Swirling in the bright, grassy depths of a cup of earthy Gyokuro Samurai, with its edamame-and-seaweed characters, is a story.
Another tale curls up in the wreath of steam from a teacup of 1837 Black Tea, with a distinctive lick of berries and caramel.
In the crystal beads of condensation that stud a pitcher of Red Balloon Tea, there is a short bedtime story of sorts.
These are all TWG Teas, and there is none that is not wrapped in its own narrative, wreathed in personality, and packaged in a brightly-gilded box like a fragrant jewel.
The Singapore-based luxury tea brand gives each of its products a whole load of personality, whether it is with the backstory of the history and culture of the Gyokuro tea leaves themselves, or the tale created by TWG co-founder Maranda Barnes for the Red Balloon Tea.
“Red Balloon Tea is a happy, fruity, punchy, buoyant tea, tasting of blueberries,” says Barnes, her effervescent personality seeming to mirror her words. She is also the director of corporate communications and business development for the company.
“I imagined a little boy, always with a red balloon, everywhere he goes. He takes it everywhere! And so people are always chasing him out of places, because of that balloon of his. The image was so evocative, I thought it would make a wonderful story for a tea.”
And so the theine-free Red Balloon Tea, made with Rooibos leaves from South Africa, comes in a bright blue box emblazoned with a vermilion balloon. Incidentally, theine is the stimulant in tea; in coffee, it is known as caffeine.
Theine and caffeine don’t really work in exactly the same way though, says TWG Tea assistant operations manager Vincent Piovan.
“The more oxidised a tea, the higher the theine content – but with theine, there aren’t sudden spikes and drops in your energy – it’s a slow build and a slow drop,” he says.
The 1837 Black Tea is a company signature; the company celebrates 1837 as the year Singapore opened its chamber of commerce and became a free trading post for teas and spices, among others.
As for the Gyokuro, it is one of the most expensive senchas in Japan, a green tea grown in both shade and sunlight. For the Gyokuro Samurai Tea, the leaves are shaded for three weeks before harvest.
“This enhances the chlorophyll, which is why the tea leaves are such a grassy green,” says Louise Benzrihem, assistant director of PR for TWG, as she sits in the TWG Tea Garden in Marina Bay Sands.
It’s a weekday, but a myriad guests throng the opulently-outfitted tea room, perched in wicker-backed chairs on a central island esconced by a small moat-like pool. They come to enjoy what TWG positions as an affordable luxury, served on fine china and poured from gilt-armoured teapots.
But we are inside the tea boutique itself, hidden behind some of the stacked canisters containing hundreds of different types of tea.
Nursing cups of freshly-brewed White Happy Tea – made with Moroccan mint, “the sweetest mint in the world”, according to Piovan, as well as jasmine and blue cornflowers from France – and scoffing scones with Geisha Blossom tea jelly, scented with marigold flowers. Naturally, every dish at the TWG Tea restaurants is itself infused with various teas.
And we are spellbound by tall tea tales (all true, of course).
“Sea breezes blow over the tea leaves for the Gyokuro Samurai, so you get a naturally strong seaweed finish,” says Benzrihem, bringing the story of the Gyokuro Samurai to an end. But stories are interwoven in the TWG empire, so really – it’s just the beginning.
Creating tea-time luxury
The luxury tea brand was born in Singapore in 2008, and its reach extends beyond canister and cups – retail outlets, tea rooms and a range of related products all fall under the TWG umbrella. But of course, its mainstay is tea – the brand boasts over 1,000 single estate teas and blends, from all over the world.
“We work directly with the plantations because there is so much diversity among them,” says Benzrihem. “TWG only buys teas that we have reserved, so that we can watch them grow. We don’t buy them at auction.”
Fruits, flowers and spices often find their way into the blends – even edible gold brightens the white tea mix of Gold Yin Zhen.
They are available as loose teas, flower tea balls that bloom in the cup, even tea bricks for those who want to age their pu-erh at home.
Husband-and-wife team, American-born Barnes and Taha Bouqdib, who is French of Moroccan descent, are two of the original founders, and while Bouqdib is the master blender, Barnes is the one who creates the persona for each tea.
“When I started coming up with the tea names, it was a list of 200,” says Barnes. Names are important, she says, and if people get it wrong, a fantastic product might not sell – her years spent in the fragrance industry come in very handy in the creation of such.
“To build an identity, you have to delve into the history of tea, the tea routes, and understand the context,” she says. “Learn the historical specifics and then play around with the terms there, look for the connections, inferences and references. For instance, dragons are very connected to oolong, and the word “Buddha” usually denotes a Chinese tea. Our Iron Monk Tea is so-named because one of the names for ti kuan yin is ‘Iron Buddha’.”
TWG differentiates its teas according to processing, and classifies them by colour, so the names often clue drinkers in as to type.
“White, yellow and green teas are not oxidised at all, while blue, black and matured teas are semi-oxidised,” says Piovan. “At TWG, oolong is referred to as blue tea, because we consider that a better bridge between green and black.”
Then there is red tea. Unlike the rest, which all come from one plant, red tea is made from the South African Rooibos plant; it’s 100% oxidised and naturally theine-free.
Tea variety aside, the persona of each tea is also created according to tea traditions, such as smoky teas, etc. “We have a Weekend in Istanbul Tea, made with ginger and apple – and that is how people actually drink their tea in Istanbul,” says Benzrihem.
One of Barnes’ favourite teas – and stories – is the Follow Me Tea. A green tea scented with ginseng root and pineapple, it comes in sky blue packaging with a fan-waving Oriental lady on the front.
“I was in Grasse, on the French Riviera, in a perfume museum, and I happened on a bottle with a description of a perfume that would make a man want to follow you,” says Barnes.
“I imagined the ladies on the Champs-Elysee, who dropped their handkerchiefs when they saw a handsome gentleman.”
She was so taken by the idea that she had Bouqdib blend a tea to match the concept. “Taha had a lot of fun with that one – he had been wanting to introduce ginseng, which we hadn’t used before, into a tea. It’s a bit bitter, but when paired with fruit, it becomes very appealing and unique – it’s the alchemy of two flavours creating a new one.
“It’s quite an East-meets-West tea, hence the lady with the fan on the packaging,” says Barnes.
Brewing art and craft
The strong aesthetics that underlie the brand are carried through in each TWG Tea Room, outfitted with a tasteful opulence that combines the gleam of polished wood, faceted crystal, cool marble and muted gilt. And of course, TWG Tea accessories, for which the brand collaborates with artisans around the world.
In addition to its fairly large tea-infused menu, there is a selection of tea-spiked patisserie on offer; particularly popular is the rainbow of macarons fragranced with everything from Bain de Roses Tea to Napoleon Tea (a sensual, sweet black tea with French spices and vanilla).
There is much artistic expression within the brand – as Barnes explains it, it’s about communicating beauty and emotion, craftsmanship and skill. “All the things our brand is about,” she says.
“There’s only so much the tea leaves can say, before you taste a cup, so the imagery must communicate that.”
With Barnes’ background in the perfume industry, the TWG Tea Scented Candles hold a special place in her heart. The second range of candles was launched late last year, and includes the irresistibly sweet, rich and warm Macaron Noir, and the grassy-fresh Emperor Sencha.
But to ensure the levels of the craft remain high, there is the Tea Institute. Opened in early 2016, the training facility in Singapore houses workshops for the TWG Tea team.
Evoking the feel of an apothecary’s den, the institute has one full wall lined with alcoves holding either dark glass bottles or the classic yellow TWG Tea tins, each holding a different tea.
Here, Piovan and his team train staff in the art of eliciting the best from the leaves. Among other things, this involves never using boiling water.
“Tea requires oxygen. If you boil the water, you lose that, and the tea tastes duller, flatter,” says Piovan. “Our teas are usually brewed between 70°C and 75°C, with the maximum water temperature being 95°C.”
He demonstrates, among others, how to pour the hot water over the tea leaves – in a circular motion around the rim of the teapot, to avoid burning the leaves.
And throughout a training session, we hear more stories – how milk is steamed below the leaves of the Milk Oolong, leading to that distinctive, creamy taste, and how there are two processes for green tea – the Japanese method of steaming, which results in a fresh, dark green, and the Chinese method of pan-frying.
It’s all part of the TWG experience – built on a love of stories, told over copious cups of tea.
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