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CHA DONG: great tasting tea from Food Exchange

CHA DONG: great tasting tea from Food Exchange

25 Nov, 2023

CHA DONG: great tasting tea from Food Exchange

Two entrepreneurs based at Mission Kitchen have scooped a Great Taste Award for their hand- crafted Hong Kong style milk tea.

The humble cup of coffee has experienced a commercial explosion over the past two decades, with coffee shops now ubiquitous on every high street. Now, aiming to raise the profile of coffee’s traditional rival – tea – with their company CHA DONG, meet Cassandra Liu and Lawrence Wong.

If you’ve never heard of Hong Kong tea before, prepare to change your view on how tea can taste.

“We produce authentic hand-crafted Hong Kong (HK) style milk tea right here at Mission Kitchen in New Covent Garden Market,” says Cassandra. “We source and blend our tea leaves ourselves - reducing the ‘middle-man’ from HK. This also means that our tea flavour profiles are, while authentic-tasting, unique to us. Local cafes and other bottle brands etc - which produce HK milk teas - would typically import pre-mixed blends from HK. We also use a local supply chain as much as possible. All our bottles and packaging are sourced or manufactured in the UK.”

So what’s all the fuss about? With two different flavours to choose (alongside a constantly changing seasonal special), CHA DONG is best served chilled, though equally delicious when served warm. Served in attractive 250ml flask bottles, the fragrant tea (made with evaporated milk and sugar) packs a caffeine punch. Both versions contain more caffeine than an equivalent cup of coffee or even a small can of Red Bull. “An espresso coffee will have 30-40 mg of caffeine per 100ml,” explains co-owner Lawrence. “Our teas would have three times the amount.”

The ‘Nostalgic Hong Kong’ flavour has more of a chocolate, nutty taste, recreating the Hong Kong style milk tea found in the 1970s and '80s. The ‘Contemporary Classic’ is what you’d find today in Hong Kong. It’s slightly sweeter than the Nostalgic Hong Kong flavour, with a clear floral tone and is considered an easy-drinking tea. With an astonishing 2.7 million cups of tea consumed each day in Hong Kong, Lawrence sees an emerging market in the UK that can only expand. “We’ve found that our teas are already very popular with people from South Asian and Arabic backgrounds, as the flavour is similar to what they’re used to drinking in their home countries,” he explains.

The secret to making such a unique blend of tea is in the brewing process. Each freshly prepared batch is filtered between four and six times per teapot, to extract as much flavour as possible from the tea leaves. A small bottle of CHA DONG (250ml) is three to four times the strength of English tea. CHA DONG achieves this by brewing for longer, adding a lengthy process to strain the tea and capture the full flavour. “We spent six months on the process and setting up the business,” explains Lawrence.

“The actual tea brewing process is recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, so that the tradition can be carried on by new generations. Whilst our process isn’t unique, our blend of tea leaves is so we need to slightly tweak the process to ensure that it works for each of our teas. The hard water in London really affects the taste, so to counter that we use up to six different tea leaves to create a special – and very specific – flavour that works with London’s water and our local ingredients.”

Lawrence is proud to be the first HK tea brand to win a ‘Great Taste Award’, scooped earlier this year and now proudly displayed on each bottle. “Our mission is to bring a taste of home to Hong Kong-ers living in the UK,” says Lawrence. “We also want to introduce this authentic tasting HK tea to the rest of the UK.” Despite still being a new business operating out of a shared kitchen space, CHA DONG has increased its capacity over the last 12-months to become the best- selling HK tea in the UK.

“We supply more than 1,000 bottles a week to restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets across London’s Chinatown alone,” says Lawrence, adding that CHA DONG has proved popular with independent grocers and cafes, who see it as a great alternative to coffee.

Prestigious London auction house Sotheby’s even have CHA DONG on the menu at its in-house café. “That collaboration came about by chance,” laughs Lawrence. “They were hosting an Asian-themed auction and were looking for a drink for the event. Our tea proved popular and they asked to stock us in their café. We’re also stocked in Three Uncles, a London-based restaurant chain. Whilst people may associate milk tea paired with a pastry or something sweet, it’s excellent with savoury food. Roasted Cantonese meats are an incredibly popular pairing with our tea.”

Cassandra Wong answers our tea-break questions:

How did CHA DONG get started and what made you want to pursue your vision?

It was founded by myself and my husband, after living in both Australia and the UK. We found that whilst there are lots of HK cafes and restaurants, we struggled to find an authentic-tasting cup of tea. There are typically five factors to a perfect cup of HK style milk tea: it has to be fragrant, flavourful and smooth on the palate. Although the tea is strong, the traditional brewing process we use, which if performed correctly, ensures the tea isn’t bitter or astringent. A proper cup of Hong Kong style milk tea has more caffeine than a cup of coffee! So it’s not meant to be a weak, steeped tea, or overly sweet.

With coffee shops so prevalent, have you seen a growing demand for tea since you first opened the business?

We do believe that there has been a growing interest, partly due to the increase in Hong Kong migrants who are raising awareness of Hong Kong food culture but predominantly, it’s the growing interest in bubble tea and Asian teas (eg. matcha, chai) which is fuelling this demand and also a willingness to try. I mean, you can now find bubble teas in coffee shop chains and many cafes now stock speciality teas - so who knows!

You’re based here at the Food Exchange. What is your connection to New Covent Garden Market and how did that come about? Do you source ingredients from our Market wholesalers?

We had been looking for a commercial kitchen which carried similar principles to us and Mission Kitchen seemed a good fit for a start-up. What really sold us was the like-minded network of emerging food businesses and the shared principles when it comes to sustainability.

Being at the heart of New Covent Garden Market addresses the third point, as we have been able to source some ingredients from businesses on-site which has been fantastic. We also offer limited edition fruit teas so when we have had to do any R&D, it meant we could just pop downstairs to the local wholesalers and have a chat and see what fruits they have in season!

How do you decide on your flavours / ingredients?

We only have two flavours but do create limited editions - we look for whatever is in season and source locally. We aren’t here to replicate a HK cafe like-for-like but more the flavours and essence, which is part of our brand.

Where can readers find CHA DONG products? Do you have a physical shop or plans for that side of the business?

We are mainly B-to-B and currently at most leading Asian supermarkets (SeeWoo, Tian Tian), independent grocers/cafes and restaurants (Poon’s, Three Uncles) in London, as well as across the UK. We want to encourage people to enjoy our products on-the-go and pair with different types of food, going beyond how it’s originally served in a cafe environment in HK. So far it’s going well and igniting lots of interesting conversations. Whilst we don’t have a physical shop, we do lots of collaborations with other businesses, particularly other start-ups, and pop-ups.

Garin Auld
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