SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Is tea the new coffee? While that may spark a revolt by single origin coffee bean addicts on a caffeine high, there's no denying that tea lovers in Singapore are on a roll.
Just in the last few months, there have been new entrants in the form of independent local brands such as Kittea, as well as international brands hoping for a piece of the Singapore pie such as French brand Kusmi Tea and London brand Newby Teas.
There's even an upcoming Singapore Tea Festival - the first of its kind - happening later this month involving a number of existing small local tea companies.
Its organiser is five-year-old local tea retailer The 1872 Clipper Tea Co, and it is organising a weekend of eating and tea-drinking, plus a Tea Museum exhibition, workshops, and craft sessions.
Rehan Amarasuriya, director of The 1872 Clipper Tea Co, explains that running this festival was a way of getting its community together and familiarize consumers with its products.
"We're up against the likes of alcohol and coffee, and though over the years there have been more and more cool brands coming up, they're all scattered all over the place," says Mr Amarasuriya.
"There's also a definitely growing demand for tea, but a lot of prominence has gone to coffee over the years. I think it comes down to the Starbucks effect. Starbucks set that platform, and you have other operators like TCC and Coffee Club, and then there were the independent coffee entrepreneurs.
That's how the market developed but you don't have that with tea so it's behind coffee by 20 years. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have the potential to be as vibrant as the coffee industry," he adds.
One of the global industry trends shows tea being incorporated into other aspects of daily lifestyle, such as cocktails, and even food. Kusmi Tea's export sales manager Eleonore de Longueville explains people are now cooking with its matcha tea, and it has even done collaborations with famous chefs in France who have made recipes based on the brew.
While there are already some eateries in Singapore that already cook with tea - not just pastries, but also main dishes - Sri Lankan tea company Dilmah has also been encouraging more chefs to do so by holding their first-ever Tea Inspired Awards this year. Thirty cafes and casual restaurants here have created a tea-inspired item that is now available on their menus till July 31.
Participating establishments include The 1925 Brewing Co with its own tea beer made with Perfect Ceylon and Spice Chai, Do.Main Bakery & Cafe with its Elegant Earl Grey Mille Feuille Chocolate and Ceylon Spice Chai Eclair, as well as Non-Entree Desserts Cafe with its Ike & Mallow Shrub Tea set meal.
"Most chefs have not seriously considered tea as an ingredient at least not beyond the basics - tea smoking or tea marinade. The real potential of tea as an ingredient lies in an understanding of the different terroirs in tea gardens in different regions, the seasonal variations and the flavour, texture, aroma and strength that tea offers on the eye, nose and palate. Naturally we hope to introduce culinary professionals, bartenders and consumers to the goodness and good taste in tea," explains Dilhan C Fernando, the son of Dilmah Tea founder Merrill J Fernando.
And just like the rest of the F&B industry, tea is also going in the direction of wellness and transparency. As Estella Lau of Newby Teas notes: "Tea-drinking is on an upward trend and more people are talking about tea. There are people switching from coffee to tea as a healthier option as well. There is a rise of the conscious consumer, where ethics and responsible sourcing play a big part. It's huge in the US and in Europe, and Singapore has been catching on as well."
As a fan of both cats and tea, Kittea was a natural business idea for 28-year-old Inez Lim. She has a range of 12 different tea blends, each named after a specific cat breed, such as The British Shorthair (Earl Grey Blue) made up of Ceylon black tea, bergamot oil, lemon oil, and blue cornflowers, and The Siamese (Sawatdee Blend) made up of ginger, lemongrass, lemon peel, liquorice root, and spearmint. Each tin of 20g costs S$8, and is available online.
"I used to question why all the tea I bought, both locally and overseas, seemed to have this 'stiff upper lip'-type of branding with colonial-era dates plastered across the packaging. It felt a bit dry and formal to me.
That's why I made my product something that's quirky and doesn't take itself seriously," says Ms Lim, who left a career in public relations to start her tea business.
So far, she has observed that Singaporean customers were not as adventurous with tea as they usually are with food. "I kept getting requests for classic blends like Earl Grey and Chamomile. I realised people buy classic blends for their own consumption, but hunt for exotic, and unique blends as gifts," she adds.
Kusmi Tea's long history dates back an impressive 150years, when its Russian founder Pavel MichailovitchKousmichoff started a small teahouse in St Petersburg in1867. It is often thought of as a French brand however,since the business was shifted to Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Though it has since built itself a reputation in Europe, it was just last month that Kusmi Tea made an official entrance into the Singapore market with a dedicated counter at the basement of Takashimaya.
"Our philosophy is to enable everybody to drink premium tea. We like to say our current CEO has a common taste, because that allows him to create blends suitable for everyone," says the brand's export sales manager Eleonore de Longueville.
A few of its signature blends come from the Russian collection, such as the Anastacia - a blend of black China and Ceylon teas with bergamot, lemon, lime and orange blossom, and the Prince Vladimir - black China teas with bergamot, lemon, grapefruit, vanilla and spices.
In keeping up with the times however, Ms de Longueville highlights that Kusmi Tea also offers a Wellness collection of detox teas like the Blue Detox - green tea, rosehip seeds, rooibos and pineapple flavouring, as well as the BB Detox - green tea, rosehip seeds, rooibos, and grapefruit flavouring.
Tea should not be taken with sugar and milk - that's what Newby Teas founder Nirmal Sethia believes.
Because if the tea leaves themselves are of a good quality, then it's not necessary to mask their flavour by adding things that are detrimental to a person's health.
Though he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he didn't quite take the easy route and instead opted to strike out on his own as a tea apprentice at the age of 14. He eventually started Newby Teas in 2000, and it has now grown into an international company with over 130 awards to its name.
Here in Singapore, Newby Teas has been around for about three years, but is mostly carried by restaurants such as Long Chim and the now-defunct Sky On 57, or boutique hotels like The Club or Wangz Hotel. Earlier this week, it held its official launch with a new classic tea bag collection, as well as two new green teas - the Earl Green, and the Highland Green.
Says Newby South East Asia's chief executive officer Estella Lau: "Newby Teas was founded not to make money but to preserve tea culture, create awareness of tea history, and preserve the art of tea. We only buy from the top 5 per cent of the world's production of tea, and even till today, every batch of tea has to pass through him (Mr Sethia) for approval before it hits the shelves."