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Dilmah Tea offerings are displayed at the Sri Lankan company's main Jakarta distributor. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Healthy versus hip: A Sri Lankan tea boss takes on coffee

Dilmah Tea's CEO sees millennials embracing the ancient elixir

JAKARTA The tea industry has watched in envy as coffee's cachet has skyrocketed across Asia, and now it wants a piece of the action. But it faces a difficult challenge: How to convince people that something they've been quaffing like water all their lives can be a premium product.

Eliawati Erly, vice president of David Roy Indonesia, the local distributor for Sri Lankan brand Dilmah Tea, recognizes that developing a culture of cool around tea won't be easy. "People are accustomed to having tea and teh botol (bottled tea drinks sold in shops) since they are young," she said. 

Erly and others in the tea industry are well-aware of how coffee companies have benefited from promoting the ethical sourcing of beans and the distinct qualities of single-origin roasts from specific regions.

"It is what is behind it, the story, the origins," said Erly, referring to savant baristas with tales to tell to curious customers of far-off coffee-growing hillsides.

Drink your medicine   

Knowing that they can't sell cool quite like their coffee counterparts, tea businesses such as Dilmah are likely to focus on a different angle: health. Increasingly, tea is being pitched as a healthy alternative not only to coffee but also to fizzy drinks that are seen as fueling obesity and diabetes across Asia.

Erly Eliawati, left, vice president of David Roy Indonesia, discusses the merits of Dilmah Tea's offerings. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Younger tea drinkers are "seeking natural antioxidants and variety in tea," said Dilhan C. Fernando, Dilmah's CEO, describing "a trend that we observe globally, driven primarily by the wellness dimension in tea and extended by the increasingly sophisticated taste of millennials and centennials globally."

Though the science is inconclusive on the health benefits of tea, long-term studies conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that tea drinkers are less likely to develop diabetes compared with the average population. The thinking is that the polyphenols found in tea help regulate blood sugar, or glucose. 

There is also research suggesting that drinking tea may lower the risk of heart disease, as well as help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol.

But can the health factor match coffee's high hip quotient? Can tea shops, like their coffee counterparts, come to play a pivotal role as de facto offices for freelance workers in the so-called gig economy?

Fernando thinks so. "There is absolutely a case for tea to be offered in the same way [as coffee]."

Dilmah has a handful of tea lounges -- some stand-alone, some in partnership with restaurants -- in seven countries. In these "t-Lounges by Dilmah," as they are called, gourmet teas and "tea gastronomy" --  cuisine laced with tea as a seasoning or flavor, or certain teas paired with compatible meals -- are offered as alternative ways for tea buffs to savor their sip.

"As specialized shops, including tea shops and gourmet food shops, generally grow in prominence and share, the demand for tea in this specialty retail segment is increasing," Fernando said. "It is yet a niche segment but growing rapidly."

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