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Tea scene in Singapore heats up

Retailers and eateries are offering more varieties and customisation options to increasingly discerning customers, as well as courses and sommelier training

Coffee is not the only brew in the limelight. Tea drinking here is getting serious too.

Within the past year, home-grown tea companies have upped the ante with customised blends, while restaurants and cafes are offering more than the usual English Breakfast or Earl Grey options.

Business owners say that consumers are paying attention to the origins of the tea, tea blends and the health benefits of drinking tea. And just like the fascination with coffeebrewing apparatus, consumers are also purchasing fancy tea accessories, such as special tea infusers and matcha latte bottles with whisk attachments, as well as teapots and cups.

The industry has also received a boost from Australian Tea Masters, a tea education organisation that conducts certification courses in tea mastery and blending, as well as training for tea sommeliers.

Headquartered in Geelong, Victoria, it was founded in 2012. The Singapore branch was launched in February last year.

On March 4, the organisation will host the first Tea Masters Cup Singapore to showcase local talent in brewing and serving tea.

The annual competition started in Moscow in 2013, and this year's winners from each country will advance to the Tea Masters Cup International later in the year. The venue has not been confirmed; last year's final was held in South Korea.

Ms Julie Wang, 35, certified tea master and training director at Australian Tea Masters, says: "There is room to professionalise tea service and offer a better tea experience in Singapore. We are glad food and beverage professionals are starting to recognise that."

The organisation was the official tea trainer for food trade show Food & Hotel Asia last year. It also collaborated with the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to conduct tea courses, such as Certified Tea Sommelier and Certified Tea Blending.

There is already a waiting list for this year's courses.

Ms Wang says the organisation is also working with Atlas, a barrestaurant opening next month at Parkview Square, on a tea menu and staff training.

Tea companies also welcome the entrance of hip and quirky Melbourne tea brand, T2, to Singapore last month as a good way to elevate the image of tea here.

Ms Nicole Sparshott, 42, chief executive of T2 and vice-president of Unilever, which owns the brand, says: "In Australia, as in Singapore, tea holds a strong presence in people's kitchens, but people are more and more curious about how they can experiment with tea and new ways of enjoying a cup.

"In Singapore especially, the spectrum of tea is so broad, ranging from traditional teahouses to luxe tea retailers to hawker centre tea shops to trendy bubble tea joints. There is love for tea in all shapes and forms."

She calls tea the "beverage of this generation", which can be served hot, cold, milky or pure, or blended with ingredients.

Indeed, the trend of blending teas is catching on.

For new tea label Monogram, just steeping one tea bag in a cup is not enough. Customers are encouraged to blend their own teas at home by layering at least two bags in a pot.

The label was started last November by Gryphon Tea Company's founder, Mr Lim Tian Wee, in conjunction with the company's 10th anniversary. Mr Lim, 47, says: "Everyone can do teas, so we have to do something different by using the scents associated with tea."

After a successful month-long pop-up counter at department store Tangs Orchard last December, he is looking for a retail space for Monogram. He also plans to add a fragrance line to match the teas in the third quarter.

He adds: "Millennials are looking at customisation, from shoes to perfume. So we have to respond to this trend. Our range is tolerant of 'mistakes'. You can't really go wrong blending the teas."

His first corporate customer is the soon-to-open The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar by acclaimed New York-based chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

As for the Gryphon brand, Mr Lim is looking to launch a range of bottled sparkling iced teas, priced under $5, featuring its top-selling flavours.

Mr Mike Chin, 49, owner of d'Good Cafe, started a second outlet at Ngee Ann City in September last year with tea drinkers in mind. It comes with a tea bar and the cafe's own DGC Tea label. Mr Chin received his tea training under Australian Tea Masters. The cafe's first outlet is at Holland Village.

Mr Chin observes that the coffee scene is "very saturated", and predicts that cafes are likely to shift their focus to tea in the future.

However, he finds it difficult to hire qualified staff. "People are familiar with baristas, but not tea sommeliers," he says.

Changing consumers' impressions is another challenge. He says: "People are spoilt by tea that is too sweet and artificially flavoured. Some ask me why the tea flavour is so light. But teas from China and Taiwan tend to be lighter, while the heavier ones are from Japan."

Also jumping on the tea bandwagon is Ms Tan Geok Kuan, 47, co-founder of Juan Tea.

The housewife has always been a tea drinker and would concoct herbal blends for her three children, aged 13 to 17, to get them to drink tea instead of soft drinks.

Two months ago, she launched her first collection of Rainbow Tea, which features seven caffeine-free herbal and floral tisanes inspired by the colours of the rainbow. Juan Tea's co-founder Kenneth Li, 31, is looking to expand the brand to Malaysia, Taiwan and China.

Ms Daryl Teo, 41, managing director of two-year-old home-grown tea brand Pin Tea, says: "Tea is the new coffee. We are very encouraged by the entrance of new global players such as T2 and Australian Tea Masters. This will only continue to raise interest, as well as the standard of tea served in Singapore."

Tea fan Julie Lim, 44, says: "I've been a big fan of T2 since I went to Melbourne five years ago, so I was really pleased it finally opened in Singapore. I like floral and fruity tea, so it's good that more brands are introducing such teas.

"I've also tried some of d'Good Cafe's iced tea and I hope more restaurants can do similar drinks. I'm sick of the usual sweetened tea."


What's brewing

T2

What: The hip T2 brand from Melbourne, Australia, is shaking up the scene with its two-month-old store at 313@Somerset - its first in Asia.

It offers more than 150 types of tea - from black, green, white, oolong and rooibos to herbal and floral tisanes. To mark its opening here, the company (whose chief executive, Ms Nicole Sparshott, 42) has also come up with the Singapore Breakfast tea, which is a blend of pu'er, green tea, coconut flakes and roasted rice.

Prices start at $15 for a 100g box of loose tea leaves. A selection of iced tea sold in cartons under the label T2 Iced is also available at $7. Current flavours are matcha, Melbourne Breakfast and Life's A Peach.

The store also sells a wide variety of teapots, stainless steel flasks and brewing tools. Check out the T2 Matcha Flask ($50), which comes with a stainless steel whisk attachment, a handy tool for those who want to make matcha latte on the go.

Where: 01-20, 313@Somerset, 313 Orchard Road, open: 10am to 10pm daily

Info: Call 6835-7085 or go to www.t2tea.com


d’Good Cafe


Mike Chin. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

What: While its first outlet at Holland Village focuses on coffee, d'Good Cafe's five-month-old branch at Ngee Ann City shines the spotlight on tea instead.

Owner Mike Chin, 49, started learning about tea two years ago and attended tea blending and tea sommelier courses.

The cafe's menu has a selection of tea mocktails, brewed iced tea and tea lattes. Customers can also make an appointment for tea appreciation sessions. Each session costs $25 for two types of tea (lasting for more than 20 minutes) and $50 for four types (more than 40 minutes).

For his DGC Tea brand, Mr Chin imports tea directly from suppliers in Taiwan and Japan, among other places. The tea leaves are sold at the cafe.

Where: B1-56 Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road, open: 10am to 10pm daily

Info: Call 6694-1411 or go to www.dgoodcafe.com


Juan Tea


Tan Geok Kuan. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

What: What started out as a way to get her three children to drink tea brewed with flowers or herbs has become a two-month-old business for Juan Tea's co-founder Tan Geok Kuan, 47.

The brand is named after her name in hanyu pinyin - Yu Juan. Her first collection of Rainbow Tea features seven caffeine-free herbal and floral tisanes - inspired by the colours of the rainbow. The Calming Green - with lemongrass, peppermint, blue pea flower, stevia and pandan - turns green when brewed. And the Energizing Orange, with French rose, tangerine peel, stevia, rooibos, mango and pineapple, turns orange. The colours come from the ingredients.

Prices start at $12 for a jar of seven Rainbow Tea bags, with one of each flavour.

Where: In department stores, including Takashimaya Shopping Centre, Tangs Orchard and Isetan Scotts, as well as Naiise at 02-23 Central, 6 Eu Tong Sen Street, and Megafash, 01-488/490 Suntec City Tower 2, 3 Temasek Boulevard, various opening hours

Info: www.juantea.com


Monogram


Lim Tian Wee. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

What: In line with the Gryphon Tea Company's 10th anniversary in November last year, founder Lim Tian Wee, 47, launched a new range of teas called Monogram. Customers are encouraged to blend their own teas at home by layering at least two bags in a teapot.

For example, Cherry Japonais green tea with pickled cherry blossoms is recommended to go with Rose of Ariana, which has hand-picked and air-dried rose buds.

Prices start at $14 for a box of 16 sachets. The full range ($50 for 48 sachets) includes black, herbal, green and oolong teas. Tips on pairing tea flavours and information on the teas are available on the company's website.

Info: www.monogramtea.com

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'It's time for tea'. Print Edition | Subscribe