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Storm in a teacup: could instant tea overtake the classic bag?

Simon Cheng’s grandfather turned 102 this year. The secret to his longevity? “He drinks three cups of tea a day,” says Cheng, a former hedge fund manager who ditched the corporate life to focus on his mission to heal the world with tea. Tea crystals to be exact.

Cheng is the founder of Pique Tea, a crystallised tea that instantly dissolves in hot or cold water. He believes Pique, which claims to deliver six times the antioxidants as the tea brewed from teabags, will replace the teabag one day. “I would equate tea crystals to the teabag, which was invented more than 100 years ago, as being the new format of how people will be drinking tea,” he says.

For Cheng, who was born in Hong Kong, tea drinking was a beloved family ritual growing up. But, after moving to the US in his teens, he became more consumed with getting into top schools and highly-paid jobs. “I was working very long days for years without taking much care of my body, which just left me constantly in and out of the doctor’s clinic,” he says. He developed health issues, and had to undergo surgery for collapsed lungs. A turning point came on his 30th birthday, which he spent in hospital being treated for an infection. “It was a real wake-up call for me,” he says. “I just took a look at myself and wondered what I was going to do to heal myself.”

He started practising chi kung meditation and turned to Chinese medicine. “On a physical level I never felt better, but I also felt energised emotionally and spiritually,” he says. He travelled to Asia, visiting Tibet, Indonesia and Yunnan province in south-west China, meeting experts in plant-based medicine. In Yunnan province he discovered an ancient method for turning tea leaves into a form of medicine through a process of boiling and reduction known as Cha Gao, or tea paste. “It’s a 1,300-year-old preparation they’ve been doing,” he says. “I was so amazed that I became very inspired to share that with the world.”



Simon Cheng, founder, Pique Tea. Photograph: Kacy Johnson

Intent on creating his own version of this tea, Cheng developed a cold-brewing process whereby leaves are brewed at low temperatures for up to eight hours to fully extract the nutrients and produce crystals. Pique Tea was born. Pique, which launched in 2016, won three gold medals earlier this year at the tea industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Global Tea Championship. The organic tea, with flavours including organic jasmine green and English breakfast, is sold online and stocked in 1,500 stores in the US, including Whole Foods Market.

The US may be a famously coffee-loving nation, but tea is finding fans in the younger generation, with a poll last year showing coffee and tea were equally popular among millennials. Cheng feels he’s part of this tea revolution. “In California, we supply [the offices of] Facebook, Airbnb and Snapchat and the tea drinking ratio [to coffee] in these places is two to one, because a lot of people drink a bottled tea in the afternoons and a tea in the morning. It’s pretty surprising.”

Instant tea, however, has had an image problem. “[Instant tea] likely appears more processed than other offerings in the [tea] category,” says Beth Bloom, associate director for Mintel’s US food and drink reports. Major brands such as PG Tips and Nestea offer instant teas, but brands that focus as much on health as convenience are beginning to emerge, such as Cusa, an organic instant tea that launched in the US last year. In the UK, fewer than one in five people drink instant tea, but younger tea drinkers are more keen, with 34% of consumers aged 25-34 trying instant, according to Mintel’s 2017 UK tea report.

Most of us see the teabag as an already perfectly convenient way of making a brew, with teabags accounting for 96% of the 165m cups of tea drunk every day in the UK. Manufacturers have also begun to address environmental concerns by switching to plastic-free biodegradable bags. But Cheng argues that the quality of tea in the bag, particularly for green tea, can be inferior. “Teabag makers understand that users of teabags want to see the colour of their brew change within a matter of a minute,” he says. “The only way to accomplish that is to have very finely ground up leaves, almost powderised in a bag. If you talk to tea farmers, the stuff they sell the teabag manufacturers is not of the highest quality.”

Cheng believes tea drinkers are ready for something new. “My goal is actually to deliver on the health benefits and the quality parameters of loose leaf tea, combined with the convenience of something that’s in a crystal form,” he says. “We’ve seen a great deal of interest from the UK. I think the desire for convenience on a daily basis is something people want in this day and age regardless of the culture.”


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