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Can the Philippines Care for Tea?: Exploring the Tea Salon Culture in Metro Manila

July 2, 2014

Starbucks is credited with making the Philippines a coffee-drinking country. Happy Lemon and Chatime were credited with starting the milk tea craze. In 2012, Metro Manila saw what some hoped to be the start of a real tea invasion. Tea salon da.u.de opened in The Fort with an extensive tea menu that aimed to deepen the appreciation and knowledge of tea beyond what was available in teabag form. Singapore tea salon and boutique TWG opened some months after in Greenbelt 5, Makati.

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Evidently, that has not been the case. da.u.de had one more store, called Cafe + bar / da.u.de. TWG only has five branches, its most recent one having opened in Century City Mall, Makati. Compared to the popularity of Starbucks, and the milk tea fanaticism of just over a year ago, one wonders why more salons haven’t opened to cater and develop a devout following of tea drinkers.

Compared to the popularity of Starbucks, and the milk tea fanaticism of just over a year ago, one wonders why more salons haven’t opened to cater and develop a devout following of tea drinkers.

The potential and obstacles in amassing that tea movement can easily be found in how Filipinos take their tea. We are not a significant tea producer the way most of our Asian neighbors are, though very particular places such as Mountain Province grow and harvest their own brand of tea leaves. There’s also salabat, which is more of a root crop, and not strictly a tea plant. When Filipinos take their tea, it’s for a deliberate purposefor better health. In a 2011 article about C2 in Enterpreneur magazine, URC’s marketing services and advertising director explained that they marketed the drink towards health-conscious consumers.

But tea is more than just another health drink, which can easily be seen in how tea-drinking countries treat it as if were as necessary as water. For these countries, facets of their history and culture center around tea. The Dutch and the Portuguese were credited to have brought tea to the Western world, two powers that were also notoriously at odds with the Spanish monarchy that colonized the Philippines. Though the Chinese traded and settled in the Philippines even before the era of colonization, perhaps it was divisions between them and the locals that kept tea from flourishing the way it did in other Asian countries. Coffee and tsokolate were introduced and cultivated in the Philippines during the Spanish era, and became the hot drinks of choice from then to now. When the U.S. colonized the country centuries later, there was no tea tradition with them, while our neighboring countries continued to have it by the kettle.

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When the U.S. colonized the country centuries later, there was no tea tradition with them, while our neighboring countries continued to have it by the kettle.

Tea eventually became widely available in the Philippines, but more as a remedyproviding certain health benefits from slimming to relief, from flu to contentious anti-cancer claims. In 2013, according to a study by Euromonitor International, Lipton reported having sold 43% of tea in the Philippines. Tea growth, says Euromonitor, will be driven by the health awareness of the beverage. Lipton has also secured its place as the leader in black tea and instant tea.

Meanwhile, da.u.de has since shut down its main branch to move to a “secret” by-reservation venue also in Taguig. Cafe + bar / da.u.de carries the torch, but it is no longer strictly a tea salon. TWG has enjoyed bursts of crowds in their own salons, but it was never a place notorious for long wait lines snaking past their entrance, which is what Starbucks and Happy Lemon enjoyed for a time after their debut.

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Is it just too soon for a tea salon?

While the salon is a quaint concept, if one were to compare its performance to the previously mentioned coffee and milk teas, the salon’s presence is limited to either the box of tea or the space themselves. It is not designed to sprout up in several places in a short amount of time the way milk tea and coffee did. Consider that even in their home country, Singapore, TWG only has eight branches, compared to Starbucks’ one hundred stores and counting. While TWG sought to stake its place in the major malls here, doing so could also be its undoing. Would it have been better to focus on one or two branches to build their audience, before going on to opening new branches? This tactic works for local third wave coffee, which dared to challenge the push-button generation of second wave coffee shops like Starbucks. The third wave coffee crowd is small but growing, even if their cafes of choice are not the easiest to find.

Or is it just too soon for a tea salon? The tea selection they take so much pride in, at this time, would be too overwhelming for a population accustomed to choosing from brown, green, black, and lemon, and iced tea.

Clearly, there are huge gaps between fans of instant and bottled iced tea, milk tea, tea for health, and the luxury tea that the salons have to offer. TWG doesn’t look like the brand that would close that gap to create real tea connoisseurs, but perhaps that in itself is an opportunity for a new brand to step up to the plate.

Do you have your own thoughts on why Filipinos don’t take to tea? Tell us about it. Leave us a comment below.

Sources:
1. Euromonitor. “Tea in the Philippines”. May 2014. http://www.euromonitor.com/tea-in-the-philippines/report
2. Entrepreneur Magazine. “How tea changed the beverage market”. November 18, 2011. http://www.entrepreneur.com.ph/startup-tips/how-tea-changed-the-beverage-market

Mia Marci Mia Marci

Mia Marci likes sampling street food, even if she doesn't know what's in it. She's gotten sick to her stomach on occasion because of this hazardous curiosity, but even the strictest of doctors couldn't stop her. Mia also writes about video games, travel, and girly issues for other publications. She also teaches English and Creative Writing. In the little spare time she has left, she catches up on film and TV shows, while cuddling up to her dog and cat.

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19 responses to “Can the Philippines Care for Tea?: Exploring the Tea Salon Culture in Metro Manila”

  1. Pauline says:

    I LOVE tea! I feel like I’m at a very low point in life when I’m forced to go to a coffee shop to order tea because there are no legit tea places nearby. Maybe it’s not taking off here because we’re used to (and somehow we need) that extra jolt that only coffee can provide? Also maybe because there’s this connotation that tea is fancy and requires raised pinkies, and we’re too shy to be caught doing that.

  2. James Q. Felipe says:

    “Starbucks is credited with making the Philippines a coffee-drinking country”

    I believe it’s Nescafe that did that. But if we’re talking about overpriced beverages, then it’s Starbucks alright.

    • Mia Marci says:

      I thought so too, but upon surveying the 50 and above lot, most credit it to Starbucks. I guess what they define as coffee-drinking culture prior to that it was coffee in the morning or to wake up, but that was it. Not like now where casual anything usually starts or ends with coffee.

  3. Andy says:

    I think tea is an acquired taste. Like, when I was young, the only tea I would drink was the overly sweet, iced tea kind. I couldn’t understand why people enjoyed drinking hot tea (which I thought was bland and icky back then). But as I grew up, I learned to appreciate having tea after meals as a sort of stomach cleanser. I still don’t think tea is something you should spend hundreds of bucks on. I mean, my idea of luxury tea is Twining’s. Hehe.

    • deliriousfruit says:

      That’s the thing though. Yes, it is an acquired taste. Delegating that tea could be bought cheap is kind of iffy, to be honest. If coffee had it’s own art, why not tea? After all, there’s thousands of different blends and plants that go into making tea as much as cultivating and grading beans for coffee.

      Tea and coffee are brewed with essentially the same procedures – just add hot water. The coffee press essentially just does the same thing when you steep tea. One could argue coffee was a herbal infusion, similar to how non-Camilla sinensis tea is called.

  4. deliriousfruit says:

    I honestly think Serenitea Greenhills started the milk tea craze before Happy Lemon opened at Promenade. :)) Happy Lemon bit onto the awareness of milk tea and propagated the craze. Chatime’s products are poor excuses for tea concoctions tbh, when they opened along Banawe they had more “authentic” flavours before adjusting to the local market. :/

  5. Ren says:

    Filipinos usually associate tea as medicinal tea, and these days as a dessert drink.

  6. magnetic_rose says:

    I was gonna go, “Nuh-uh I have loved tea since forever!” — and then I remembered I only started liking tea after a prolonged stint in Japan. So TL;DR you’re right, most ordinary Pinoys don’t seem to have a taste for tea besides medicinal teas and the ubiquitous (overly-) sweet iced lemon tea.

    • Mia Marci says:

      Hallo again, Rotch! Thanks for sharing! Yeah, same here. I grew up with Nestea since Mom was strict against us having soda at home. I only developed a deeper appreciation for tea when I lived in Indo, but even I’m stumped as to what’s good to order at TWG.

      • magnetic_rose says:

        HAHAHAHA TWG IS OSM — our first visit was to their Marina Bay Sands store and we never looked back! Anyway, they have so many fantastic blends to choose from, it’s usually hard to pick a favorite. We even keep a list of our favorites just to make sure we keep track of all the tea we’ve tried so far ^^;;

  7. altsi says:

    I’ve been drinking tea since before I can remember 😀 But my family has this BIG curiosity on international food.
    Maybe people also don’t like the taste? Most of our dishes have strong taste.

  8. Katrina says:

    Our penchant for sweet tea is probably the influence of our American colonizers, as sweet tea is a particular favorite in southern American states.

    As for tea salons, I don’t think the intent there is for them to become as ubiquitous and popular as milk tea or Starbucks, since the models are different. Tea salons tend to be more formal, more expensive, they offer full meals, and they don’t really encourage squatting (hehehe). Whereas milk tea places and Starbucks are the opposite of all that.

    Although, to be honest, I’m not sure if tea salons are really popular, even in tea-loving countries. For instance, in the UK, tea salons are not popular. There are places that offer afternoon tea (from the simplest to the fanciest), but these aren’t really “tea salons” the way that TWG is. They don’t offer as many variety of teas that TWG does, and the ones that they do serve are from outside brands. In Paris, “salons de the” do exist, but like the Laduree one, they are usually about the pastries and the food, and not about the tea.

    That said, I am all for tea being more popular in the Philippines. My recent stay in the UK has converted me, and I would love to have more places serve proper tea, legitimate scones, and CLOTTED CREAM. Uggggh. I swear, if more people knew about clotted cream and how lovely it is with tea and scones, they would drink more tea.

    • Mia Marci says:

      Thanks for the input! Interestingly, I once chatted with an American from the midwest before, and he found our iced tea too sweet!

      • Katrina says:

        Our iced tea mixes are ridiculously sweet. Haha. I think the teas served with sugar syrup/honey on the side is nearer to what American sweet tea is like.

  9. Victoria Castillo says:

    I enjoy tea, but at a minimum 300 pesos for a pot of tea and bad service, I wouldn’t go to TWG often. I enjoyed da.u.de for the quality and value for money, but simply never had the chance to return. Hope they come back in a more accessible form.

  10. Tea Snob says:

    Sadly, many Filipinos do not consider tea as a drink to be enjoyed. They treat tea like medicine: something horrible to be gulped down quickly only because it’s supposed to be good for the throat, heart, or waistline.

    I’m guessing the taste of leaves or bark doesn’t suit the Filipino palate. Many are not used to eating raw vegetables in salad, especially arugula. They do eat inadobong kangkong, but only because it’s been cooked and sopping with soy sauce, which overpowers the leafy taste. Milk tea is easier on the palate because of the familiar taste of milk and (often lots) of sugar.

    I love my tea, and I like it hot and plain. No milk, sugar, or lemon. Was excited to try TWG when it first opened here. But I was appalled that they threw away the tea leaves only after one brewing! I find it so wasteful. Good quality loose leaf teas don’t easily lose their flavour, and would taste just as good after being brewed with a third cup of boiling water!

  11. Totoy says:

    I love tea…
    I’ve started from drinking mostly homemade chai tea latte and masala chai. I’ve just been a recent green tea convert with my co-workers influence. I’ve tried most of China’s 10 famous tea and I got hooked to Spring Snail or Bi Luo Chun, and currently I’ve been drinking King’s 103 which is an Oolong tea. It is very unfortunate that the mainstream tea in the Philippines are the lipton teabag, while there is so much variations to choose from.

    Also it would help if there is are more loose leaf tea stores in the Philippines, last time I was home there is only 1 store in Alabang that sells loose leaf tea that I could find, that is The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

  12. Kakoi says:

    Great article, Mia!

  13. Ariela Badenas says:

    Interesting read! I do agree, I think it’s because our idea of tea has always been either salabat or iced tea (which isn’t even real tea). I don’t think opening a tea salon would be the best way to convert Filipinos into tea-drinkers. If we did have more loose leaf tea shops (that aren’t as expensive as TWG, God save my wallet) like David’s Tea in Canada, then maybe there’d be hope? :)) They make hundreds of amazing tea blends that they sell per gram, with no minimum quantity.

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