Born and raised in Hong Kong with a PhD in Food Science from the University of Nottingham, Natalie Chiu has been exposed to two cultures that celebrate tea as an essential part of their cultural identity. This also paved the way for her new venture: Saicho Sparkling Teas.
In 2019, Natalie launched Saicho together with her husband Charlie Winkworth-Smith, in the United Kingdom before bringing the brand to Hong Kong. Now, she is working with renowned sommeliers, hoteliers and chefs, serving Saicho at the dining tables of The Dorchester, Darjeeling Express, Nobel Hotel Portman Square and the Grand Hotel Birmingham.
She believes that the UK's tea-drinking culture and love for discovering new food and drink, as well as increased interest in low-alcohol or more health-conscious alcohol alternatives, means that Saicho is a great choice for discerning drinkers. In addition, she believes that customers will be impressed by Saicho's unparalleled flavour, which elevates every dining and drinking occasion without the need for alcohol.
We interviewed Natalie Chiu, Founder of Saicho Sparkling Tea, to learn more about the brand and her entrepreneurial experience so far.
Where did the idea for Saicho Sparkling Tea come from?
The story of Saicho began with my husband, Charlie, whom I met during my PhD. Charlie and I were enjoying a delicious pairing menu at a restaurant, and the sommelier came over to describe the wine that my husband was enjoying with his meal. He shared its country of origin, the terroir, the production techniques and why it paired well with the dishes. Meanwhile, I sat with the same glass of water throughout the meal, missing out on the full experience, as I have an intolerance to alcohol. At this moment, I realised there was a gap in the market.
At that time, no non-alcoholic drinks paired well with food or had a comparable complexity of flavour or any noteworthy origin. I grew up in Hong Kong, so there's always been a strong tie to tea culture for me. My parents were very much into their different types of teas, exploring teas and knowing all the different varieties. It's very similar to wine when you think about it. The farmers have to look at the seasons, the soil, and how it affects the overall flavour. It's amazing because we really wanted our products to speak for themselves and make sure that tea was the core of it.
With the support of my husband, we began cooking up the idea for a sparkling tea that creates a new dimension to food pairing without the need for alcohol. Over two years, we tried hundreds of different teas until we narrowed our search down to our three favourites: Jasmine, Darjeeling and Hojicha.
We chose these teas as they showcase the incredible variety of flavours that tea can offer, from floral to fruity, nutty to smoky, and candied to umami – all dependent on the variety, terroir and production method. The complex and nuanced profiles of these teas make them the perfect accompaniment to food.
For our first drinks, we were also keen to select teas from the major tea-producing regions that, we believe, are most iconic: China, India and Japan. During the selection and production process, we also found that by cold brewing the tea leaves, we could extract the most delicate aromatics without over-extracting the bitter and astringent compounds to produce a clean, crisp, and complex flavour profile.
We also discovered that by sparkling the drinks, the natural aromatics of the tea are enhanced, which lets their unique flavours shine and creates a sense of occasion. We only started selling our products in 2019, just when COVID started to hit, but we actually founded the company a year and a half prior.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you keep yourself busy?
No two days are quite the same. Starting a business is like being on a rollercoaster with lots of highs and lows, but having talented people join you on the ride makes it an incredibly meaningful and exciting journey that I am grateful for every day.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?
At the end of each day, I either create a mental list or write a list of what my priorities are for the next day. This gives me an opportunity to reflect on the day, especially when it has been a tough day doing this helps me reset.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would echo the best advice I've received – knowledge is your best asset; the one thing no one else can take away from you.
Also, never think you're too old to learn something new.
What is the one thing you do over and over again and recommend everyone else do?
Do something for yourself every day. It can be going for a short walk, buying yourself a treat or even just sitting and letting your mind wander.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We focus on delivering quality. We work closely with our suppliers and tea farmers to source the highest quality single-origin teas from around the world.
We also collaborate with an exceptionally talented artist who creates beautifully ornate label designs which showcase the national bird of each tea's country of origin.
What's one trend in the F&B industry that excites you?
It's really exciting to see so many incredible, innovative brands continuing to expand the no/low alcohol space. It's fantastic that Saicho can be part of this community and be an active player in shaping the sparkling tea space.
What is the best £20 you recently spent?
I recently bought a small plum tree which is now planted in our garden. No fruits yet, but it already brings us lots of joy.
Our toddler recently learnt how to pick fruit, so it's cute to watch her go look at it every day to see if there is anything for her to pick. I think she could be waiting a while, but hopefully, we will have some fruit for her to pick next year.
What is your favourite quote?
Treat others how you wish to be treated.
What are some of your favourite places to eat?
In London, we are just spoilt for choice, and I love trying new places, but one of my favourites is Dinner by Heston Blumental. The meat-fruit dish is a must-have, and I recently tried Sambocade, a goat's milk cheesecake, which was so delicious. Every time I think of Dinner, I just have fond memories. The food is fantastic, and the staff are so friendly and knowledgeable. You always just walk out feeling great.
For a more intimate setting, I would visit Duck Soup in Soho. Their menu changes frequently and strongly emphasises seasonality, so there is always something new to try whenever I visit.
For somewhere outside London, I always think of SukhoThai, a little Thai restaurant in Beeston, Nottingham. It is a family-run restaurant, and you just feel like you are stepping into a friend's home. Authentic Thai food paired with true Thai hospitality. It never disappoints.
What's your favourite flavour of Saicho Sparkling Tea?
One of the wonderful things about Saicho is the diversity of flavours. I find that my favourite changes depending on the season and preference at the time.
I love Saicho Jasmine in summer - it is light, floral, and delicious - perfect for sipping at evening drinks or a barbecue with friends. It has notes of apple sherbert, lychee and vanilla, so it's perfect to pair with desserts like panna cotta.
In Autumn, I love the complexity and umami of Hojicha. It has notes of nori seaweed and roasted hazelnuts so it's great to drink with sushi.
Saicho Darjeeling is one of our most recognisable teas, with notes of mandarin, ginger and woodspice ideal to pair with grilled meats. I love each flavour for different reasons.
Are there any exciting plans coming from Saicho Sparkling Tea soon?
We are delighted to share that we are launching a new bottle in late October. The design and illustration were created by the artist we partnered with to launch the brand, who happens to be from Ukraine.
She has an innate understanding of the importance of provenance and heritage to our brand in everything that we do - from my own connection to tea through the cultures of Hong Kong and the UK to the teas themselves, each of which comes from a different country - Jasmine tea from China; Hojicha from Japan; Darjeeling from India. The history and journey of the tea itself is something we take very seriously.
We're also 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.