MORE THAN JUST A SIP
Rare teas and brews to rejuvenate jaded palates.
Up in the misty mountainous regions of China, deep in the natural forests, located at high altitudes of 1,000 meters or more above sea level, is where one will find some of the best and most exclusive wild tea plants. These precious plants are exposed to abundant sunlight, a sufficient amount of rain, and extreme temperature differences between day and night, which are deemed favourable, shares Annie Sun, group chief executive officer of Dynaforce International. Sun is also the founder of Hui Rui Tang – a nascent and bespoke tea boutique specialising in health enhancing teas from the wild forests and mountains of China.
“Unlike plantation tea, wild tea does not depend on chemicals, pesticides or fertilisers. They are deep-rooted plants and have the capability of absorbing more nutrients from the fertile forest soil, living in symbiotic harmony with adjacent wild plants, many of which have medicinal value. This diverse forest environment produces more complex aromas and flavours in wild tea,” says Sun.
One such region is the Anhua County in central China where the world famous Dark Tea (a class of tea that has undergone microbial fermentation, from several months to many years) reigns. The fermentation of tea leaves alters their chemistry, affecting the smell of the tea and typically mellowing its taste, reducing astringency and bitterness while improving mouth feel and aftertaste. Besides aiding digestion and relieving fatigue, wild Anhui Dark Tea also contains vitamins, minerals and amino acids that contribute to improving overall wellness. Unlike green tea, which may lose its flavour within a year, fermented dark tea can retain its flavour for many years. This is the reason why fermented dark tea has long been used as a “currency” for barter trade in the Silk Route in the 19th century.
A sip of this prized Anhui Dark Tea will reveal a marvellously mellow and mildly smokey flavour that lingers on the palate. A second or third cup and the exquisite nuances unfurl, and you may experience a gentle warmth spreading through your body as the goodness of wild tea works its magic to soothe your soul.
A Gift from Mother Nature
“High altitude teas are typically more rich, smooth and fragrant, and you can brew them many more times before they lose their flavour, but they grow freely among all kinds of other vegetation and are also usually difficult to reach,” says Sun, who honed her appreciation of tea from her mother, a tea connoisseur. Sun tells us that wild tea farmers often need to hire tea pickers, who are paid by the weight of the tea picked each day. They have to go up into the mountains and deep into the forests to pick the tea each morning and return to the collection centre in the late afternoon.
“It is hard and, at times, dangerous work, so even with higher wages, the younger generations are not interested to take it on. This leaves the older pickers (mainly in their 60s to 80s) to do this work. However, even with the high labour costs and limited supply, the wild teas produced and picked from the high-altitude locations are worth the added expense for the enjoyment and health of the tea connoisseur,” Sun adds.
Sun, who is currently in the wellness business, feels that physical wellness is not just confined to proper exercise, relaxation and sleep. One also needs proper nutrition, she expresses. She has embarked on this tea journey and business to create her own brand of wild tea (a retail outlet is also in the works) targeted initially at the spa industry and also tea lovers in general (with private tea sessions and events).
At present, there is still a lack of appreciation of the benefits of drinking high quality Chinese tea, especially wild tea. As such, Sun would like to work on “educating the market on the health benefits and the fine art of enjoying quality Chinese tea”. All her teas, which include a variety of red tea, cliff tea and more, will be from the wild, sourced from all over China, and supply will be seasonal and limited.
It is hard and, at times, dangerous work, so even with higher wages, the younger generations are not interested to take it on. This leaves the older pickers (mainly in their 60s to 80s) to do this work. However, even with the high labour costs and limited supply, the wild teas produced and picked from the high-altitude locations are worth the added expense for the enjoyment and health of the tea connoisseur.”
The Sweet Spot
Until some 200 years ago, cacao was consumed as a drink, says Jerome Penafort, director of business development for Benns Chocolate.
“When you are feeling stressed or sad, you feel good after eating chocolate as there are compounds in there that boost your levels of endorphins andserotonin. The same compounds are in our tea; it is a “feel-good” tea that can help you relax,” Penafort explains.
For Benns Chocolate, cacao tea (not to be confused with cocoa) is still a relatively new product; it was soft-launched at Food & Hotel Asia in April 2018. Their cacao tea is made of raw cacao nibs and husk — cacao nibs are the inner fruit of the cacao bean, the key raw ingredient used to make chocolate. When you brew it, you will see that it is slightly oily, but that is all natural. The cacao tea has a sweet perfume and a pleasant, mild taste of chocolate without the sugar.
“Drawing from this history, we wanted to create something that could retain all the superfood nutrients and still tastes as much as chocolate as possible. Of course, it is not as chocolatey as cocoa, but it is all natural and sugarfree,” says Penafort.
The company started out as a specialist in manufacturing quality chocolates with a focus on travel retail and local consumers. Along the way, they learned about the hardships faced by Asian farmers and also about a more natural and sustainable way to make chocolate, which sparked a new direction for the company.
“A big part of our company’s philosophy now is education: telling the untold story of chocolate. As such, we are looking at small batch production from each single origin plantation. Our general manager, Wilfred Ng, does most of the travelling out to remote farms in the region to source for cacao,” he shares.
As of today, they have partnered with farmers in Sungai Ruan (Malaysia), Vung Tau (Vietnam), Anaimalai Hills (India), Calinan (Philippines) and Lampang (Thailand), and they buy the cacao beans directly. Their single estate chocolates and cacao tea are all 100 percent natural, vegan, halal, gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free. Penafort explains that going direct is more sustainable for farmers as they are able pay the farmers up to three times higher than market price by leaving the middle men out of the equation.
Pursuing their intent to study the antioxidant levels and health benefits of their cacao tea, Benns Chocolate has collaborated with UCSI University in Malaysia, and research has shown that both the Vung Tau (Vietnam) and Sungai Ruan (Malaysia) origin cacao teas have higher antioxidant levels than most regular teas, coffees and fruits. The Vung Tau Cacao Tea from Vietnam, for example, has close to three times the amount of antioxidants as apples and about 60 percent more antioxidants than strawberries.
“When blending the cacao tea, we are mindful of three things: flavour, antioxidant level, and aroma. The husk adds a lot of flavours to the tea, and has malt properties that give the tea a nice body and aroma, while the nibs give us the antioxidants. It took us some time to find the balance, coming up with the right ratio of husk to nibs and to achieve the maximum antioxidant count,” says Penafort.
Spice of Life
Love pungent peppery flavours? Then this naturally spicy tea could be just the drink for you.
“The idea of pepper tea occurred to us when a customer mentioned that peppers are widely used in Asia together with traditional herbal medicine (Chinese TCM and Ayurvedic medicine for example) as the oils from the pepper help with the absorption of nutrients from the herbs,” says Lai Poon Piau, founder of Hong Spices.
When Lai opened Hong Spice’s Kampot Pepper farm in 2013, it was with the primary aim to reestablish sustainable economic agriculture in the Kampot region through local employment, bioresearch, and environmental conservation efforts. Kampot and the surrounding area were awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2010, and this helped boost the growth of the local pepper industry.
When it comes to farming, Lai believes in an “organic approach employing bio-nutrients and micro-organism techniques to maintain soil health and provide effective pest control without the need for any harmful chemical pesticides”.
On his farm, Lau allows nature to take its course. Pepper vines need to be three years old before the peppercorns are harvested and only the best berries are selected for use in the pepper tea. During harvest season (around June every year), the berries are allowed to fully develop on the vine so they have the fullest flavour. The berries are then harvested, sorted, processed and dried to create what is considered to be one of the best peppers in the world. As harvest is dictated by nature, supply can be limited.
To produce this deliciously spicy pepper tea, dried peppers are ground with other dried pepper aromatics (pepper spikes, pepper flowers, etc) from the vine. Some organic palm sugar is added to complement the pepper aroma. Add some hot water (not boiling hot) and the result is a an aromatic, pleasant tea that tastes sweetsour for a brief moment before the spiciness comes into play, tingling your taste buds and stimulating blood circulation.
Lai is currently looking for a suitable vendor to manufacture and pack the pepper tea into retail packs; the packing of tea into sachets is still, at the moment, done by hand.
“The idea of pepper tea occurred to us when a customer mentioned that peppers are widely used in Asia together with traditional herbal medicine (Chinese TCM and Ayurvedic medicine for example) as the oils from the pepper help with the absorption of nutrients from the herbs”
Hong Spices farm at Sunrise. Peppercorns vines shaded with coconut leafs on the left. Mango orchards on the right.
Cacao pods growing well in a farm in Calinan, Davao, Philippines
Annie Sun, group chief executive officer of Dynaforce International and founder of Hui Rui Tang
Jerome Penafort, director of business development for Benns Chocolate
Lai Poon Piau, founder of Hong Spices