Hongyuan Li always knew that her husband, Darren Chang, loved his coffee. He had been a home barista for a few years when suddenly one morning, he woke up and asked her, “Why don’t we set up a café together? I can do coffee and you can do tea.”
Hongyuan, formerly a speech therapist, has always loved tea. But it was only while preparing to set up the café with Darren that she began to dig into single-origin teas and was amazed at the variety of flavors. “I really want to introduce all these tastes to Singaporeans because single-origin teas are not commonly offered here. It’s also a fascinating way to learn about other cultures.”
After a year of planning, Darren and Hongyuan opened Smitten last July. Because of the popularity of “indie” specialty coffee here these past two years, it received quite a lot of buzz because Darren roasts his own coffee.
According to her, coffee connoisseurs have acquired sophisticated taste buds and after some of them have “made their rounds” trying all the coffee in Smitten, they begin to sample her tea. While there is some adjustment required in switching from a coffee taste profile to tea taste profile, according to Hongyuan, these customers gradually begin to appreciate tea’s subtler nuances.
Ironically, it is the tea drinkers that need more cajoling when it comes to trying Smitten’s selection of teas that Hongyuan painstakingly sources from all over the world. “They ask me why I don’t serve English Breakfast or Earl Grey. They’d tend to order the teas that they are more familiar with, such as an Assam black tea or a Japanese green tea.”
While the majority of people in Singapore are ethnically Chinese, Chinese tea is probably the least popular type of tea here. There are several reasons for this – many Chinese restaurants here use low-quality tea leaves from China and tend to oversteep their tea, resulting in many people thinking that Chinese tea is bitter. Another factor is the image associated with Chinese tea – it is perceived as old-fashioned and overly complicated in this modern, fast-paced city.
“Most people only know Jasmine and Pu-erh when it comes to Chinese tea. Even then, they also won’t really dare to make such tea on their own. This is why I think it’s important to hold tea workshops every few months to show how great premium, single-origin teas can taste when prepared in the proper way. I try to keep things simple, brewing tea using simple glass teapots at Smitten,” said Hongyuan.
In many ways, she feels that her partnership with her husband has worked out perfectly, even in terms of the everyday work. Darren does the business development and coffee side of the business, while Hongyuan handles the operations and tea and food inventory.
“At this point in time, I don’t think it would be feasible to set up an independent café that purely specializes in tea. However, I do think coffee is going to help make tea big in Singapore one day,” she said.