When most Malaysians think tea, what comes to mind are the sugary staples like teh tarik, teh o ais or Boh tea. This was true for Nea Mareana until she went to England to pursue an undergraduate degree and found a whole new appreciation for this brilliant brew.
“I nurtured my love for hot drinks, not specifically tea, when I was there because it was really cold. I started working part time at a café that had a wide selection of teas and I realised that tea is actually very dynamic. You can do a lot of things with tea and it’s never boring,” says Nea.
When she came back to Malaysia, she missed the loose-leaf concoctions she had grown to love and noticed a gap in the local market for such blends. In 2012, she recruited two partners and got to work beta testing a supply of loose-leaf tea in Kuala Lumpur. After a successful beta period, the team added a fourth member, roping in Adrian Yew after meeting him at an event. Pick a Pekoe was officially formed in 2015, supplying loose-leaf tea from an established brand in England.
The founders come from very different backgrounds. “Among our founding partners, we have someone in hospitality, we have someone in finance and I’m from finance as well. Adrian is an audio engineer and a lecturer,” says Nea. These diverse individuals came together because of their love for tea. “That would be one key reason we work well as a team. We have different strengths and come from different backgrounds, and we play off each other’s strengths very well,” says Yew.
I meet Nea and Yew at Sprezzatura in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, the second branch of a café chain that was one of Pick a Pekoe’s first and most loyal clients. “We were people with nothing to do with F&B coming into it, so it was very difficult. Given that our business model was to focus on supplying to cafés and restaurants, it was difficult to get potential clients to come on board. As the year went by, we learnt to listen to our clients and along the way, we met some encouraging experts who saw what we wanted to do and saw our passion and gave us a lot of support,” says Nea. Bringing in tea from another brand proved unsustainable as they did not have the flexibility to adapt to their customer’s needs, so they decided to begin their own tea brand, Roboch.
With the knowledge they gained from their beta stage and the help of tea masters to source tea from all over the world, the team was able to make blends that suit the local palate. “During the testing stage, we learnt what the market appreciates. We have had blends that were too out there and that didn’t pique as much interest as others. There were also some that we did not know would do well but that the customers loved. It was a lot of trial and error and learning what the Malaysian market was gravitating towards,” says Yew.
Still excited by the endless possibilities, they are looking forward to creating more blends. “You can blend [tea] with any type of fruit, herbs, flowers and spices and you get a completely different and unique blend. You can cater to everyone’s taste buds,” says Yew.
One of Pick a Pekoe’s objectives is to encourage an awareness of loose-leaf tea as its quality is superior. “It’s the size of the leaf that matters first. Loose-leaf tea has to be carefully harvested and you have to make sure that the products you have are of the proper size, as opposed to tea dust that is usually in a lower price range because it can be the result of mixing up whatever is left over. The high-end loose-leaf teas are handpicked. The even higher range has very young and flush leaves that have to be handpicked at a specific harvest time. That is why loose-leaf tea tends to be of better quality — it is mainly due to the attention during production, and with that comes flavour,” says Nea.
The team behind Pick a Pekoe believe that there is a cup of tea for everyone, but they just haven’t found it yet. They built their client base by heavily investing in big exhibitions such as Café Malaysia. “Exhibitions and road shows have been a key tool to get our foot really firmly in the door … People were thinking, ‘if they are here they must be serious’,” says Nea.
Roboch tea can now be found in over 35 cafés and restaurants, including Roost in Bangsar, Tryst in Subang Jaya and Fluff in Taman Tun Dr Ismail. In the future, the team hopes to have enough capital to follow tea masters to plantations in search of the tea they want. They also want to be able to supply their special teas to more states in Malaysia. “We are different in that, by virtue of trying to raise awareness and appreciation of loose-leaf tea, we make our products very accessible,” says Yew.
This article first appeared on Jan 28, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.