May’s – ‘The Fragrance Issue’ – Download Now
Co-founders Marina Rabei and Markus Zbinden, share their inspiration behind the brand AVANTCHA Tea and how it honed its mission to advance the tea experience.
What do the first 30 minutes of your day look like, your morning routine?
MR: I wake up between 5:00-5:30 and have a glass of hot water. While my coffee is brewing (yes, I do have a coffee a day) I get dressed, pick my podcast or audiobook and go for a 40-minute walk. I then take a shower, have my breakfast while reviewing my daily tasks and I’m in the office by 8am.
MZ: Whenever possible I spend some time on the beach in the morning and then enjoy an espresso on the balcony before starting my WFH routine. In the morning, I usually work from home as I’m talking to our partners in Asia before they close for the day.
How would you define the DNA of AVANTCHA?
Integrity, design, culture and attention to detail are in AVANTCHA’s DNA. Since our inception in 2014, we personally travelled the world to source the most flavorful and cleanest ingredients to make up our teas and tea blends. We believe in organic and natural farming and we invest a lot to provide organic and sustainable luxury to our customers. When it comes to quality we are total control freaks – from the tea garden to the cup which is under our control. We are obsessed with minimalism and functional design and our main mission is to combine ancient tea culture with a modern tea ceremony.
Which have been the largest challenges since launching the brand and how did you overcome them?
Challenges are the main reason for us to advance, to innovate and become more efficient.
-An ongoing challenge for us is to develop sustainable packaging, as it is always in conflict with product shelf life and design. We have a research team that is constantly experimenting with the latest degradable packing materials to make sure we are always on top of new packing technologies.
-When we launched AVANTCHA, the market for speciality teas was almost non-existent in the region. It was a challenge to get people to try unusual and unknown teas, and convince them to pay a premium price tag for them. We’ve launched a series of free tea events, anyone could come in, taste and have a chat with our tea artists. Those events were super popular and we hope to be able to start them again soon. Another challenge was certainly the sudden loss of revenue at the beginning of the pandemic. Fortunately, we have other revenue channels apart from hospitality and airlines, such as corporate gifting and direct retail which allowed us to continue our business and expand our team further.
How has the brand grown and which platform has supported that growth the most?
We’ve grown organically through word of mouth marketing and perseverance. In the first 3 years, it was Markus and I that visited clients, met the chefs, the baristas and F&B managers. We built connections with our clients and provide them the products and services they needed. We started our business by supplying teas to cafes and restaurants, then government offices and later luxury hotels. We grew serving from 40 business clients in 2014 to over 400 clients in 2021, most of it via recommendations. There wasn’t a platform that accelerated our growth, as AVANTCHA was only sold via our own website, and only a few months ago, we’ve extended our offering via selected retailers like, Tavola and Crate & Barrel. A few factors that have made a considerable push include a pop-up store in The Dubai Mall, our Tea Bar in Al Quoz which was opened back in 2019, developing a collection of Ramadan gifts for Cartier in 2020 which went into the homes of affluent families in the UAE and KSA.
How do you constantly innovate with new blends?
Inspiration is everywhere. At times, clients commission us to develop blends inspired by perfumes. Recently we developed 3 rose tea blends – a fresh rose, a fruity rose and a smoky rose. Other times, it’s an experience, a feeling that is translated into flavour. We, humans, perceive flavour as an emotional record of the past, every time we taste something we are looking for an analogy of the things we know. For this reason, understanding cultural preferences play a huge role into blends creations, blending for the central European market is very different to blending for the Middle East or Asia.
What are the key preferences in terms of blends across the GCC?
We are lucky to have access to such a diverse population here in GCC. Every culture group has its tradition, but preferences are very wide. We’ve noticed an increased interest in white teas and botanicals in recent years. As a base rule, we have 2 customer types:
- The purists – the ones loving single-origin and rare teas: most loved teas are the Organic Japanese Gyokuro, the White Bud Silver Needle & the Organic Matcha Ceremonial Grade.
- The avant-gardes – the ones loving bright and more experimental teas and botanical blends: most popular being the Rush Hour Berry, the Rose White and Oriental Moments.
Which blends consistently drive sales?
Ceremonial Matcha grades, Rose White, Rush Hour Berry and all types of Mint.
Tell us about the biodegradable packaging material?
We believe luxury must be sustainable. AVANTCHA teabags have always been biodegradable, made from a plant-based material called polylactic acid (PLA) and recently we’ve also made them GMO-free. They are made from sugar cane and are 100% industrial compostable in 6 months. These are not made from petroleum and will not leak harmful plasticizers into your cup. As for the teabag sachets themselves, we have just launched a new material which considerably reduces the layers of plastic. All our luxury gift boxes are produced in the UAE using FSC certified materials or recycled paper.
Talk us through the process of producing fragrant teas?
Fragrant tea blends start with a base, typically a large surface or an absorbent leaf. White teas will work with soft, gentle flavours like peach, rose or pear. Green teas will blend well with fruits and some light spices. Black teas are the most versatile, you can add any spice, fruit or flower, the idea is to contrast flavours or complement them. To intensify the aroma of some blends, we add natural flavours such as bergamot for the ever-popular Earl Grey tea. Flavouring is basically a concentrated essence or oil. At AVANTCHA we work with the only natural, they are lighter but taste the real thing and are produced from real fruits and spices. A couple of years ago, we’ve developed a bespoke blend for Waldorf Astoria DIFC, the task was to create a blend true to the hotel’s rich legacy. While researching, we’ve discovered that Bronx Cocktail, the notorious gin cocktail, was created at WA New York around 1930. We’ve broken down the flavour components of this cocktail and blended them into a tea. The result is Bronx Afternoon Excite, a Sencha green tea, with notes of bitter orange, juniper and vermouth (alcohol-free).
Which are the main tea plantations you source your tea from globally?
We source herbs and tea leaves from over 40 farms, the most prominent are in China, Japan, India and Egypt.
This is ‘The Fragrance Issue’ – which specific scent evokes childhood memories for you?
MR: The scent of chamomile brings back loads of childhood memories, my mum made me chamomile on all occasions, it was the remedy for everything. The aroma of hay present in many white teas, and my fav Yunnan Wild Buds, takes me back to my Russian grandma’s porch after the rain.
MZ: Drinking Pu erh reminds me of the forest in Europe, especially after the rain. Pu erh has this rich earthiness and the smell of the brewed tea reminds me of walking through the wet forest in autumn. This type of tea gave me the inspiration and motivation to start a tea business.
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