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  • Writer's pictureSasha Huang

Natalie Chiu On the Success of Saicho, Asia's Premium Sparkling Tea

INTERVIEW



Imagine a fancy night out at a chic restaurant, the air buzzing with laughter and clinking glasses. You're craving a sophisticated, alcohol-free option that complements the fine dining experience. The waiter approaches, offering a drink that captures the essence of sophistication and elegance - Saicho sparkling tea. Founded by Natalie Chiu and her husband, Saicho is redefining the art of tea-making with its luxurious single-origin sparkling teas. Natalie's journey into the world of non-alcoholic beverages was shaped by her sensitivity to alcohol, leading her to create a drink that rivals the complexity of wine. Drawing from her Hong Kong upbringing, where tea is central to dining culture, Natalie curated a selection of teas, each chosen for its distinctive flavours. Through Saicho, the mother-of-two invites all to share in a moment of indulgence without alcohol and a celebration of Mother's Day with an experience of an exquisite afternoon tea at The Murray for HK$988 for two.



1. Can you tell us about yourself and how you came to start Saicho?


I grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the UK in 2008, where I studied Food Science at the University of Nottingham. I then went on to complete a PhD in Flavour Chemistry which is also where I met my husband and co-founder, Charlie. 

My fondness of food and drink extends beyond study. Charlie and I have a shared passion exploring flavours, cuisines and culture through culinary experiences. However, it was seeing Charlie’s delight enjoying food and wine pairings which made my experiences evidently lacking with my alcohol intolerance.  


This came to a head, one night in an upscale restaurant. With limited soft drink options, I had to make do with my usual glass of tap water. Enviously, I watched on as Charlie was regaled with stories of far-flung vineyards and detailed advice as to which specific dish’s tones and textures were most enhanced by a particular vintage and why. It was clear that I was missing out on a huge aspect of the fine dining experience. So, this got us thinking; surely there could be a non-alcoholic drink with ingredients that possessed the same sort of complexity and heritage that wine does.


I drew inspiration from my heritage, where I had grown up enjoying tea alongside meals and understanding its vast range of flavours and depth that could enhance the dining experience. It was then that Saicho was born, a single origin sparkling tea brand which is now growing rapidly around the world.


Our Champagne-like teas elevate the way to enjoy non-alcoholic drinking and dining. Designed to pair perfectly with food, each tea expression has been carefully balanced and crafted to shine a light on the nuanced and complex flavours of tea, promoting as much interest and provenance as premium wines.  


There are three tea expressions in the range, Darjeeling, Jasmine and Hojicha, each with a set of distinct flavour characteristics, unique to the respective regions in India, China and Japan. 



2. Creating a new flavour profile in the beverage industry involves a lot of experimentation. Can you walk us through the process of developing a new Saicho tea flavour?


Creating a new Saicho expression always starts with finding an outstanding single origin tea. As we do not blend, each tea must have a really complete flavour profile. 


For example, when we were first developing our range of sparkling teas, we knew we wanted to use a premium black tea from India. We quickly discovered that Darjeeling has some of the finest black teas, and that there were big differences between flushes or picking seasons. We opted to use the summer flush where Darjeeling’s characteristic muscatel flavour is most pronounced. We tried teas from 20 different estates before honing in on the Gopaldhara Tea Estate, the highest tea garden in Darjeeling. Every year we choose teas from different parcels of land within the tea garden which have the exact balance of flavours we are looking for.


To produce our sparkling teas, we first steep the tea leaves for 24 hours at a low temperature to extract the delicate aromatics without over-extracting the bitter and astringent compounds, to produce a clean, crisp and complex flavour profile. We then balance the tea with gentle acidity and a little sweetness from white Airén grape juice. The drinks are then delicately sparkled to enhance the natural aromatics of the tea.



3. How do you select the single-origin teas for Saicho? What criteria must they meet to be included in your range?


Much like wine, the highest quality tea can provide a sense of place, or terroir. This is influenced by factors such as soil, altitude and climate. For example, Darjeeling’s loamy soil, high altitude and humid climate creates teas with a distinctive muscatel flavour. At Saicho, we use only single origin teas, letting the specific flavours of the tea’s region shine through.


We also select certain harvest times which showcase each tea’s unique characteristic. The Chinese tea (Fuding Big White Leaf varietal) used to make our Jasmine green tea is hand picked in the Spring when the new buds have the most delicate flavour.


Finally, different processing methods can have a profound impact on the tea’s flavour. Our Hojicha is sourced from second flush Sencha tea which undergoes a process typical in Japanese tea production of steaming, rolling and drying. It then goes through a high temperature roasting process that creates its wonderfully toasted notes.


The highest quality teas are a combination of all these elements; terroir, varietal, harvest time and processing methods, which create real depth and complexity. Sparkling tea provides a new way for consumers to experience this incredibly diverse flavour world of tea. 



"Sparkling tea provides a new way for consumers to experience this incredibly diverse flavour world of tea." 

- Natalie Chiu, Co-Founder of Saicho





4. Which Saicho tea is your personal favourite, and why?


While I love all our teas, Saicho Hojicha has perhaps been the most surprising. It has an unusual, savoury flavour with notes of nori seaweed and roasted chestnuts, but it has been really embraced by chefs and sommeliers, who enjoy working with its unique umami flavour profile. 



5. What has been the most rewarding part of seeing Saicho grow from an idea to a product celebrated in Michelin-starred establishments?


Redefining how tea can be enjoyed with food has been an exhilarating and fulfilling journey. Our aim with Saicho is to celebrate the exceptional quality and versatility of tea, asserting its rightful place at the finest dining tables worldwide. Saicho is now served in over 40 Michelin starred restaurants around the world, including the incredible 3* restaurant 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo in Hong Kong. 





"Our aim with Saicho is to celebrate the exceptional quality and versatility of tea, asserting its rightful place at the finest dining tables worldwide."

- Natalie Chiu, Co-Founder of Saicho




6. How do you see the role of non-alcoholic luxury beverages evolving in the culinary world?


The demand for sparkling tea is growing rapidly as more people look for sophisticated non-alcoholic options. Saicho has found great success in hospitality, with our sparkling teas now being served in some of the world’s best restaurants and luxury hotels. When it comes to food pairing, tea provides structure and complexity which is essential when there is no alcohol. Saicho's selection of single origin sparkling teas mirrors the diversity found in wine, allowing enthusiasts to explore a rich tapestry of flavours - from delicate floral notes to complex and robust profiles. Importantly, sommeliers and restauranteurs can continue to be storytellers as tea has such deep history and provenance, providing their guests with an outstanding experience, whether they choose to drink alcohol or not.  


7. What future plans do you have for Saicho? Are there new flavours or concepts in the pipeline?


We have some new sparkling teas in the works. Watch this space…


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All imagery is provided by Saicho.



Website: saichodrinks.com | Email: hello@saichodrinks.com | Instagram: @saichodrinks | Facebook: @SaichoDrinks


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