For those who can’t drink alcohol, or are not big fans of it, we see you – and so does Saicho! We had a chat with Saicho’s co-founder, Natalie Chiu, about the story behind her successful sparkling tea brand.
As much as we love French wine and snazzy cocktails, we’re fans of non-alcoholic beverages, too. And to say Saicho is our cup of tea is an understatement. With its complexity and refreshing, champagne-like notes, Saicho has impressed drinkers and non-drinkers alike (us included). Its versatility has also inspired sommeliers, hoteliers, and chefs to create bespoke food pairings, finally allowing those with an alcohol intolerance to enjoy a non-booze alternative, even during fine dining occasions. How did the co-founders, Natalie Chiu and Charlie Winkworth-Smith, whip up such tea-rrific magic? Read on for our interview with Natalie.
Popping the bubbly with Natalie Chiu, Co-founder of Saicho
Hi, Natalie! Thank you for speaking with us. One of the reasons why Saicho is so successful (and delicious!) is because of your technical background in food science. What got you interested in this discipline?
I’ve always been interested in food and drinks, and I was also really hooked on science at school. So, when I was choosing my university major, I decided to combine these interests by taking food science. And I’m happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my degree! It was fascinating to learn about the complexity of even the simplest foods. Just think about all the chemical and physical processes that happen when you make a humble loaf of bread…!
After my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to do a PhD in flavour chemistry, during which I explored taste and aroma release from different microstructures. It was also during my PhD studies that I met my husband and co-founder of Saicho, Charlie. Being able to apply some of the things we learnt academically to a real product has been an incredible and rewarding experience.
What were some of the challenges that you and Charlie faced during the two years of sampling and experimenting for Saicho?
From the outset, we knew we wanted to use tea as the core ingredient of our drinks. So, we began exploring and blending lots of different herbs, spices, and fruit juices. However, we soon realised that they were actually distractions from the complex and delicate flavours of tea; we needed to let the tea shine and not bombard it with a load of other unnecessary ingredients. This meant that we had to source some truly exceptional teas, so that we could showcase what single-origin cold brewed sparkling teas were capable of.
Kicking off, this process of sourcing was a huge learning experience, especially for Charlie, as he was a complete tea novice. But, the more we learnt about it, the more it grew on us. We began to understand the importance of terroir, time of harvest, and production methods. Having learnt about the four flushes (picking seasons) of the Darjeeling black teas, for example, we opted for the summer flush for our Saicho Darjeeling, as we liked its pronounced muscatel flavour.
Would you say you’re a natural entrepreneur?
Having been research scientists, both Charlie and I had no previous entrepreneurial experience. From branding and marketing, to accounting and finance, we had to learn from scratch all the aspects of developing a business. Now, we’re building a fantastic team with everyone bringing in new skills to our brand, and it’s brilliant working with such talented and like-minded people. While running a start-up is a bit of an emotional roller coaster with higher highs and lower lows than a standard job, it’s been a thrilling journey so far!
How do you juggle between being an entrepreneur and a mother?
Being a working mum is challenging at times. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a supportive family who always lend a hand when I need it. Moreover, no matter how busy I am, I always make sure I spend quality time with my daughter. She helps me get through tough times and reminds me of what is truly important.
How has the pandemic affected Saicho?
As with all businesses, the pandemic has definitely impacted us. We launched in December 2019 and were beginning to get great traction in hotels and restaurants in London. Unfortunately, the first lockdown in the UK in March 2020 meant that all the on-trade businesses [i.e. bars, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs] closed for a couple of months. At that time, Hong Kong did not have the same restrictions, so we sent a couple of cases of Saicho to my brother, Philip, who lived in Hong Kong. Within a few weeks, he managed to get Saicho listed at The Peninsula and everything basically snowballed from there! Not only is Saicho now listed in many amazing venues across Hong Kong, but restrictions have also been lifted over in the UK, so we’re super excited about what’s in store for us this year.
Despite the pandemic and the existence of various other non-alcoholic/low ABV beverages in the local market, Saicho has managed to make quite a splash in Hong Kong, with numerous collaborations with high-end hotels and restaurants. What has made Saicho stand out from the competition, in your opinion?
I think Saicho has given sommeliers, hoteliers, and bartenders a new repertoire of flavours to play with. The focus when we were developing our first range of sparkling teas was to create drinks that would pair well with food. Tea has a wonderful bitterness, astringency, and complexity of flavour that really complements food. For our first three teas we wanted to choose teas that would work with different types of foods: Saicho Darjeeling has notes of mandarin, ginger, and wood spice, and pairs perfectly with grilled meats; Saicho Hojicha has a deep umami character, with notes of nori seaweed and roasted hazelnuts, making it a great accompaniment to sushi; whereas Saicho Jasmine has a delicate floral aroma and notes of apple sherbet, lychee, and vanilla, so it complements desserts like the panna cotta.
What are the major differences between the UK and Hong Kong market, according to your experience?
Hongkongers are familiar with drinking hot tea with food, so it was, perhaps, less of a jump to pair chilled sparkling tea with their meals. On the other hand, we’ve noticed more of a learning curve for consumers in the UK, with our launch in 2019. That said, it hasn’t taken long for people to see that sparkling tea is a fantastic addition to any meal (or cocktail!)
What’s next for you and Saicho? Are there new flavours or projects coming up?
We’re really excited to have recently launched Saicho in Singapore, and we’ll also be launching in a number of other countries this year. Furthermore, we’re in the middle of creating some exciting new sparkling teas which we look forward to sharing with everyone soon. Stay tuned!