Vintage Pu-erh, Silver Needle and Lion Mountain Keemun tea may sound like selections from a speciality teahouse, but are actually part of the drinks menu at fine-dining establishment CUT by Wolfgang Puck.
“(If) you want to be a great restaurant, you serve good tea,” says general manager Wes Guild. So you shouldn’t be surprised to see different vintages of Pu-erh by the table, presented in a traditional Chinese teapot and strainer, and poured into espresso cups for a modern spin.
CUT is only one of the restaurants that are part of a new movement pushing Chinese tea beyond its traditional image. In Kreta Ayer Road on the outskirts of Chinatown, European-style patisserie Les Delices gives diners the option of hot or cold-brewed Shuixian, Fenghuang Dancong, Tieguanyin or Pu-erh. “People actually remember us as the patisserie that serves cold-brewed Chinese tea, so it has created a strong identity for us,” says Glenda Sim, who owns the store with sister Georgina.
Tea hasn’t always enjoyed such popularity and prestige, though. More often associated with dim sum lunches and banquet dinners, or with fuddy-duddies surrounded by curious antiques, Chinese (and by extension, oriental) tea never quite seemed like it had a place at the contemporary dining table. Almost overnight, however, the humble brew – so revered by the Chinese for centuries – has broken out of its traditional confines and burst onto the scene with a wholly refreshed image. Yet, the new-found adoration for tea belies the many struggles that merchants have long faced to bring it to what it is today.
A blend of Shuixian and Kuding, created by tea merchant Pek Sin Choon for Siong Leng Musical Association’s charity dinner, takes the drinker aback with its overwhelming bitterness. Yet, the brew gradually develops a nuanced, calming sweetness. The bittersweet brew acutely captures the journey of 45-year-old owner Kenry Peh’s family tea business, which his great-grandmother established in 1925. From its early days of peddling tea in Chinatown, Pek Sin Choon – the name is a combination of the family surname and the Hokkien words for “new springtime” – now wears the years with pride as one of Singapore’s oldest-surviving tea merchants.
But, if surviving the generations has been tough, making it through the last decade has been even harder. The H1N1 pandemic which exacerbated the financial crisis of 2008 was a most excruciating time, during which the business reported zero sales. But the plucky scion has since weathered the storms and knows what it takes to survive in the 21st century.
Standing in stark contrast to Peh’s shop is the modest office of Eagle Tea Merchant. Nestled in a fourth-floor unit at Midview City, the business is founded and run by 28-year-old Alex Lim. His interest in tea was sparked by a holiday in China, and Lim is part of a younger crowd who is trying to revive and sustain traditional tea culture.
Lim, who spent two years intensely studying, researching and sourcing for teas in China and Malaysia, entered the tea scene two years back, offering a small but carefully assembled collection of Pu-erh and oolong teas. He has since won himself a group of (mostly) young to middle-aged English-speaking private customers and collectors who spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to upwards of $10,000 on his tea and tea wares.
For Eunice Tan, the question of age seems to be less of an issue. The 19-year-old is the face of Cliff Three, her family’s new tea business, where she is helping out while awaiting enrolment into university. The Tans spent three years researching and sourcing in China and Malaysia, partnering suppliers and tea collectors to put together a steady supply of authentic pesticide-free Wuyi cliff teas. The family says it has no intention of becoming a big player in Singapore’s tea market, but hopes that there can be a platform where merchants can exchange information and learn from one another.
Going by the success of tea concepts in Singapore, these young faces have a good chance of carrying on an age-old tradition. Veteran tea master Carrie Chen, who opened Tea Bone Zen Mind over two decades ago, started out with a shop in Liang Seah Street, before moving to a shophouse in Seah Street, and then a three-storey property in Hoot Kiam Road. Today, it is housed across two very spacious and tastefully done-up units on Emerald Hill – one for tea enjoyment, and the other is a dedicated gallery featuring ceramic art such as drinking vessels, teapots and other tea-brewing cornucopia. Tea sessions (by appointment only) are meticulously designed by Chen, typically featuring three types of tea served with light bites on the side. More than ever, Tea Bone Zen Mind’s extraordinary growth and success over the years attests to an increased appreciation for fine tea.
The interest is not limited to just Chinese tea. At the newly unveiled French fine-dining 14-seater Beni, overseen by group sommelier and restaurant manager Hiromi Muraoka, patrons enjoy a tea programme and service that centres around the concept of chaen, or tea banquet, where different teas are paired with a multi-course meal. A speciality tea label exclusive to Beni is Royal Blue Tea from Kanagawa, Japan, comprising Japanese and Chinese teas cold-brewed using natural spring water from Mt Fuji. Contained in dark glass bottles with glass stoppers, the teas stay fresh for two to six months depending on variety. “Chaen as a dining concept is still very new. As teas gain in popularity and following, we see more and more guests open to the idea of pairing teas with meals,” says Muraoka. “The teas are served in crystal wine glasses so that guests may appreciate their delicate aromas.”
Right next door at Hashida Garo, a stark, quiet elegance fills the tea room in this new space opened by sushi chef Kenjiro Hashida. Except that this isn’t just another tea room – it is also an art gallery. “I’m aiming to grow and promote tea culture here,” says the 36-year-old. “It’s where diners can come to see a more casual form of the Japanese tea ceremony. If they like what they see, maybe they will be prompted to learn the full ceremony.”
The ceremony in question is chanoyu, where matcha tea is ceremonially prepared and served in a tea bowl. A large tatami stage that takes pride of place at the outfit is purpose-built for this ritual. “This concept may still be too new for local customers,” says Hashida. “But I’m confident that people will like what we’re doing.”
Indeed, as guests linger over aromatic brews served in gorgeously crafted pots and cups, Hashida’s words carry more than a ring of truth. A new springtime is coming.