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Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Natalie Chiu

Natalie Chiu is co-founder of Saicho – a luxurious, single-origin, sparkling tea brand. She grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the UK in 2008, to study Food Science at the University of Nottingham. She went on to do a PhD in Flavour Chemistry which is where she met her husband, Charlie, who she co-founded Saicho with in 2019. Since its launch, Saicho has been welcomed by renowned sommeliers, hoteliers, high-end restaurants and luxury retailers around the world.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the UK in 2008, where I studied Food Science at the University of Nottingham. I then went on to complete a PhD in Flavour Chemistry which is also where I met my husband and co-founder, Charlie.

My fondness of food and drink extends beyond study. Charlie and I have a shared passion exploring flavours, cuisines and culture through culinary experiences. However, it was seeing Charlie’s delight enjoying food and wine pairings which made my experiences evidently lacking with my alcohol intolerance. 

With the lack of choice, I was determined to create a delicious alcohol alternative that I and others could enjoy that is as nuanced and interesting as wine. It was then that Saicho was born, a single origin sparkling tea brand which is now growing rapidly around the world.

Our Champagne-like teas elevate the way to enjoy non-alcoholic drinking and dining. Designed to pair perfectly with food, each tea expression has been carefully balanced and crafted to shine a light on the nuanced and complex flavours of tea, promoting as much interest and provenance as premium wines. 

There are three tea expressions in the range, Darjeeling, Jasmine and Hojicha, each with a set of distinct flavour characteristics, unique to the respective regions in India, China and Japan.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

The catalyst for creating Saicho was my alcohol intolerance and the constant feeling of missing out on a complete dining experience.

This came to a head, one night in an upscale restaurant. With limited soft drink options, I had to make do with my usual glass of tap water. Enviously, I watched on as Charlie was regaled with stories of far-flung vineyards and detailed advice as to which specific dish’s tones and textures were most enhanced by a particular vintage and why. It was clear that I was missing out on a huge aspect of the fine dining experience. So, this got us thinking; surely there could be a non-alcoholic drink with ingredients that possessed the same sort of complexity and heritage that wine does.

I drew inspiration from my heritage, where I had grown up enjoying tea alongside meals and understanding its vast range of flavours and depth that could enhance the dining experience. Redefining how tea can be enjoyed with food has been an exhilarating and fulfilling journey. Our aim with Saicho is to celebrate the exceptional quality and versatility of tea, asserting its rightful place at the finest dining tables worldwide.

While wine has traditionally dominated the realm of food pairing, sparkling tea challenges this norm by showcasing the remarkable similarities between tea and wine. Just like wine, sparkling tea boasts a spectrum of flavours, influenced by factors such as terroir, climate, and production techniques. Saicho’s selection of sparkling tea mirrors the diversity found in wine, allowing enthusiasts to explore a rich tapestry of flavours – from delicate floral notes to complex and robust profiles. By drawing this parallel, Saicho aims to broaden the horizons of tea appreciation and redefine the concept of pairing with food.

How did you achieve awareness?

The key to Saicho’s early success was gaining listings in some of the best hotels and restaurants around the world. Having Michelin star chefs and master sommeliers as advocates of Saicho really helps drive awareness with their guests. We were also very lucky to receive fantastic coverage in the media very early on.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

We have been very fortunate that quite a few of our investors actually reached out to us after trying our sparkling teas. It is so important to have investors that really believe in your products and vision and who will be true advocates for the brand.

What are the key successes?

A key moment that I will always remember as one of our biggest successes was securing one of our first ever clients – The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Saicho is now available in twelve different markets, helping consumers of different backgrounds and cultures experience tea in a new way.

In 2023 Saicho’s entire range of sparkling teas was recognised by the Guild of Fine Food, with all products receiving a Great Taste Award. Our Saicho Darjeeling has received a 1-star Great Taste Award, while our Saicho Jasmine and Saicho Hojicha have won the much coveted 3-star Great Taste Award, of which only 1.8% of products entered win.

This was a fantastic milestone for the brand, recognising our commitment to producing the finest quality sparkling teas. These awards are well recognised and trusted by consumers across the globe and support our mission to provide consumers with a quality experience of the non-alcoholic category.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

Challenges are part of the journey when you have a start-up business. Every day is different, often unforeseen issues can arise and the need to be an agile problem solver is key. One example of a challenge we faced early on was making sure we had consistency and quality in the tea we selected. We tasted over 200 batches of Darjeeling before we landed on the final tea. We could never have imagined the time and perseverance that this process would have taken before we undertook it. It’s only when we started that we appreciated the nuances within one type of tea.

What are your plans now/for the future?

We have some really exciting new product launches happening this year, but they are top secret at the moment!

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

Take action, ideas can very easily stay on paper. What sets you apart is your ability to make something happen.

Having been research scientists, both Charlie and I had no previous business experience. We had to learn all aspects of building a business, from branding and marketing to accounting and finance. We are now building up a fantastic team who are bringing in new skills to the business and it is brilliant working with such talented and passionate people. 

Running a start-up is a bit of an emotional roller coaster with higher highs and lower lows than a normal job, but it has been a thrilling journey so far!

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

While having a fantastic product is vital, being grounded in our purpose of creating drinks with no compromise is a huge factor. Having perseverance and determination to tackle the unknown and daily challenges is also hugely important. You must believe in yourself and never forget the good stuff in moments of stress.

I have also been lucky enough to have some great people around me from university, other startups and my previous career where I have been able to ask for advice on a whole range of issues. From general business challenges, to very technical aspects, to just needing to have a coffee and chat with someone who will listen and understand. It’s important to reach out for help, you will be surprised how many people in your network are willing to help if you just reach out. 

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

I have many people who have inspired me along the way but the one person who has truly inspired me is my mum. She has been such a great role model to me and now that I am a mum myself, I can really appreciate the types of things that mothers go through – especially when it comes to balancing my time between work and my children. Mum guilt can be very real!

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

“Don’t stress over the things that you can’t change, focus on the things that you can.”

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?