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Tea No. 829 on Ette Tea’s website is the Nasi Lemak tea, a tea blend of Houjicha, Genmaicha, coconut flakes, dried pandan, dried chilli, and other flavourings. Chicken Rice is Tea No 833; a unique concoction made up of savoury Kukicha, lemongrass, ginger and fragrant pandan.
If you’re wondering who is the mad genius behind these hyper-local tea blends, it is none other than tea maker Victor Koh, founder of Singapore-based boutique tea atelier Ette Tea. While the world is only now beginning to catch up with infusing uniquely Singaporean elements into their products, Victor has long embraced and acknowledged the heritage flavours that have come to shape our identity as Singaporeans.
In this interview, Victor shares his thoughts on the tea-drinking culture in Singapore and why, as a child, he aspired to be a supermarket Store Manager.
How would you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?
I am in the F&B industry, and I am a first-generation Tea Maker. I create tea blends for my own company, Ette Tea Company, which makes and distributes Singapore Tea Blends that are inspired by local food.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up and why?
I wanted to be either a professional saxophonist or a supermarket Store Manager.
The former is because I am pretty musically inclined. I was not the most hardworking student in my school days, but I was extremely involved in the school band and represented Singapore with the Singapore Wind Symphony in the World Music Contest in Kerkrade.
The latter is because growing up, grocery shopping was my favourite pastime, and I am always dazzled by the array of food and drinks in the aisle and shelves of the supermarket. I wanted to be a store manager so that I can curate and bring in unique brands and high quality local and international products for everyone.
You were a flight attendant several years back before hanging up your wings for a career in the tea industry. What excites you the most about being in the F&B industry?
As a flight crew, you get to witness trends before it reaches Singapore. We would have already seen the brands we see today in Singapore in our travels, and I would imagine that some of these brands are brought in by existing or former crew members of Singapore Airlines. You can say that spending four years flying around the world was my first foray into the world of F&B.
What excites me about being in the F&B industry is that I get to create and write my own story and present it to Singapore and the world, not with words but with food and, in my case, tea blends. I have also come to realise that the F&B industry is never one-note. It is exciting and ever-changing, with new concepts and ideas borne every time. I cannot think of a better time to be involved in this industry than now.
What is the most interesting thing about your company’s formation, Ette Tea, that most people don’t know?
Many would know that we started this company from my home kitchenette, and it was one a half years later that Ette Tea Boutique was inaugurated. We used only to sell loose leaves but started selling teabags when demand picked up. Even then, we had to pack our Singapore Tea blends by hand because we couldn’t afford a tea bag machine.
In the beginning, many of our tea-making processes were manual. For instance, before I knew what a dehydrator was, I used to microwave fresh pandan leaves to dry them out for the blending of the Pandan Chiffon Tea. I knew it would work because I was so used to using the oven in my line of work when I was still a cabin crew—the things you can do with a humble oven would surprise you.
How has the culture of tea drinking in Singapore changed ever since the formation of Ette Tea in 2014?
Singapore’s tea-drinking culture is truly diverse and fragmented, so it is hard to pinpoint a collective way of enjoying tea and how it has evolved. In general, we see tea being enjoyed more without milk and sugar, resulting in increased demand for quality tea leaves that are softer in taste and less tannic. Fruit & Floral teas are gaining even more popularity with the preference of decaf or caffeine-free options by tea drinkers.
I also observed that while our kopitiam tea culture is still going strong, I hear more “Siu Dai” and “Po” orders more than ever due to the ongoing health concerns of lesser sugar consumption and reducing caffeine intake. The ubiquitous Bubble Tea segment has also reduced its typical Milk Tea offerings to introduce a broader range of fruitier and more herbal tisane. If you look at the menu now compared to before, it has become less of a tea beverage but more of a fruit cordial mix.
What was the most significant pivot you’ve had to undertake in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how does this change factor into your plans for the company?
Pre-COVID, our business was primarily centred around foodservice distribution and corporate orders, with our retail arm making up a small fraction of the pie. When Circuit Breaker happened in April this year, we scrambled to digitalise and ramp up our website because our tea boutique had to close, which means our main business would be at a standstill.
Moving forward, we see greater opportunities in e-commerce, with online retail sales at their best performance since 2014. We also intend to allocate more resources and spending to improve our channel’s activity.
When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
The F&B industry was hit hard when COVID-19 happened, with tenants struggling with its most expensive liability—rent. While many were forced to close, what gives me hope is the culture of dining in Singapore. Our love for food is undying, and hence I’m confident that the industry will never cease.
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