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27 Questions: Natalie Chiu, co-founder of Saicho, sparkling cold brew tea

Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. In our weekly 27 Questions column, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims and aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same duration of a casual speed date. This week, we speak to entrepreneur Natalie Chiu, co-founder of Saicho.

Natalie Chiu of Saicho

Husband-and-wife duo Charlie Winkworth-Smith and Natalie Chiu have an entrepreneurial starter story that will resonate with many: A brand born out of necessity.

“We love food. We love exploring new restaurants, trying chef’s tables, and, of course, enjoying a good drink pairing menu,” says Chiu. “Unfortunately, I’ve never had a good reaction to alcohol, and I always felt like I was missing out during these meals when waiters would come around and explain the pairing to Charlie and I’d be there nursing my glass of water all night.”

As luck would have it, the couple both possess PhDs in Food Science, an excellent starting point for launching Saicho, a non-alcoholic sparkling tea concept.

“My husband and I took a lot of time to really develop the dream. There was a lot of trial and error, many sleepless nights — because of the caffeine! We ultimately decided to start with three products in our core range because we wanted to showcase different regions: Jasmine tea from China; Hojicha from Japan; Darjeeling from India,” says Chiu. “We only started selling our products in 2019, just when COVID started to hit, but we actually founded the company probably a year and a half prior.”

Saicho / Johnny Stephens Photography

Initially experimenting with bigger distributors of teas, they’ve since honed down their list to smaller tea farms within the respective regions, gaining more insight into what the farmers were doing, and how they were doing it. Although the language barrier sometimes slowed down the process, Chiu describes it as being “definitely worthwhile” as it allowed the couple to develop a brand that was both authentic and nostalgic. 

“I grew up in Hong Kong, so there’s always been a strong tie to tea culture for me. My parents were very much into their different types of teas, exploring teas and knowing all the different varieties,” says Chiu. “It’s very similar to wine when you think about it. The farmers have to look to the seasons and the soil and how it affects the overall flavour. It’s amazing because we really wanted our products to speak for themselves and make sure that tea was the core of it. And, given the very positive feedback we’ve had so far, I hope that’s something we’ve managed to achieve.”  

Intrigued about how well sparkling tea pairs with food? 

Saicho has teamed up with The Ritz Carlton Lounge & Bar to launch a brunch pairing menu, available every weekend until 31 December 2021 at HK$688 per person.

The Lounge & Bar, 102/F, The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, ICC, 1 Austin Road West, +852 2263 2270

Saicho x The Ritz Carlton brunch pairing

Name: Natalie Chiu  
Age: 31  
Neighbourhood: Kowloon  
Occupation: Co-founder of Saicho sparkling teas, full-time mum to an adorable 8-month-old  

1. What is your life motto?  

Treat others like how you wish to be treated.  

2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?  

My mum’s cooking. Coming home to my mum’s food brings back my fondest childhood memories and nothing can beat that.   

3. When was the last time you drove a car?  

The last time I drove a car was a month ago, right before I came back from the UK to complete my 3-week quarantine here in Hong Kong. I would never dare drive in Hong Kong, it’s a bit too tense for me.   

4. Are you a morning person or a night owl?  

Morning person, but now that we have a baby in the family, a lot of my work has shifted to the evening, when my daughter is asleep, so I can spend as much quality time with my little girl when she is awake.   

5. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?  

Char siu rice. I’m obsessed with char siu but it has to be a bit fatty — proportion is key! That one piece of leafy green that usually accompanies the char siu rice can just about justify it as a balanced meal, right?   

6. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?  

The humidity is something I really struggle with. I mean the heat and the humidity mix is just on another level in Hong Kong.   

7. What is one movie everyone should see?  

Inside Out, a Disney Pixar film. It’s such a heart-warming film and so enjoyable.

8. What is the top destination on your bucket list?  

At the moment, its Borneo. My plan is to trek around the island, explore the rainforest and see the wildlife.   

9. What is your greatest fear?  

Live chickens. I am extremely afraid of having a horde of chickens waddle toward me to peck at me. My grandma used to bring me to the wet markets and when we passed by the live caged chickens, the way they would look out just seemed angry, so maybe this is what I think they would do if they were free to roam around.   

10. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?  

Eating ice cream straight from the tub. I can probably finish three pints of Rocky Road all on my own.   

11. Which moment in your life would you most like to relive?  

My wedding. It was such an amazing day to be able to have my nearest and dearest gather to celebrate with us. We had our wedding in the UK and the whole day was filled with joy, laughter and dancing.   

12. What makes someone a real Hongkonger?  

Speed and flexibility are two traits that a real Hongkonger would possess.   

13. Where do you go when you want to be alone?  

I walk to my bathroom, draw myself a bath and just stay in there as long as I can listening to my ’90s pop music or a good podcast. 

14. If you had to describe Hong Kong in one word, what would it be?  

Vibrant — whether describing the streets, people or variety of food.  

15. What’s your favourite childhood memory?  

Going to Toys ‘R’ Us with my parents. It’s basically hitting the jackpot when my parents tell us we can pick out toys.  

16. What is your favourite scent in the whole world?  

Honeysuckle is one of my favourite scents in the world — but specifically the smell of walking past a honeysuckle plant.   

17. Are you a good cook? What is your best dish?  

I’m not a good cook, but living abroad for so long, I can survive on my own cooking. I make a lot of garlic fried rice so I have pretty much mastered that dish.    

18. Would you rather never be alone for a single moment, or be alone for the rest of your life? Why?  

I would rather never be alone at any moment. I think life would just not be the same if I couldn’t share my highs and lows with my loved ones. I don’t think I could bear being alone for the rest of my life.   

19. What would you do if you won the lottery?  

Grant every person close to me one wish that I could fulfil and then travel with my family.  

20. What was the best gift you ever received?  

A box of my favourite red velvet cupcakes right after giving birth to my beautiful daughter. It wasn’t the most valuable gift I’ve ever received, but it just came at the perfect moment. I was extremely sleep deprived and just needed sugar and it was just the perfect and sweetest pick me up.

Natalie Chiu of Saicho at their first trade show

21. What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever received?  

Knowledge is your best asset; the one thing no one else can take away from you. Also: Never think you’re too old to learn something new. 

22. What energises you about your work?  

The variety it brings: No two days are quite the same. Starting a business is like being on a rollercoaster with lots of highs and lows, but having talented people join you on the ride makes it incredibly meaningful and an exciting journey that I am grateful for every day.   

23. If you were a TV show character, who would you be and why? 

Monica from Friends. I’m a bit of a neat freak and can also be a little crazy at times.   

24. When was the last time you felt starstruck?  

The last time was over six years ago, when I met chef Tom Kerridge right outside his restaurant, The Hand and Flowers, a two Michelin-star pub. He said, “Hi! Hope you enjoy your meal with us” and I just stood there and said, “Okay?” I still cringe every time I think about that moment and still feel like an idiot!  

25. What’s a relationship deal breaker for you?  

Difference in values. This is something quite fundamental and difficult for either person in the relationship to change and be happy in the long run.  

26. If you could snap your fingers and fix one thing about the world, what would it be?  

Climate change. 

27. Do you believe in astrology? Why or why not?  

I wouldn’t say I’m a believer, but I always flick to that page if I ever have a magazine in front of me. However, I never go back to check if things actually came to fruition. 

Sandra Kwong
Features Editor
A perpetually hungry individual paired with an acute dirty martini obsession. You'll catch Sandra waltzing around town from gallery openings to various happy hours. Usually waxing lyrical about her 10-step skincare routine or her latest gadget. Currently missing: long ski runs in Hanazono.