Going on a tea spree in Singapore
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 were 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 chichi mall, there is also an indie player whose marketing plans consist solely of Instagram posts and word-of-mouth.
"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."
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 sells her products to 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 $6 to $7 for a sample packet containing five tea pyramids, and $17 to $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 the supermarket brand - and they may be even more expensive than established home-grown companies.
For example, a sachet of Earl Grey tea ranges from about $0.60 at The 1872 Clipper Tea Co to $0.80 at Gryphon, compared with $0.85 from newer brands such as Allerines Tea and over $1 at Collaboration Tea. But it is still much cheaper than TWG Tea's version, which costs over $1.65 a sachet.
"Customers are getting more sophisticated and are gaining more interest and knowledge of teas in general," says Ms Khoo.
"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, home-grown tea entrepreneurs 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.
Being home-grown 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.
The 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 $7 for 50g of tea from its Gourmet Selection of premium loose leaves teas to $21.45 for 20 sachets of its Artisan Selection Singapura Spice tea (all other Artisan Selection tea sachets are $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. Pin Tea costs $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.
Tealy teas cost from $11 to $12.80 for 20 sachets to $45 for 100g of limited-edition loose leaf teas and a tea strainer.
But while a US$10 million (S$14.3 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 home-grown 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 $14 for 24 sachets of Clipper's Essentials (English Breakfast Tea) and Tropics (Summer Passion Fruit) teas to $52 per 100g pouch of its Gyokuro shaded green tea from its Luxuries range.
Says Rehan Amarasuriya, the fifth generation scion of the BP de Silva family: "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."
THE BUSINESS TIMES