Published on Monday, 29 January 2018 16:41
Written by Khoi Pham. Photo by Kevin Lee.
The stark, clinical fluorescent lighting inside the convenient store casts an air of ominous dread all over the shop’s beverage section. With a glance, I find it. The blue package stares back at me menacingly, almost scornfully, as if it’s trying to tell me not to disturb the slumber of the harbinger of our world’s impending apocalypse.
The drink in question is milk tea-flavored mineral water under the brand Premium Morning Tea, produced by Japanese food conglomerate Suntory. Every year, on November 1, Japanese all over the country celebrate their Black Tea Day, apparently designated by the Japan Tea Association in 1983 in order to get locals to consume more black tea.
Last year, for Black Tea Day, Suntory decided to do something special to commemorate the auspicious occasion. Now, usually such a celebration would include a tea-tasting festival, a colorful parade or even a rock concert. However, this is Japan – the home of a penis appreciation festival in Kawasaki, these surprisingly well-coordinated Pikachu marches, and some eccentric sexual fetishes (link is SFW) – so Suntory announced the release of its latest tea-related product, milk tea water.
Suntory’s Premium Morning Tea came out in Japan in late October with two flavors: lemon tea and milk tea. Before reaching Vietnam, the pair have already driven fans in Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia crazy. Reports from Singapore and Taiwan showed that the elusive drink constantly sold out during the first few weeks.
Vietnam’s transparent milk tea craze only started brewing in December as locals brought bottles back from their vacation to neighboring countries. Thankfully, due to an already crowded milk tea market, Premium Morning Tea still hasn’t taken off in Vietnam the way it did in the region.
As I hold the bottle in my hand, it feels as if I’m cradling one of the horseman of the apocalypse. Science did this to us, I thought. Technological advancements have the power of doing good: we are closer than ever to deriving a cure for HIV and carrying out head transplants. But what’s the limit? Today it’s milk tea-flavored water; who knows what the future holds for us as a milk tea-obsessed species? Water-flavored milk tea? Milk tea-flavored condoms?
Close inspection of the bottle doesn’t yield anything peculiar: the liquid is crystal clear and the label looks like that of any bottled water brand. For the uninitiated who don’t speak Japanese and weren’t informed about Premium Morning Tea’s true nature, this could pass for a normal bottle of Japanese mineral water. But oh boy would they be shocked upon the first sip.
A whiff of the liquid, however, smells suspiciously like milk tea, especially like one of the bottled brands one can easily procure from any confectionery supermarket. Nonetheless, it’s the taste that throws you off.
Shots of Premium Morning Tea water are passed around the Saigoneer office like rice wine. We raise our glass to health, tentatively – if not almost worriedly – for all we know, this chemical broth could poison all of us. The responses are mostly that of cognitive dissonance, expressed in the form of quizzical grimaces and bewildered eyebrow twitches. Our accountant, however, thoroughly enjoys it and even asks for a second serving. She’s a brave soul.
Personally, Premium Morning Tea milk tea water doesn’t actually taste like milk tea, but an abstraction of milk tea. In theory, this evokes an idea of milk tea, but resembles neither milk nor tea. Closing my eyes does help with reconciling the theory and the real taste, but the clear liquid throws me off.
When Suntory unleashed the transparent milk tea upon the world last year, it also – rather helpfully, I must say – included a comprehensive explanation of how it goes about achieving the crystal clear concoction, complete with diagrams and a YouTube video (links are in Japanese).
According to an English translation on Rocket News 24, to make the drink, “water is first boiled to produce water vapor, which becomes infused with aroma when passed through loose black tea leaves. The gas then gets cooled in a condenser, leaving behind crystal clear liquid that still retains the tea’s bouquet of flavors.”
As the tea leaves never actually come into contact with the water, just the vapor, Premium Morning Tea thus smells like tea, but lacks the full-bodied taste of real black tea. Regarding the other component, milk, Suntory elucidated through a diagram that milk as we know it is made up of four main substances: milk fat, milk protein, lactose, and milk minerals. The former two give the liquid its opaqueness while the latter two are soluble and colorless.
Thus, by removing milk fat and protein, the company was able to retain the general taste of milk. Premium Morning Tea, understandably, lacks the distinctive creaminess of real milk, not to mention that it still isn’t safe for those with lactose intolerance.
With just a few months on the shelf, it’s probably too soon to tell if the trend will catch on or go the way of Crystal Pepsi. In 1993, Pepsi launched a major ad campaign in the US to introduce Crystal Pepsi, a fizzy drink that – you guessed it – tasted like Pepsi, but was translucent. However, the new drink flopped spectacularly and it was pulled from stores a few months later.
An article by The Conversation attempted to examine the Crystal Pepsi debacle and found that, in general, consumers are uncomfortable with unexplained deviations from the norm, which is also the case for purple ketchup and brown toilet paper. As an experiment, the news source instead tried telling people that the soda was clear because it was made with natural spring water. The reception was remarkably more positive despite the explanation being complete hokum.
At the end of the day, perhaps Suntory was also trying to dispel the discomfort by coming up with a clear explanation as to why its products are crystal clear. I don’t know if this actually encouraged anyone to embrace the milk tea-flavored water, but for me, I’ll stick to actual water and tea for a while, at least for the next hundred years or so.
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