Can the Philippines Care for Tea?: Exploring the Tea Salon Culture in Metro ManilaJuly 7, 2019
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.
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 purpose—for 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.
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 remedy—providing 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.
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.