Taiwanese businessman Dr. Si Chang is very learned about the Chinese tea culture. Born and raised in the East Asian state of the Republic of China, part of the chemistry doctorate degree holder’s daily routine is drinking several cups of tea just as the rest of the population do.
It is from this prolonged and frequent consumption of a variety of brewed tealeaves that Chang can quickly differentiate a good cup from a bad one, be they served direct from the boil, or even as today’s ever popular milk tea.
In fact, he is the man behind Fiftea, the newest milk tea brand to pour into Manila, which happens to be Taiwan’s top milk tea brand for the past 20 years.
In a one-on-one interview with The Manila Times at the Fiftea store launch in Alphaland Makati Tower on May 14, Chang eagerly talked about his favorite beverage, effectively shedding light on the milk tea craze going around the country.
The ‘real’ milk tea
“Part of the Chinese culture is to drink tea from a very young age. So yes, we drink tea the whole day,” Chang began.
While each Chinese region is known for different tea blends, he fast-forwarded his discussion to more recent tea variations and talked about the pearl milk tea, which actually originated in Taiwan.
“This is the tea drink that Filipinos know as sealed in a plastic cup,” Chang specified.
But besides the container, he observed that Filipinos know very little about what makes a good milk tea because of a craze that delivers low quality options.
“When I came here four years ago, I saw the first Chinese milk tea companies to open up, and I was immediately surprised at how good their businesses turned out,” recalled Chang.
The reason for his amazement, however, was not a very positive thing, since the brands that invaded the Philippines were apparently not among China’s “competitive” milk tea choices.
“Perhaps they came here to look for a new market, and succeeded through marketing and advertising,” was Chang’s only conclusion for the curious phenomenon.
What he is certain of in seeing milk tea stores, bars and cafés in malls and most street corners is that Filipinos have not been experiencing the authentic kind of milk tea that his country had originally produced.
“Show me the tea leaves,” is the challenge he poses to milk tea companies in the market today, and if they are able to do so, then he will agree with the product’s authenticity.
According to Chang, Filipinos who have come to like milk teas are unaware they are being served the powdered kind, which is not what a good milk tea is made from. As the result, they have not been able to develop a discriminating taste for ones that are of the powdered sort, and the real milk tea that is brewed from actual tealeaves.
“Now, all milk teas taste the same for Filipinos,” he regretted. “In China or in Taiwan, no one will drink a tea prepared from powder, because we can tell from experience, from the taste, what is good and what is not,” he shared.
True tea taste
Frustrated over a phony milk tea craze, Chang ventured in bringing Fiftea to Manila, whose global exposure took on a very gradual start.
“The [Fiftea] owners are so protective of their brand that they didn’t want to export it out [of their country]for almost 20 years. It was only in 2013 that they expanded overseas, and only to China.”
Fiftea, a company that began in 1994 already have 500 stores only in its mother country.
According to Chang, it wasn’t after repeatedly assuring the owners that he would keep the quality of Fiftea’s milk tea menus that they agreed to let him set up the first store outside Taiwan and China.
“I told them I want to bring a good product here, and that it is a sound decision because the Philippines a good market for milk tea,” he continued
Asked what exactly makes Fiftea better than the milk teas Filipinos have had thus far, Chang enumerated three factors: “The tea, the brewing and the baristas.”
“Our tea leaves are imported and sourced from a reputable grower of tea leaves. So the final flavors are sharp, distinct and natural. No chemicals are needed to heighten the flavors,” he explained.
As for the brewing, Chang assured fresh Fiftea brews every day.
“The water is boiled separately before adding the tea leaves to get the freshest flavors and nutrients,” he informed. “This also avoids the bitterness that comes from over-boiled leaves.”
The fresh brews are then contained in huge thermal teapots that maintain a temperature of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the day.
“This is a problem for many milk tea stores because brewing the proper way is very tedious, so that they choose use powder instead,” he revealed.
He then talked about the different Fiftea brews, which come from green, red and black tealeaves. Each one is used in specific milk tea recipes, with green requiring the least fermentation, thus providing the highest level of anti-oxidants; black tealeaves next; and finally the red tea, or the basic tea, which is undergoes the longest fermentation among the three.
“With regard to our baristas, we do not follow other company practices in replacing them with new ones every six months,” Chang related. “We maintain the people we train because when they become experts themselves, they will be the ones who will ably train our baristas in the future.”
Finally, Chang talked about a “golden ratio” found in every cup of Fiftea.
‘That’s something only for our baristas to know,” he laughed.
Overseas, Chang cited the bestsellers to be Grass Jelly Red Milk Tea, Pudding Red Milk Tea, Jasmine Milk Tea, and Milk Green Tea. In Manila, he is sure the more indulgent recipes with ice cream on top will catch on because of the hot weather.
For those who want a healthier cup, they can opt for iced teas, which Chang personally drinks every day. His favorite is the Jade Lemon in Green Tea, and also enjoys the Charcoal Roasted Oolong Tea, Assam Tea and Jasmine Tea.
“We offer freshness and healthiness with our milk teas—the real kind,” Chang guaranteed.