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Brewing up a storm
THERE may be an artisanal coffee shop on every other street corner, but tea is the most consumed drink in the world after water, and at least 10 tea brands have been born and brewed right here in the past five years to keep up with growing demand. For every luxury-steeped, old-world tea salon that pops up in a chi-chi mall, there's also an indie player whose marketing plans consist solely of Instagram posts and word-of-mouth. When the barrier of entry is dictated by the ability to track down reputable suppliers and an affinity for tea puns, is our Lion City set for a cha shakedown?
"The demand for teas has increased over the years with consumers being more health-conscious and increasingly knowledgeable about the health benefits that come along with drinking tea," says Abigail Lam, a marketing professional who started her brand of premium loose leaf teas Collaboration Tea just last year with her accountant partner, Colleen Chan.
"Often, off-the-shelf products are of lower quality and the premium teas in certain cafes are only accessible by the more affluent. We hope to cater to a wider market with the blends that we have crafted. Being Singaporeans, we understand the Singapore "teh" taste that we are all accustomed to, and hope that our teas become part of Singaporeans' daily drinking habit."
According to every purveyor of brews, tea consumption is on the rise in every demographic. While there are gourmands who enjoy their traditional cuppas set in a wood-panelled tea room, there are even more bubble tea addicts who could be converted into Royal Milk Tea connoisseurs.
"We found that there was a gap in the market for good quality blended teas at affordable prices," says Wyna Khoo, who has an online store for her four-year-old Allerines Tea line, and also sells her products to various restaurants and cafes.
"Hence, we decided to take things into our own hands and source good quality teas with interesting blends that are both affordable and easy for our customers to consume on a daily basis. Which is why our teas are available for sale online and prices include complimentary delivery via Singpost."
Allerines sells its teas from S$6 to S$7 for a sample packet containing five tea pyramids, and S$17 to S$19 for a box of 20. However, while the wide variety of brands available provides tea lovers with a plethora of brews, even the smaller labels are charging three times as much as a supermarket brand - and they may be even more expensive than more established homegrown companies. For example, a sachet of Earl Grey tea ranges from about S$0.60 at 1872 Clipper Tea Co and S$0.80 at Gryphon, compared to S$0.85 from newer brands such as Allerines Tea and over S$1 at Collaboration Tea. But it's still much cheaper than TWG Tea's version, which works out to over S$1.65 a sachet. "Customers are getting more sophisticated and are gaining more interest and knowledge of teas in general," says Ms Khoo, who attended trade shows and tried hundreds of teas from various suppliers and kept a list detailing their origins and taste.
"They are able to taste the differences between whole loose leaf premium teas that we carry compared to the tea dust bags that are available at supermarkets at a cheaper price. Customers do understand why loose leaf teas are more expensive, and they can justify the price difference when they enjoy a better cup of tea."
Besides familiar favourites, homegrown tea entrepeneurs are also creative with their blends, branding and business models to give them an edge. Unlike bigger companies, the year-old Collaboration Tea brand customises smaller orders of tea, such as for wedding favours. "As we're not a big company at the moment, we are more flexible and can cater to smaller events that can't reach the minimum order quantity required by bigger players," says Ms Lam, who gets Sri Lankan black teas and Chinese Oolong teas from local suppliers.
Bold use of Asian ingredients
Being homegrown brands, such tea companies also appeal to local tastes through the bold and creative use of Asian ingredients. Gryphon, for one, has recently launched a Singapura Spice tea with curry leaves - after being tasked by the Singapore Tourism Board to create a unique blend to represent our identity; 1872 Clipper Tea Co has a gula melaka-infused tea inspired by Lau Pa Sat; Pin Tea, the latest to join the local tea fray, launched a collection of Singapore teas including a jasmine green tea inspired by the flower sellers in Little India, called Tekka Minute. At Gryphon, it costs S$7 for 50g of tea from its Gourmet Selection of premium loose leaves teas to S$21.45 for 20 sachets of its Artisan Selection Singapura Spice tea (all other Artisan Selection tea sachets are S$16.60 for 20 sachets).
"There is a lack of local tea brands that are proudly Singaporean," says Debbie Yong, who started Pin Tea with her brother two months ago. A former journalist with Singapore Press Holdings and founder of the now-defunct gourmet e-store Batch, she now sells her seven teas inspired by local neighbourhoods online and at The Redundant Shop, SPR MRKT and Naiise. "Existing brands are either too colonial or Western in their branding, or too traditionally Chinese and fuddy-duddy, and unappealing to the young and foreigners."
She also claims that many blends by big commercial brands are mainly perfumed with chemical scents or flavourings. Black teas, for example, have a very robust flavour so to create, say, a mango tea, chemical fragrances might be added to artificially reproduce the smell or mask the inferior quality of the tea. Pin Tea costs S$25 for 18 sachets
The ability to make teas exciting and exotic through unique blends, however, was the main reason Kyne Qiu started the Tealy tea brand with his brother in 2013.
"The teas in Singapore are mainly typical blends like English Breakfast, Earl Grey and chamomile, but the blends in other parts of the world are more exciting and fun," says Mr Qiu, who introduces new flavours every month, including a mint chocolate black tea or a Wonder Berry Chocolate Truffle variety. "Therefore, we feel that there is a gap in the market - consumers are not exposed to the full spectrum and potential of blended teas." Tealy teas cost from S$11 to S$12.80 for 20 sachets to S$45 for 100g of limited-edition loose leaf teas and a tea strainer
But while a US$10 million investment - the amount that TWG Tea reportedly started out with when launching the business - might not be a prerequisite for getting into the business, having strong financial backing and being vertically integrated does give tea towkays an edge.
The 1872 Clipper Tea Co - the 27-year-old homegrown tea brand owned by BP de Silva Holdings - invests in plantations and owns a tea factory with the means to purchase in bulk and in turn pass on savings to consumers. Its tea masters also each taste an average of 500 cups of tea a week and grade 1,500 lots to determine the quality of tea to purchase.
It costs S$14 for 24 sachets of Clipper's Essentials (English Breakfast Tea) and Tropics (Summer Passion Fruit) teas to S$52 per 100g pouch of its Gyokuro shaded green tea from its Luxuries range.
"Young tea brands may not have the capital to own a tea factory like ours, which is essential for business to scale bigger in the long term," reveals Rehan Amarasuriya, the fifth generation scion of the BP de Silva family. He adds that a tea master requires almost a decade of experience to be bestowed his title.
"Also, most tea brands will have part of their supply chain outsourced. For example, they may lack experienced tea masters to taste and purchase, and therefore lack full control over the quality of tea they market. At The 1872 Clipper Tea Co, we maintain full control over our production line, and thus offer a more consistent, quality cup of tea."
Despite the wide range in business models, the influx of indie tea companies could only amp up the local tea scene. And Lim Tian Wee, founder of the 14-year-old Gryphon Tea Company, feels that the appreciation of fine teas still needs plenty of cultivation.
"Singaporean consumers are relatively new to gourmet teas as compared to European consumers," says Mr Lim, who hails from a family of multi-generational tea traders. "Globally, the Americans are picking up their knowledge of tea quickly and fast becoming a formidable voice in the global market place."
For Kaylin Toh, a psychology graduate who distributes a range of organic and natural teas and also creates custom blends for clients under her brand, Tea Traders Company, the idea to start a tea marque from scratch arose from a personal passion for the drink. "Breakfast and afternoon tea sessions were the norm with my aunts over at their place in my youth, and the occasional sipping of Tie Guan Yin and Pu Er with my father as he shared about Chinese teachings and values on weekends," recalls Ms Toh, who also provides gift customisation, and consults on tea pairing, choice of equipment, personalised branding and menu creation for corporate clients.
"However, the bigger inspirations came about through my travels. I've had fresh herbal-infused green tea in a friend's house in France, Masala Chai freshly made over a stove in a tiny kitchen in India and even a nice warm cup of Nepali ciya amid the Himalayas."
But building a business on sheer passion alone might not be enough. Ms Toh took a course at the International Tea Education Institute (ITEI) to obtain certification as a tea master. To share her love of tea, she has started tea appreciation and education courses for local fans of the brew in partnership with the Canadian-based tea school. Her teas start from S$9.90 for 50gms.
Even Mr Lim, whose family tea-trading business Lim Kheng Thiam was started by his great-grandmother, believes that those with a strong interest in the industry - even without deep pockets, are able to embark upon a career in the business.
"Passion is important as well as creativity when it comes to food and drinks," says Mr Lim, who believes the industry is far from saturated and welcomes new additions.
"I started the business with formal training in the tea industry from the family business. In my 14 years in the business, I have met many tea enthusiasts who share their passion with me. Admittedly, I was impressed with their knowledge on tea and the industry. With a good nose and palate, I believe one can create a mix and match tea to suit individual preferences."
THE head of 1872 Clipper Tea Co, Rehan Amarasuriya, shares his tea-shopping tips:
- To differentiate between a cup of premium tea from one that is not so premium, one must first taste a good quality cup of tea that can serve as a benchmark. Hence, I will advise tea lovers to explore different brands of teas for a start.
- When grading tea, we often look at its origin. Single-origin teas are considered to be of better quality. Many tea players will try to blend different qualities and grades of tea together to lower their cost.
- Many non-premium brands tend to use smaller tea leaves. However, in order to pack the tea into teabags, the use of smaller or "broken" tea leaves is sometimes unavoidable. Hence, premium tea shops usually offer and recommend loose tea leaves, as the quality is often better.
- Smell or taste the tea before purchase. This ability to interact with the tea is more often offered in boutiques, rather than supermarkets.
- The taste and flavour of tea should not be overly astringent (if brewed properly), and should not taste flat, and should end pleasantly on the palate.