Friday, 9 April 2010

Behind the Cup... with Monika from SanTion House of Tea

A little while ago I purchased some samples (including the Keemun I was so enthused about) of different teas from SanTion House of Tea, a fairly new player on the Australian tea scene, and have been very impressed with their quality. This week I am very pleased to be able to post an interview with Monika from SanTion. 

What inspired you to get into tea, both as a drink and as a business? How long has SanTion been in business?

I discovered ‘real’ tea about two years ago when meeting Taoist Master Dong Yang. This was the time in my life when I felt the need for spiritual guidance. It was a lucky charm to discover that there is a real Taoist Master in Sydney. Together with a couple of friends I immediately got in touch with Master Dong Yang, and began the training. We were taught that certain exercises, music, calligraphy, wei chi, painting and drinking tea help improve the internal energy level and overall health. Master Dong Yang would brew tea while discussing important issues. In fact, he would drink tea all day long adjusting only strength of the brew and matching the sort of tea to the time of the day. Drinking tea, for him, was just like meditation.

These meetings introduced the world of tea to me and my friends. This was the first time that we have tasted and appreciated Dragon Well, Da Hong Pao and many other marvellous teas. We discovered that tea can bring one back to nature, help become more peaceful and relaxed, escalate feelings of joy and happiness. We found out that with a cup of tea in hand one can experience a touch of pure nature while surrounded by everyday life. One can feel the fresh breeze coming form the mountains, smell the aroma of an ancient forest, sense a touch of softness under the feet. The world transforms.

We have also discovered that one needs to be careful when choosing the right tea and that it is easy to go astray. Not all teas have these transforming world abilities. We have decided to go straight to the source – China. We wished to find the gate to a precious ‘tea garden’. We departed from Sydney on the 1st of May 2009 into a trip of tea discovery. We discovered many unique teas and decided to not only buy it for ourselves and our friends, but also to bring it to the wide public.

Santion commenced its operation in August 2009. We are a very young company and we are trying hard to establish our position on the market because we believe we are bringing something of genuine value.

How did you decide on the 'focus' for SanTion in terms of the types of tea that you carry?

It was very difficult for us to decide on the sorts of tea we carry.

On one hand we knew that Australians love their blends and flavoured teas. We knew that SanTion will be more successful if we offer teas that will match palates of most of our potential customers. On the other hand, we always wanted to educate people about unblended and unflavoured tea.

In the end, we decided for the latter - to concentrate mostly on high quality, loose leaf tea and educate customers and friends of how wonderful ‘pure’ tea experience may be. Profit and business success is secondary to this goal of ours. Despite that, we also imported some naturally flavoured teas and a few blends for those of our customers who are just starting on their way to tea discovery and are not quite ready to go ‘all the way’.

How would you define Australian ‘tea culture’ based on your experience and observations? Have you noticed any changes over time (including your own tea preferences) and what do you think has driven these changes?

For some of us tea is just an alternate for coffee. Most of the times - a small bag dipped into water and often infused with milk, lemon or sugar. For others it may be an iced drink, nice and refreshing in hot summer days. For a few it is a way to healthy lifestyle, source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Finally, only some people are truly passionate about tea. Those passionate enough are able to create a truly unique tea experience.

Australia is now amongst those countries that pride themselves for ‘coffee culture’ rather than tea culture. Most cafes still offer only tea bags as these are much more convenient. Cafes and restaurants offer only a few, most popular varieties: English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Peppermint, Camomile etc. The reason for this is simple – no demand for more and no tea-educated customers. For Australians White Tea still means a black tea with milk!

Nevertheless, I strongly believe that the future for tea in Australia is brighter than ever. Australians are very health-conscious and quality-oriented. Tea sales grow from year to year.

Tea is healthy, fashionable and affordable – more and more people acknowledge the fact. ‘Tea Culture’ is coming. It is now just a matter of time.

Any thoughts on the direction that tea is headed?

Tea lovers are becoming more and more sophisticated. I believe that whilst interest in tea blends and flavoured teas will always be there, over the next few years we will also observe increasing interest in unblended and unflavoured teas prepared in the traditional, oriental way.

As far as the distribution channels are concerned, 2010 Tea Market Forecast by Joseph Simrany and Pearl Dexter of states: “Tea is in, it is trendy, relevant and continually attracting an ever-expanding group of avid and knowledgeable consumers, most of who are gaining that knowledge via the Internet. Tea companies of course are still using traditional advertising vehicles including TV, radio, print and direct marketing but they are increasingly turning to non-traditional marketing vehicles such as; websites, blogs, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and now the iPhone”.

As interest in tea grows, the need for tea knowledge increases. Over the next few years we will witness growing number of visitors on tea-related websites and blogs. Visitors will be looking not only for tea, but also for information on tea preparation and brewing, tea philosophy, tea history, tea health benefits etc.

What do you think the greatest challenges are for Australian tea businesses and/or consumers?

The greatest challenge for customers is to open up for a quality product by educating themselves about tea. It is important to savour and experience a wide variety of teas to get to know which tea sorts and varieties suit them best.

The greatest challenge for tea businesses, especially the smaller ones is to find their way through the slower period which we are encountering at present. Customers are still not aware of how to judge a good quality product and therefore often settle on cheap alternatives offered by international corporations or supermarkets. This way most of us never have the chance to discover the ‘real’ tea and small businesses don’t have the chance to get the recognition they deserve.

It is also important for the Australian tea market to find a healthy balance between quality and price. As per now, too often do we observe very low quality tea sold at tremendous prices only because of a smart marketing campaign.

Any other tea musings you would like to share?

For SanTion, tea is primarily a lifestyle, secondarily a product. Tea is there to enjoy it! Our advise is to treat tea health benefits as a side effect.

Thank you very much Monika for your thoughtful and inspiring responses. It is very exciting to have a company like SanTion operating in Australia and I wish you every success.

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