Monday June 25, 2012
A whiff of the finest tea
By CHIN MUI YOON
Taha Bouqdib has found his destiny – and fortune – in tea.
TAHA Bouqdib is unfazed by harrowing hairpin bends as he makes his way up narrow, winding lanes in remote ranges. Up in the Himalayan Mountains with mists swirling around his waist, Bouqdib knows this is where his heart lies. After all, he is one of the privileged few who hold the key to exclusive tea gardens that produce small batches of top grade teas that are not sold in supermarkets.
Access to these estates is only possible through years of carefully cultivated ties with estate owners and the multi-generational families which run these gardens.
In fact, Bouqdib took over 20 years and countless visits to forge these connections that are the heartbeat of TWG Tea Company which he co-founded with business partner Manoj Murjani in 2008.
“I often stand amidst the tea bushes and marvel at the work of nature, how such beautiful plants can produce a beverage which has a profound impact on the world,” says Bouqdib, 42.
“Everything tastes better, sweeter, fresher up in the mountains. It is wholly different from the way people in India, China, Japan or South Africa cultivate their tea. It’s a privilege to enjoy their harvests.”
With the recent opening of the TWG Tea Salon and Boutique at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, the convivial tradition of enjoying a cup of freshly brewed tea beckons evermore.
Tinkling piano tunes accompany the serving of premium teas in fine bone china laid out on crisp linen. Old-fashioned wicker-back chairs, crystal lamps and potted palms create a relaxing mood punctuated by hushed, happy laughter. A handful of patrons are busy snapping photos to mark these moments of simple pleasures.
Scenes like these are immensely gratifying to Bouqdib who had spent half his life seeking out the world’s finest teas for consumers to relish.
“I’m delighted when customers explore and enjoy the wondrous variety of teas available,” he says. “Whether people spend $60 dollars or $6,000 makes no difference because they still enjoy the same consistent quality of tea.”
Increasingly regarded as the world’s finest luxury tea brand, TWG’s success is remarkable as it was only four years ago when Bouqdib and Murjani launched it in Singapore. Although the brand is young, both partners share a depth of experience which spans 50 years in the jealously guarded global tea industry.
TWG came about following a chance encounter between Bouqdib and Murjani at the upscale French tea salon of Mariage Frères in Paris in 2004.
Both men bonded quickly over a shared passion for tea. The idea brewed for two more years before Bouqdib and his wife, Maranda Barnes, decided to uproot themselves from Paris and head to Singapore where Murjani was based, to establish the company.
“Singapore is close to all tea-producing capitals,” explains Bouqdib. “Much of the world’s tea trade passes through here. It’s also ideal for us to conduct business with various plantations across Asia. Being close to our sources allows us to obtain and process our teas much faster than American or European companies, so the products are fresher and more flavourful.”
Birth of a brand
It has been challenging establishing a new tea brand in Asia where tea has been part of the culture for centuries.
TWG’s tea collection is the largest in the world, with over 1,000 different single-estate, fine harvests, and exclusive tea blends from 36 tea-producing countries. Bouqdib is particular about obtaining teas directly from source gardens and estates, and not through agents.
TWG’s first outlet opened in Singapore’s Republic Plaza in 2008. The wood-panelled tea boutique enchanted customers with its nostalgic ambience which harked back to the days when tea clippers carried treasures from around the world to Singapore’s port. A second salon opened at the posh ION Orchard mall in 2009, and was enthusiastically received.
Eleven tea salons have since opened in Singapore, London, Hong Kong, New York, Japan, Dubai and Malaysia. Nostalgia, elegance and glamour are all infused in a perfect blend in each outlet, enhanced by elegant samovars, brass weighing scales, Italian marble floors and hardwood tea counters which display hundreds of single-estate and hand-blended teas in the brand’s signature tin cans.
A tea counter enables customers to purchase loose leaves by weight, from 50gm sachets or TWG’s 45 bespoke tea tins in whimsical colours.
Leading South-East Asian luxury goods retailer Valiram Group is managing the Kuala Lumpur salon. Patrons get to choose from a mind-boggling menu of 800 types of tea served in TWG’s signature 18k gold, hand-blown French teapots or iced in tall crystal stemware. Tea-infused desserts are handcrafted daily, designed by celebrated Parisian confectioner Phillipe Langlois.
Aside from popular source countries like Japan, China and India, there are teas from Cameroon, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and Georgia. The varieties are captivating, from the blue teas of Fujian, China, to the interestingly named Geisha Blossoms, Sexy Tea, Immortal Moment Tea and Dragon Mist Tea.
In its first year alone, TWG sold over 650 tons of tea which fetched a whopping US$30mil profit. TWG is available in gourmet outlets in over 30 countries. Dedicated TWG tea counters can be found in New York gourmand institution Dean & DeLuca Madison Avenue, and London’s Harrods Knightsbridge, which recorded a 100% increase in sales of TWG teas last year.
Tea connoisseurs welcomed the new luxury brand with delight. TWG teas are served in luxury hotels and Singapore Airlines’ first and business class cabins.
According to global market research firm Euromonitor International, more consumers are seeking premium teas as they are unsatisfied with mass-produced supermarket varieties.
“Tea’s varying regional tradition of consumption and overall low price point has largely shielded the category in the past from significant private label competition. However, the expansion of modern retail channels and a diversified market for premium teas is creating new spaces for private label entries around the world,” a recent report stated.
In the United States alone, tea has increased in popularity due to its many health benefits and lack of calories. In 2011, tea consumption grew by 2% in total volume and reached 72,278 tonnes.
Bouqdib explains that tea has come full circle, from a highly prized commodity served only to kings and emperors, to a mass consumer product and now, a luxury item.
“The consistency of our tea leaves is vital,” says Bouqdib. “I cannot tell you just how particular I am about this. I want someone to buy 100gm of a particular tea, and return in a year or two to still get the exact same taste and fragrance. The tea I purchase is never open for negotiation. Teas are greatly affected by fluctuating climate, rainfall, sunshine and soil. If the tea harvested that year is not the taste I am seeking, I do not buy it.”
Despite the tedious journey to offbeat plantations, Bouqdib never allows anyone else to select the teas to bring home. Introductions and repeated personal visits are essential to access small, exclusive plantations. Bouqdib has visited thousands of tea estates over the past 20 years and has a refined discernment for the huge variety of teas available.
One of such places he frequents yearly is Darjeeling, located at the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Here connoisseurs eagerly await the first flush harvest from the 118-year-old Okayti Tea Plantation which is nestled in the Mirik Valley.
The famous Da Hong Pao, sourced from the Wuyi mountains in China’s Fujian province, is highly sought after but near impossible to find as it is reserved for the Chinese government. Nevertheless, Bouqdib manages to get his hands on 500g to 3kg of the precious tea each year, and these are snapped up by a privileged few even before he reaches home.
Another prized product is the Yellow Gold Tea Buds, an exceptional tea favoured by Chinese emperors. Each tea bud is painted with 24ct gold flakes; once infused, the tea yields a delicately metallic and floral aftertaste. This pricey tea is transported in unmarked containers for fear that it would be stolen.
However, the Yellow Gold Tea Buds is not available in any TWG salon. When Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, opened the flagship TWG tea salon at the Dubai Mall earlier this year, he was so taken with this tea which was served to him that he promptly snapped up the stock in Dubai and Singapore.
“I first heard of this tea from the Chinese ambassador in Paris. He likened it to truffles, so rare and exquisite it is,” recalls Bouqdib. “It took me a long time to build ties with the estate, and we got it eventually.”
The amiable Bouqdib, a French-born Moroccan, grew up in Morocco and France. His father served as an advisor for 40 years to King Hassan II who ruled Morocco from 1961 to 1999. Morocco’s intoxicating blend of colours and culture left an indelible impression on the precocious child during his formative years. Bouqdib had also followed his father on his travels with the king around the world.
Bouqdib was in his early 20s when he had his first taste of tea. It was a glass of Longjing tea, dubbed the queen of green teas, served during a function at the Chinese ambassador’s residence in Paris where Bouqdib was accompanying his father.
“We always drink tea with sugar and in Morocco, with fresh mint. That was the first time I tried tea that was served pure. It was so different, so clear and refreshing,” recalls Bouqdib.
Bouqdib had initially wanted to study law but the lure of tea proved to be too much. One day, a French-Chinese friend referred him for a part-time job at a tea warehouse.
“I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I stepped into the warehouse and I could smell the different varieties of tea stocked there. It was incredible; it was like a perfumery where you can catch whiffs of flowers, fruits and some exotic plants,” recalls Bouqdib. “When it comes to the tea trade, either you fall in love with it like I did, or it’s literally not your cup of tea!
“I decided to try it for one year, starting with stock-keeping. Then I stayed on a second year. By then, I knew tea was my destiny. I feel as though I have not worked a single day since because I enjoy discovering and blending teas so much.
“My dad found it incredulous. But he saw how happy I was although I was bringing home a salary of like 800 Francs, which is perhaps about €100 today. He knew I was staying on for the knowledge and that I was really there for the tea!”
Bouqdib devoured everything about tea and the trade, eventually becoming a master in the art of blending teas.
“Traditionally, when we feel unwell we take a cup of tea,” says Bouqdib. “But tea is also for celebrating a union, a success, a new proposal. It’s for commemorating special moments in life.
“Today, when I discover yet another tea blend, I still feel the same excitement as when I first walked into that warehouse 20 years ago.”
■ TWG Tea Salon and Boutique (exclusively managed by the Valiram Group) is located at Level 2, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur (03-2142 9922 / website: twgtea.com).