Strainer readers may recall, about 3 years ago, reading about a new concept in tea preparation. It was called InWE Tea (因味茶). It exerted on the tea leaf high pressure as well as high heat, much like brewing an espresso. I was excited.
Maybe I was wrong to be too excited. While most of the company’s tea bars do still exist, my prediction that we would all start fracking our tea leaves has been unfulfilled; tea capsule machines have not become mainstream.
Except that aluminium tea capsules are appearing. Maybe you’ve seen them in the swanky shopping malls.
Xiao Guan Cha’s (小罐茶) aluminium capsules are much larger than Nespresso’s or InWE’s. But they don’t slot into anyone’s machine; a human hand must unpeel the foil lid and shake out the leaves. The packaging employs brushed aluminium because, you know, MacBook. It feels premium.
Actually, aluminium is a pretty green material (Americans at this point will accuse me of wasting letter “i”s every time I write this metal’s name. Please be assured that all these letters are sustainably recycled from old Apple mp3 players). But this Xiao Guan Cha packaging is a design-led indulgence, a tiny pinch of tea leaves rattling around an oversized capsule in a large (VERY beautiful) cardboard/wooden/tin box.
And the tea is just average.
Not brilliant. Not terrible. Just average.
Jingdong currently sells their starter pack (20 capsules) for ¥450. That’s about ¥22 per cup, because (unlike in the stashed-full website images) each contains only that many leaves. Paying for an individual capsule can cost as much as ¥50.
Twelve varieties of tea feature in their core range, mostly the usual suspects; Maofeng Green (黄山毛峰), Dianhong Red (滇红) etc. joined by Raw Puer (生普) and Dongding (冻顶乌龙) oolong.
The brand is the brainchild of Du Guoying (杜国楹), the teacher-turned-entrepreneur who brought us the 8848 mobile phone, a ¥1,499 handset finished in stitched leather and die-cast metal (and all in the best possible taste). It followed on from electronic dictionaries (endorsed by Da Shan), children’s sportswear and an executive tablet. After each of these ventures, the founder has quickly sold on.
Xiaoguan Tea’s TV commercial features Rolls Royces greeting private jets at night. Never has Du’s theme been so clear; this is a “Niubi product”.
The website boasts the direct “handmade” role of eight named “Tea Masters”. Apparently, ex-Apple Tim Kobe was hired for the design of Xiao Guan’s stores. Our local shopping mall sells a bespoke box containing two Xiao Guan tea capsules with a pack of Chunghwa (中华) cigarettes. A good pairing.
Xiao Guan Cha is a true “consumption upgrade” product, demanding more from consumers than they ever previously paid, bringing benefits beyond mere flavour.
Perhaps that will help to elevate tea from its Cinderella status as ‘everyday’ and ‘local’. I’m glad that this brand’s range spans real leaves, rather than the usual flowers, candied fruits and emulsifiers.
But there’s a real danger of an “emperor’s new clothes” effect spreading from here. As well as “niubi”, online comments have described this brand as “智商税”; a tax on the stupid. And the danger to tea is especially strong if the CEO chooses, as is apparently his wont, to cut and run after making a quick killing.