Colin Chia is in his mid-forties, and it shows.
The self-described “old man in the cocktail bar community” enjoys drinking at coffee shops, listening to Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung and drinking Chinese tea. Yet the Chinese tea cocktails at his bar Chuan by Nutmeg feels exciting, contemporary, even youthful.
It’s a paradox among Singapore cocktail bars, which routinely showcase local ingredients but seem to shun common tea varieties widely drunk in Chinese restaurants here. One possibility is age.
“A lot of bartenders are in their mid 20s to early 30s,” said Chia, who also runs the bars Nutmeg & Clove and Last Word in Singapore. “Maybe they don’t have an emotional connection with Chinese teas. It’s also not very trendy. Youngsters don’t go to Chinese tea parlours anymore. They would rather have a Mocha Frappuccino!”
Chinese tea may be unfashionable, but that hasn’t stopped Chia from opening Chuan by Nutmeg last year. Attached to Si Chuan Dou Hua at UOB Plaza, the bar plays off the upscale Chinese restaurant’s extensive tea collection with a menu of cocktails that showcase chrysanthemum, tie guan yin, pu’er and more.
“Tea is very much part of our lives,” Chia said. “The old way of bak kut teh, for example, where everyone drank gongfu cha after eating. Even now you still see tea stations at places like Song Fa, where there’s a choice for you to have tea after your meal.”
The beverage also holds a personal place for Chia. “My late dad loved his teas,” he said. Chia’s passion developed after a trip to China with his father six years ago. “I wondered, ‘Why is this block of tea leaves a few thousand dollars?’ That’s when it opened my world. We went home and he started letting me taste some of those teas, and I enjoyed having that moment with him. He passed away last year January, but I still have a lot of his teas at home.”
Ultimately, it’s about having an emotional connection with an ingredient, said Chia. “I like to play with ingredients, and if I see an ingredient that makes sense, I’ll be very excited. And I try to instil that sense of excitement into my team.” With Chia’s six tips on how to use Chinese tea in cocktails, we hope you’ll be just as enthusiastic too.
6 tips for making Chinese tea cocktails by Colin Chia
1. Know your tea leaves
“Understand what tea leaves you have. Then find the best way to approach it. We do a lot of trial and error to get the flavours we want: brewing at different temperatures and times. Every second counts. The more you steep it, the more bitter it becomes. You want to have the right balance between bitterness and fragrance. Hua xiang wei (floral scent) is very important.”
2. Find the right vehicle for the tea’s flavours
“We experiment with all types of methods to infuse teas – rotovap, steeping, maceration, or sous vide – to see which one tastes best. For the vermouth in our Chrissy Blanc, we use a blend of dry and bianco vermouths. That gives us a balanced product to work with. Then we would steep tea leaves in it.”
“For the Goddess Highball, we wanted this to be really approachable, so we made a tie guan yin cordial. Tie guan yin has such a strong character, it holds its own without boiling. So we steep it, then add grapefruit bitters for some citric bitterness and top it with soda. It’s a very simple drink but it’s one of our top sellers.”
3. Pick an appropriate spirit
“We need to make sure the flavour is a good marriage with the spirit that we’re using. Back to our Chrissy Blanc cocktail, which is a chrysanthemum Negroni that we blend with a gentian liqueur called Suze. We want to find a gin with the right botanicals that will blend with gentian and the chrysanthemum’s floral notes. In this case, Hendrick’s wouldn’t work because it’s already very floral. So we used Monkey 47, which has dry botanicals that the chrysanthemum can capture and and complement very well.”
“To my surprise, vodka goes well with tie guan yin, because vodka is very delicate. I think whisky and dark rum are good friends with pu’er. Monkey Shoulder is a good spirit to pair with pu’er as well because it’s a balanced vehicle with a nice, all-round complex taste. It’s quite suitable for your darker teas. For tequila, we have one here with lap sap souchong.”
4. Don’t rush it
“I have a guideline for all teas, which is don’t abuse it. If you boil the tea leaves thinking it would be faster, it doesn’t work the same way. It’s like eating soft boiled eggs at the coffee shop. You put the eggs in the tin, pour hot water over them and cover. Six minutes later you’ll have perfect eggs. But if you boil the eggs thinking you’ll divide the time into half, it won’t be the same. When you boil tea leaves, the bitterness comes out. It becomes so siap (bitter). It’s nice on its own, but if you do it in a cocktail, you spoil the entire thing.”
5. Store your teas correctly
“If you leave it outside in the humid weather, then you’re fucked! It needs to be kept at a constant temperature in a dark place at a lower humidity level. My dad kept it in a humidor. It hasn’t gone bad yet, so he must be doing something right!”
5. Get the best ingredients you can find
“My dad is Teochew, and he’s a bloody good cook. He always told me, ‘Even if you don’t have the best equipment in the world, as long as you have fucking good produce, you buy the best fish, its freshness and taste can compensate if you overcook it.’ I rather have less to sell a day, but I want to make sure my fish is the best. We don’t try to be the coolest boys on the block. As long as we do it with the right heart and intention, the rest will follow.”
Two easy chrysanthemum cocktails by Colin Chia
40ml Gin or vodka
20ml Chrysanthemum cordial*
5ml Fresh lemon juice
Soda and tonic waters
In a highball glass over ice, combine all the ingredients together and stir. Top with up with an equal mixture of soda and tonic waters.
* Use 50 percent more chrysanthemum flowers than you would for regular chrysanthemum tea, and steep for 30 minutes to one hour depending on quantity. Strain, stir in a 1:1 ratio of sugar to tea and chill before using.
50ml Gin (chill in freezer)
15ml Chrysanthemum vermouth*
In a mixing glass, stir gin and chrysanthemum vermouth together over ice. Pour into a Martini glass and serve.
* Combine equal parts of dry and bianco vermouths. Add in chrysanthemum flowers (same quantity as you would for the cordial) and steep for at least a day in the fridge. Strain and chill.
Chuan by Nutmeg is located at 80 Raffles Place, #60-01 UOB Plaza 1, 048624.