Here is a story that just has to be shared. It is all about taking something of personal interest and turning it into a brand. This tale involves bravery, curiosity, a bit of boredom and the dedication to learn and share with others. Many will already be familiar with A.muse Projects, the Singaporean home-grown tea brand. This boutique tea purveyor started before all the big names joined us in Singapore and has been ahead of the trend ever since.
Perhaps not as well known is the story behind A.muse and how a question turned into a brand. I met Angela Phua in April this year and our chat about how everything happened for her was truly inspirational. It takes so much bravery to take a leap of faith and start a business. The thing about Angela and A.muse Projects is that, while it was bravery that began this journey, every step of the way has involved hard work and continual learning.
Being bored is a good thing
Angela is the tea lady behind A.muse Projects and I have never met anyone as knowledgeable about tea as she is. This was not always the case.
In fact, Angela studied finance in America (Atlanta, Georgia to be exact) and she worked in banking for four years. This, she found, was a rather conservative and uninspiring environment. She felt bored. A two-week break visiting her brother in Chicago had her asking the all-important question.
The question that changed her life
While in the states, she kept seeing the same beverage over and over. Tea… Lots of tea. This is what happened in her own words.
“I kept seeing tea in so many places and I thought about it. In Singapore, people drink tea but nothing like in America. Back then, we had TWG, Ya Kun and at cafés, just the standard English Breakfast or Earl Grey… oh and bubble tea. We drank lots of bubble tea. The question was, why. Why did we not drink that much tea?
When out to lunch, colleagues would say, let’s go get coffee. I didn’t drink coffee so while they were having their $5 lattes, I would get a $5 tea which was only a tea bag and hot water. I thought… something isn’t right here. That’s when I realised there was a gap.”
A bit of determination
Angela had been drinking tea ever since she was in college. In those days, it was with milk and sugar. Eventually, she cut out the milk and then stopped having sugar too. She could see how her tea drinking had evolved over the years and she decided that it was time to quit her job and learn about tea.
Quitting her job, however, wasn’t quite so easy. On tendering her resignation, her boss refused to accept her letter and sent her away. She had to find another time to resign but eventually, she did. All she wanted to do was learn about tea.
She started at local teahouses but they were very traditional and Angela wanted a more diverse education. She said “it’s hard when you leave your job and have no clue. But I knew which direction I wanted to take so it was just about finding my way there”.
Learning comes in different shapes
Angela did some research and after finding that the Australian Tea Association had a course, she decided to study while working part-time. She took two part-time jobs at cafés with absolutely no experience in food and beverage (F&B). “It was tough!”, she said, “standing and being on your feet for twelve hour days was the toughest thing ever! But it really helped me to see what was on the ground”.
By learning through her experience in F&B, she knew she wanted to go into retail or be a supplier based business. “From what I saw”, she said, “it was really hard to stand alone as a café. I was working and doing my course online for four months. Then I went to Melbourne for four days on-site training, after which was four full days of a crash course on tea.
At this course, we were cupping and drinking tea for full days, from 10 am to 5 pm. We were high on tea! But it really opened my eyes to tea and learning about it. I wondered why we didn’t have anything like this in Singapore. Why is there no education about tea and why do we only have limited choices when it comes to drinking tea?”
By the end of her course, Angela had set her mind on what she wanted to do. She wanted to bring her experience to life. All the learning and knowledge she had gained about tea was something she wanted to share.
“I started the brand”, she said, “At first I was new and it was hard to penetrate the business to business market (B2B). I always knew that the end game was to get there but it was hard… so I did more farmers markets and flea markets… This taught me about consumer habits. I learnt about what people actually thought about tea
I realised at the markets, that people shied away from tea because they didn’t know enough about it… they saw it as old-fashioned or something that their parents drank. What they didn’t know, was that outside of Singapore, young people had already started to drink and appreciate different teas. They knew about their Broken Orange Pekoe or White teas. They drank single-estate and non-blended teas. It was a challenge to open minds and introduce them to tea in all its forms.”
Finding the back door
Angela realised that she needed to find a creative way to get through… “Let’s call it the back door…” she said. And here is where she started to push the boundaries. She knew that well-known teas like English Breakfast and Earl Greys were, in fact, blends of different teas but she also wondered why it would stop at that. Angela thought about what people liked to drink. Cocktails, wine, coffee and from these flavour notes, she blended up her collection.
This was the birth of the A.muse Inspired Teas Signature Collection. When talking to people about teas, she had created something fun, based on what was familiar and drinkable. Talking to someone about a Pina Colada or a Sangria Punch tea would pique their curiosity and had them asking more, tasting and falling in love with tea.
Angela said, “it really was a backdoor… retracing it all the way back to origins and creating new flavours. Once people were interested, they realised that they really liked it and would want to find out more about specific teas”.
Making her mark in B2B
For A.muse, the route to B2B was harder. Most well-known cafés already had their own suppliers, a relationship that was hard to break. Again, Angela found the back door by approaching newer cafés who were more supportive of local start-ups.
“My first client was Percolate in Bedok. They found me at a flea market and that is really, really how it started… with small boutique cafes that were willing to work with me… that and through barista friends, I had worked with in the F&B industry. When they moved around, they would spread the word about A.muse.”
The changing face of tea trends
A.muse Projects has come a long way in just four short years. It was 2013 when they started and back then there were no small, boutique providers of artisan tea.
“It’s heartening to see that new cafés and even some older places have realised that they need a better emphasis on tea and they look for tea options. It proves that there is a market.”
For Angela, it is still all a learning process, one that she continues, every step of the way. When asked what advice she would give to any entrepreneur she responded easily:
“You have to brace yourself for a ride… If you are even 20% unsure, don’t do it. Give it your 100%. Give it your all and be 100% sure that you want this.”
Experience tea pairings and learn more
A.muse Projects can be found at Look See Look See’s gorgeous Reading Room and Tea Salon located at 267 Beach Road, Singapore 199545 where monthly tea pairings are available on a donations basis. Additional retailers and locations that serve A.muse can be found on their website.