Dubai: Dilhan Fernando brings to the table a fine selection of beverages and cordially serves his guest. "I think you had a rich meal. Now I would recommend that you drink this to balance your palate," he says.

The drink has an expressive taste with hints of spiciness and bay leaf. He is serving a kind of tea that was painstakingly grown, handpicked and packed by Dilmah, one of Sri Lanka's biggest businesses.

Heir to the multi-million-dollar tea empire spanning over 90 countries, Dilhan visited Dubai last week to re-introduce Dilmah to fine diners.

The company is marketing the beverage as high-end and chic, after two failed attempts to enter the local retail market.

Founded by Dilhan's father, Merrill J. Fernando, about 20 years ago in the midst of civil war, Dilmah aims to capture five per cent of the hot-beverage market in the region in five years.

Also the company's marketing director, Dilhan said they expect to raise their current annual sales from four million to 100 million tea bags in 2009.

London market research consultancy Euromonitor earlier ranked the Sri Lankan tea grower and exporter as the world's third-largest standalone international tea brand.

The company has been in the UAE market for 15 years, but it is largely dependent on Australia where it was launched, New Zealand, Russia, United States and parts of Europe.

"At the moment, we are only in food service in the UAE. We are focusing only on the hospitality sector, but with emphasis on popular accounts. So, we are focusing purely on the top-end of the food service market. Going broad-based is not our immediate aim, but in the next few years we will take our second step, which is to enter retail," Dilhan told Gulf News.

He said they made a mistake a few years ago when they went head to head with some of the established brand names in the UAE. "Our problem always was that the UAE market was dominated by certain big companies. It was difficult for us because we're a small player and we focus on quality. People were then used to the existing brands. They were not willing to try a new one. But now we've taken the opposite tack.

"We're going through hotel groups, cafes and restaurants so that people can taste our tea and understand our message," Dilhan said.

Promotional events

Dilmah, which had a tie-up with Emirates Airlines, is currently working with La Marquise as distributor. It will also hold a series of events, like tea tasting, to bring the Sri Lankan brand down to the consumer level.

Dilhan said the change in consumer trends in the UAE will now help them market their brand, which has an unmatched collection of teas.

"People are now much more demanding and discerning. They don't just go to the supermarkets to buy a pack of tea and put in milk or whatever. They're looking for tea that has its own personality," he said.