Luxe tea served like wine

One could be forgiven for mistaking Royal Blue Tea's range of cold-brewed teas for wine.

After all, the golden liquid is poured from a dark bottle, the sort that usually contains wine, into fine stemware, swirled and savoured like premium wine.

The tea leaves are handpicked from various tea plantations in Japan and around the world, and cold-brewed using the mizudashi technique in Kanagawa prefecture. This means that the tea is infused in unboiled fresh water for three to six days.

The fragrant teas have no preservatives, artificial flavouring or chemicals and go through filter sterilisation, a heat-free sterilisation method used to eliminate bacteria and impurities.

The nine-year-old tea brand's founder and president, Ms Keiko Yoshimoto, 43, was in town recently to promote the teas as an alternative to the usual alcohol pairings with food.

It is available only at 14-seat French restaurant Beni at the Mandarin Gallery, opened in July by the owners of Japanese restaurant Hashida Sushi.

Beni carries a range of the teas, including Queen Of Blue Deluxe (Taiwanese blue tea, $23 a glass, $188 a bottle), Jewel Of Flowers Hana (a Chinese jasmine tea, $28 a glass, $228 a bottle), and Gyokuro Houjicha Kaho (lightly roasted Japanese green tea, $26 a glass, $208 a bottle).

Beni's sommelier Hiromi Muraoka guides the luxurious tea pairing experience. Lunch costs $128 or $228 (with a welcome Royal Blue Tea), and the dinner degustation is $298 with a welcome gyokuro tea.

Ms Yoshimoto's passion for the exquisite teas stems from a tough episode in her life. At the age of 22, the former graphic designer, who is single, suffered from a severe bacterial infection that left her bed-ridden for 10 years.

During her illness, tea became her beverage of choice. A visit to a tea house in Japan about 10 years ago, shortly after her recovery, left her thinking about new ways to serve tea.

She says: "Why are tea leaves not so popular, I wondered. Why must tea always be served in a teapot? I was thinking about how to serve tea where it would be accepted anywhere and by anyone.

"Plus, there are many people who cannot drink alcohol like me. Many also can't drink because of religion, but they can drink tea instead."

She attended a tea school run by tea sommelier Sato Setsuo and received funding to start her own business from the Syonan Industrial Foundation Promotion Board. In 2006, she founded Royal Blue Tea in collaboration with Mr Setsuo.

Ms Yoshimoto says: "Like wine, tea leaves also have terroir and most tea companies do not tell consumers about this. Most of them focus on branding and many teas are blended with leaves from all around the world. They cannot tell the story behind the tea."

She tells Life where she gets her tea leaves from and how some of them are only available in very limited quantities.

The King Of Green Hiro premium, for example, is an exclusive green tea that can only be bought during auctions via tea brokers. The higher the price paid during the auction, the more expensive the bottle will be. Only 100 bottles of The King Of Green Hiro premium are available each year.

In the first few years, Royal Blue Tea sold fewer than 1,000 bottles a month. Now, she is finally seeing profit, says Ms Yoshimoto, as production has increased by four times. Next year, a new factory will open and production is projected to increase by five times.

She also hopes that more diners will consider tea-pairing options.

She says: "Like wine, tea can be paired with seafood, meats and dessert. It is fragrant, and light on the palate. Also, you won't be hung over the next day."

Beni at 04-16B Mandarin Gallery, 333 Orchard Road, tel: 6235-2285, is open from 11.30am to 3pm, 6.30 to 11pm, Monday to Saturday, closed on Sunday

This article was first published on Nov 15, 2015.
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