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Tea Trends in China
By Robin Stevens

After a successful China Tea Expo and upcoming legislation changes for Chinese tea in the new year, Tea & Coffee Trade Journal talked to several leaders in the field on trends and issues facing the Chinese tea scene.

With a view toward improving technical know-how and innovation, China is gearing up to meet the ever-increasing demands of the international tea market. Despite a difficult weather year, China’s tea industry remains optimistic and is pushing forward to build brand recognition, increase organic tea production, improve its production methods and capabilities, and expand cultural marketing efforts.

At the China Tea Expo (CTE), held in Beijing in October 2005, participants from around the country came to discuss these trends at the China Tea Forum. Special emphasis was placed on developments in the organic tea industry, the marketing of Chinese tea and its cultural heritage, and pu-erh tea. According to Heshan Zheng, executive director of CTE, next year’s show will continue to emphasize culture while at the same time focus on expanding international participation. “As domestic investment continues to grow in the tea industry, more and more firms are becoming tea exporters,” he reports. “While these developments also present challenges in terms of falling prices, special attention is being directed at brand building in order to compete more effectively against internationally known brands in both the domestic and international markets.”

Much attention is also being focused on the ‘clean production’ of tea. Tied to its entry in the World Trade Organization in 2001, the National People’s Congress passed legislation in late 2002 that provides guidelines for clean tea production. According to a recent article by Dr. Zongmao Chen of the Tea Research Institute at the China Academic of Agricultural Science, the scope of these guidelines is broad and includes effective selection of areas in which to grow tea, how to reduce the effects of environmental pollution on tea gardens, the safe use of pesticides, hygienic tea processing methods, and packaging safety. As the EU, Japan, and the U.S. become stricter about the level of pesticides and contamination found in tea imports, the Chinese tea industry must adapt quickly in order to survive in an increasingly competitive international market. Although these improvements are bound to increase the overall cost of tea, consumers are willing to pay for better quality and a more pure product.

However, an issue that could make it more difficult to monitor progress on environmental issues and clean tea production efforts is an upcoming change in 2006, when, according to Jackson Huang, former chairman of the Taiwan Tea Manufacturing Association, China will further deregulate the tea industry by changing the licensing requirements for selling tea domestically and abroad. He fears that reducing these barriers may hurt the industry as it did in Taiwan in 1980, when the tea market there was deregulated. Although greater numbers of farmers became active in producing and marketing their own teas, a lack of established and consistent standards for quality and pricing has made it difficult for the export tea trade. Additionally, “as western tea styles, such as fruit tea and herbals become more popular with the younger generations in China, senior tea industry players fear a disorderly free market tea industry will make it necessary to import greater quantities of tea from Vietnam and Sri Lanka in order to meet domestic consumption demands,” he states.

While ease of entry into the tea trade may facilitate employment for some of China’s rural tea-growing areas, China must educate industry newcomers on how to produce quality teas in the quantities needed to meet international demand. U.S. tea importers are currently encountering problems with insufficient inventories and quality inconsistencies because of a variety of factors. Mike Spillane, president of G.S. Haly Company in California, cites several sourcing problems in China, particularly with jasmine-scented teas. Due to the increased demand in Asia for ready-to-drink (RTD) teas, the tea base used in popular blends and the jasmine petal are now in short supply. Another problem related to jasmine-scented teas is that it is becoming more difficult to source high quality Yin Hao Jasmine due to the rise in popularity of Dragon Phoenix Jasmine Pearls. With regard to oolong tea, because Taiwan-style oolongs have become so popular in China and abroad, many producers are now making their oolongs in the Taiwanese style, resulting in a lighter more floral taste profile than traditional mainland oolongs, such as Tie Guan Yin (also Ti Guan Yin), which are baked more.

To combat problems such as these, the Chinese tea industry is focusing attention on improving technology and processing standards, which with the proper level of cooperation among local, provincial and national tea associations, can foster efforts at the grass roots to stem supply and sourcing problems. “Some of the hottest areas in tea research in China today focus on the automation of tea production technology, improvements in storage and freshness, and new product research,” cites C.Y. “Micro” Huang of Hunan Provincial Sanny Import & Export Co., Ltd. Combined with efforts to increase organic production, the outcome of this broad research agenda should result in teas of higher quality and increased production.

“Another hot area of research is health-related,” says Huang, “particularly, methods for extracting polyphenols and other tea constituents for use in health applications and functional tea products.” Scientific reports on the health benefits of tea consumption continue to stimulate interest in tea internationally, providing a convenient marketing tool for the industry. Even Chinese teahouses and teashops are using health marketing to promote their teas domestically. During a recent visit to the Dr. Tea Teahouse (Cha Boshi Jia) in Beijing, the hostess prepared five different teas to sample, all the while describing the particular health benefits of each. For example, a high mountain white tea, called Ku Gan Lu, is reputed to help ease the discomfort of a sore throat and reduce coughing, while a pu-erh she referred to as Xin Xiande Pu-erh in Chinese, and ‘Golden Green Pu-erh’ in English, is said to help promote sleep and reduce blood pressure when brewed with cornsilk.

Since its early uses were primarily medicinal, it is no surprise that the Chinese might promote tea as a health tonic. There are efforts underway to make its wider range of benefits known to both domestic and international consumers, as well as to empirically document its potential uses with Western scientific methods.

One tea getting a great deal of attention internationally and in China is pu-erh. Touted for its health benefits, the market for pu-erh tea is growing as rapidly in China’s domestic tea market as it is abroad. “Pu-erh is going to gain popularity in the U.S.,” says Mike Spillane of G.S. Haly. “It’s both versatile and user-friendly, and made using a process that is exclusive to China.”

At CTE, the attention given to pu-erh was obvious, with at least a third of all the companies represented in the exhibit hall being pu-erh firms. According to Sean Wang of China Tuhsu (China National Native Produce & Animal By-Products Import & Export Corporation), pu-erh tea was a red-hot item this year for domestic buyers. In a well-publicized media stunt prior to the show, a caravan of horses made the trip from the Yunnan province to Beijing carrying with it a load of pu-erh. Visitors to the CTE were treated to a multi-sensory feast; surrounded by men and women in stunning minority costumes, the air was filled with the smell of freshly brewed pu-erh tea.

This focus on the link between Chinese minority culture and the marketing of tea was no accident. There is a real trend in the Chinese tea industry to utilize tea traditions and history to help market tea abroad. In a rousing speech, given at the World Tea Forum on October 9, 2005, professor and tea culture historian, Dr. Wenhua Chen, exhorted the crowd to promote tea via Chinese tea art. His premise is that once tea culture enters daily life, tea is no longer simply a beverage. It becomes a way of life.

Others have echoed similar thoughts about how tea should be marketed. Jackson Huang of ABC Tea Taiwan maintains that the tea industry should not attempt to cater only to short-lived trends, but should instead focus on promoting long-term shifts in consumer behavior. Indeed, if we are to learn from the past, we should pay attention to tea trends that have occurred throughout China’s tea history. The cyclical rise and fall of teahouse culture in China throughout the centuries has strong connections to economic prosperity and socio-cultural trends. During the Qing dynasty, for example, there was an increase in the number of teahouses because common people could better afford to buy tea or to patronize a teahouse; whereas, during earlier dynastic periods, teahouses were only in the realm of the literati. More recently in Taiwan, the rapid rise of “tea art teahouses” (chayiguan) in the 1980s was followed by an equally rapid cooling in the mid to late 1990s, parallel to shifts in the economy.

Despite the many upward and downward swings in tea consumption and attention to tea culture, tea has endured as China’s primary beverage of choice. Over the last 10 years, Mainland China has experienced a resurgence of tea art and teahouse culture, and many of Taiwan’s tea, teaware and teahouse trends have been adopted there. The popularity of tea culture should continue to grow as Chinese citizens become more prosperous and have more disposable income and leisure time on their hands.

Likewise, in other parts of the world, as tea enters the mainstream of daily life for greater numbers of people, its popularity should endure beyond short-term fads. With a long tea history as one of its greatest resources, and modern technology as its newest tool, China can succeed in producing a greater quantity of high quality teas, including organic, fair trade and specialty teas, which will give it a firm footing in the world tea market.

About the Author: Robin Stevens, tea scholar and merchant, is a former Fulbright Scholar to Taiwan and has done extensive research on Taiwan teahouses. She is based in Southern California, where she conducts educational tea tastings at public and private events.

Tea & Coffee - February/March, 2006
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