Holistic heritage brew

Holistic heritage brew

When your family once owned sprawling tea plantations and have the knowledge and capability in manufacturing tea, then reading the tea leaves at the bottom of the tea cup is easy.

The dregs can only read "Build a tea brand" - which is what Singapore's BP de Silva Group's fifth-generation scion Rehan Amarasuriya, 27, was tasked with and set out to do. With the explosion of interest in branded and designer coffees in the last couple of years, he sees Singapore consumers wanting more quality in their teas as well.

BP de Silva Group's 1872 Clipper Tea was launched earlier this year, pitched at a cut above supermarket grades. The brand has been making an impact in boutique settings such as PasarBella and Tangs' recently revamped basement store.

"The idea of 1872 Clipper Tea is to elevate the tea experience beyond a simple beverage and make it a simple daily luxury since tea is something accessible to everyone. We take the best of each tea-growing region - Ceylon, India and Taiwan," he adds.

"The whole idea is to close the gap between buying tea based on sight and smell - and tasting," Rehan says of 1872 Clipper Tea's comprehensive clipper-themed booth, which also offers tea sampling and tea gifts.

"From what we've noticed, customers want something they can experience while we want to educate them about tea. Consumers should be able to taste the teas they buy, at the retail level," he adds.

The current trend points to flavoured teas as well as herbal, non-caffeinated teas. "People are beginning to take to infusions. And then there are specialist teas we carry, such as Oolong from Alishan, recommended by a staff member who discovered it while on holiday in Taiwan. The estate sent us their first flush and we've been buying from them ever since," says Mr Amarasuriya.

The label has some 40 different types of tea at the moment, but Mr Amarasuriya envisions a total of 60-70 varieties in the near future.

1872 Clipper Tea is blended and packaged by BP de Silva Group's tea production plant, Tea Tang, in Sri Lanka. Tea Tang Ltd, incorporated in 1979, also packages tea for the Sri Lanka Tea Promotion Board and Sri Lanka's Jetwing hotel chain, while its overseas clients include the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

The 1872 Clipper Tea label was started over a year ago; leveraging on its existing expertise. The majority of Tea Tang's products actually head to the Middle East and Russia, which are also Sri Lanka's biggest customers.

The year 1872 refers to the time the BP de Silva family owned its first tea plantations, which sprawled over 100 acres. In 1970, the government nationalised tea estates so each family was limited to only 50 hectares. The family subsequently sold its plantations, but kept its hold on the tea production business instead.

Global leader

BP de Silva is, of course, a household name in Singapore, originally associated with jewellery - a business established in Singapore by entrepreneur Balage Porolis de Silva, who had set sail in the late 1800s from Galle to Singapore. The company has, over 140 years, grown from a small jewellery business on High Street to a diversified conglomerate, focusing on luxury goods and commodities.

Rehan, the second child of BP de Silva Group chairman Sunil Amarasuriya works closely with the company's Value Addition division in Colombo which looks after the development of brands.

Tea production, by the way, is a lot more complex than tea-bagging a bunch of dried leaves. Over at Tea Tang, there is a whole laboratory, full of canisters and tin boxes of tea leaves, dedicated to the daily tasting of teas and grading.

Every week, thousands of samples from over 600 estates in Sri Lanka get sent to the factory, and tea tasters sip their way through some 2,000 cups a week. "We have three master tea-tasters with a combined 100 years of experience in tasting teas," explains Mr Amarasuriya.

Tea leaves are then blended so that they always fit the taste requirements of clients. "Customers from the Middle East like their tea strong in flavour and colour. And colour is also important in Hong Kong," he explains.

Japanese and British tea-drinkers like theirs with milk, so there tends to be more Dimbulla-originated tea in the blend which is more tannic and bitter. Nuwara Eliya teas, on the other hand, are lighter.

Tea Tang does the tasting, cleaning, blending, bagging, packaging and then exporting of Ceylon Tea. In Sri Lanka, Tea Tang is one of the more progressive factories in terms of utilisation of technology.

Further plans are being made for more modern machines in various parts of the production facility. As part of their business model, the group is constantly on the look-out for the latest technology, in order to be at the forefront and a global leader in tea production .

BP de Silva have moved from its River Valley office to a new building at Leng Kee, where the entire group's business concerns will be located on one floor. The space will allow for a warehousing and even a tea-tasting room, says Mr Amarasuriya. Grander plans for the tea business are a-brewing.

uihoon@sph.com.sg


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