wolff Coffee Roasters, Espresso Syndicate, Paul Basset Coffee and Mecca Coffee.