Thursday, June 16, 2016

Twinings, on location in Bangkok

Twinings had a booth downstairs in our office building this week (in Empire Tower in Sathorn, Bangkok), so I stopped by to see what they are selling.  I'd assume that anyone reading this knows what teas they sell, for the most part, but I'll go into that anyway, before mentioning how the booth experience went.

The company is known for making standard loose teas and tea bag teas, per the Wikipedia article in particular associated with Earl Grey.  I ran across reference to them selling an interesting sounding specialty tea recently, Grey Dragon oolong from Dewata estate in Indonesia (sort of the page I've been on for awhile, Indonesian teas).  It's a little odd that they claim that tea is produced exclusively for them when you can find other vendors selling it online, but all the same it shows there is more to them than Earl Grey and teas like Darjeeling only described as "Darjeeling."

They also have a nice looking cafes in Central World (a Bangkok mall).  Oddly according to an article one was the first such boutique shop ran by them (a cafe, more or less), opened in 2012 and still the only such version in 2014.  Those cafes aren't really for me since I have no interest in "high tea," drinking ordinary versions of teas along with little sandwiches or macaroons; I'm just into tea.

Anyway, they're better known for tea bag teas and loose teas that one might describe as "mid-range," which would really mean different things to different people.  But at least it is nice that loose teas are sold in grocery stores, with other options for decent, low cost Thai oolong in different places.  My own adopted project is more about promoting tea awareness than rejecting ordinary grade teas as unacceptable, although lots of people take "tea enthusiasm" that way, establishing their own status and knowledge by distancing themselves from anything remotely conventional.

I'm just not on board with ordinary teas enough to actually buy their tea, usually.  I've tried their Earl Grey and Lady Grey, and they aren't bad, but the English Breakfast tea one would do well to pass on.

On-site display at my office building

I work in a large modern office building in Sathorn, a building that extends to around 50 floors high, potentially holding a few thousand office staff, so different types vending and displays do come up.  There is one tea-themed shop in the building, related to a vendor I've reviewed before, Peony, it's just not really for me.  To place the context for that, they focus on tea blends (the type of tea I just said might be ok, a bit inconsistent), and they don't even sell loose tea at this branch.

The Twinings booth looked fine, with a focus on selling pyramid-style tea bags of loose teas, mostly blends.  I sort of get where that approach is coming from, trying to find a middle ground between selling dust in paper packets and real loose tea.  I'd like to see the hurdle of people putting dried leaves in hot water cleared a little more frequently than it seems to be now.

display tea bags to see and smell; cool, just not so functional

None of those blends on display sounded really exceptional but I tried a rose-petal blended black tea.  It was ok, a nice combination, if a bit nondescript.  Not enough taste came across to get a feel for what kind of black tea it was but the taste range was fine.  I probably drank that after three to three and a half minutes of brew time, the right amount of time for other sets of brewing parameters, but one more minute would have helped bring it to normal strength given the tea was crowded into the space of a tea bag.  Of course decent normal black tea can express a broad range of complexity without flower petals added, usually more related to malt, fruit, cocoa, or spice, but rose works as an addition when taking a different approach.

I did buy a "Lady Grey" variation of a loose-tea Earl Grey (bergamot orange flavored black tea, but with some flowers mixed in), since they had that on sale.  It was in part to drink and also to share with co-workers.  It's not bad, as long as one is fine with that type of tea to begin with.  It's not the best naturally flavored tea I've tried, and if they were selling conventional Earl Grey there I'd have probably went with that instead, but it strikes a decent balance and doesn't taste artificial.  It cost 220 baht for 100 grams of tea (more typically sold for around 350 here), equivalent to about $7.  For perspective, that's a little over what a Starbucks drink would cost here, or maybe two of the smallest plain coffees they sell, or the same as a half-dozen powdered-tea drinks.

loose tea!  it's a start

What would I do differently, related to a tea display booth?  It's already obvious, isn't it?  They had no loose tea for people to try, and almost nothing relating to those tea bags in single-type tea (only a sencha wasn't a blend).  I could see why promoting teas that seems to me the natural gateway to loose teas, lightly oxidized oolongs, may not work so well since mid-range oolong versions are the main type of tea produced in Thailand, or at least the by far most common type to find available for purchase.  But I don't think this was a case of Twinings marketing staff over-thinking other market options, but rather them not really thinking like a tea enthusiast, or a potential tea drinker.

The state of tea in Bangkok

One might wonder, what's the point of even mentioning this in a tea blog?  If the state of tea in Thailand is bubble tea and Twinings, with the other cafes and Chinatown shop exceptions I've already mentioned in lots of posts (and that one shop in Thanya Park, Tea Dee Zhang), why keep repeating that?  How can we move on?

I talked with the owner of a new cafe in Ekamai about that, Seven Suns about that in this post, and his idea was to encourage gradual tea awareness through sales of blends, and to offer unique blends that draw on Traditional Chinese Medicine practices to be healthier than plain teas.  They do sell decent loose tea there too, China Life products, definitely the next level up from Twinings, closer to the range of what I usually drink.  I've been onto even more interesting teas than that lately, versions that aren't at all easy to find, which I've also mentioned in lots of posts.

Maybe this is just how it goes; a couple of new cafes will open every year and tea will never really "take off" here, but the number of people aware of decent tea will keep growing.  Thai Facebook tea groups can have thousands of members but for the most part better loose tea is a non-issue, even in businesses with "tea" in their name.  Even in the few local cafes selling decent tea the staff don't always seem to get the basics, like knowing that you can steep loose tea for more than one infusion.

powdered tea from Myanmar; a first for me

Related to popular options, what people are drinking instead, I tried a powdered instant tea from Myanmar someone left in the break room recently.  It wasn't so bad, it's just nothing like brewed tea, with way too much sugar artificial creamer.  It had a nice smoky element, somewhere between campfire and ashtray, which worked better than it sounds.  But whoever owns that won't have to worry about me drinking it.

Local online-weekly articles keep saying "we love tea in Bangkok now"--and they did get around to mentioning Seven Suns in that one--but half the time they're talking about "high tea," more about sandwiches and cakes.  One doesn't get the impression that they know their Tie Kuan Yin from a Da Hong Pao, or Sencha from Longjing, and those aren't obscure Chinese tea names (and of course one is a Japanese tea).  It's like not knowing what India pale ale is, related to the traditional practice and modern interest in better beer, and people here don't know about that either, in general.

Trip Advisor reviews have only good things to say about that Twinings boutique, but it's still only #42 of coffee and tea shops in Bangkok.  But you couldn't even buy brewed loose tea at most of the places on that list, since most are just coffee shops.  Tea has a long way to go here.


  1. Came across your blog in my search for places to purchase loose leave darjeeling tea in BKK. Interesting article you wrote on Twinings. Can you recommend me a place to get darjeeling tea? Or maybe some of Cindy's teas? They sound worth trying. I do not drink infuced teas. We're staying at Charoun Krun road. Thanks in advance.

  2. Perfect timing; there is a tea social at a cafe that sells loose teas in Bangkok tomorrow, at Seven Suns in Ekamai. I'll add an event notice link afterwards. Darjeeling is a tough one, here. I'd mail order it directly from a producer. I've been trying lots of Gopaldhara teas lately and they're nice, but lots of the plantations make good teas, and I'd think many would sell directly. You might also have a look at Lochan teas, but they're not in Darjeeling, it's a different area. Their black tea comes recommended, black fusion, but I've not tried it. Cindy's teas you can buy direct through mail as well. We really should talk about other options here; I'll try to look you up elsewhere online by message.