Green tea is suddenly hitting the headlines in countries that traditionally drink the black variety. Tea International explores what’s happening and why.
A few years ago, if you had mentioned green tea to the average tea drinker in the U.K., Europe, or North America, the response would probably have been “What’s green tea?” This is fascinating in the light of the fact that 350 years ago, when Europeans and the English were discovering the delights of the herb, we imported and drank both the green and black varieties.
References in diaries and works of literature of those days mention both. Silversmiths who began to copy the shape of the little Oriental porcelain storage jars often engraved them with a “G” for green tea and a “B” for Bohea, the most commonly imbibed, modestly priced black tea, which was named after the Bohea hills of China where the tea was grown. In most of Europe, tea quickly gave way to coffee, and in Britain, by the time we were growing our own tea in India and Ceylon, our palates seemed to have developed a liking for strong black teas - a preference that has continued to this day. In the U.S., the pattern was similar, perhaps as a result of the control that the English East India Company had on the shipping of tea up to the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and because of the influence of the British way of life. Whatever the long-term causes, by the late 19th century, Britain was a black tea-drinking nation, and whatever tea was consumed in the rest of Europe and North America was also black.
New Interest and New Products
Now things are changing, and even the most ordinary of supermarkets and convenience stores have a variety of green teas to offer. All the major tea companies have recognized a growing awareness amongst the consuming public, and have gradually launched new products into the marketplace. In spring 2000, Twinings stated, “In response to a huge surge of consumer interest and demand, and after many months of extensive product development, Twinings is pleased to announce the launch of a contemporary new range of green teas.” Unilever’s Lipton has also seen the potential of the green tea market, recently launching three green tea blends under their TCHAÉ brand - Jasmine, Citrus, and Oriental Spice. The company’s marketing material tells consumers, “although a recent introduction to the West, interest in green tea is rapidly growing, with a growth rate in excess of 150% over the past year in the U.K.”
Taylors of Harrogate have also seen interest building in both the U.K. and the U.S. Fiona Hunter of Taylors told me, “In the last few years we have converted countries like America to the virtues of tea drinking. Indeed we have done such a good job that they are really starting to explore the tradition and virtues of tea in more detail. In particular, much has been written about the healthy benefits of green tea. It’s really captured people’s imagination and helped sales of green tea rocket in the States.” As always, a trend that starts in the U.S. eventually takes effect in the U.K. and, as Taylors found, “Now the American’s passion for green tea is finding its way back across the Atlantic and is starting to influence our more traditional tastes in the U.K.”
In Scotland, Matthew Algie, wholesale supplier of coffee and tea, has recently introduced an organic green tea flavored with peach supplied by U.S. company, Choice Teas. This is in response to public demand following the launch of green teas by the various other companies onto the U.K. market. Matthew Algie’s foodservice customers were beginning to notice that consumers in coffee bars (the majority of the company’s business) were asking for an alternative to cappuccinos and espressos. Algie decided on the peach-flavored green tea because “it offers a soft, very palatable taste that appeals to those who have not drunk green tea before.”
A similar pattern is evident across the U.S. Davidson’s Teas of Reno said, “For several years we have been expanding our offerings in green tea, both in loose leaf and in teabags. Interest in green teas, including the greener oolongs and jasmine, continues to grow constantly. Almost daily we have telephone conversations with customers about green tea…. Our offerings and promotion of green tea will increase this year, mainly in the area of loose leaf teas, and the more expensive varieties. We seem to be growing in this area and feel that the market is in its infancy as far as potential is concerned.”
Ken Rudee of Barnes and Watson Fine Teas, a wholesale tea company in Seattle, has found the same: “Barnes and Watson green tea sales have increased at a faster pace than our overall sales. We specialize in custom tea programs for the hospitality and foodservice industries and our customers have told us that they are getting more requests for green teas. We will increase the range of green teas that we sell if the interest in them continues to increase as much as it has over the last two years.”
In Canada, the Metropolitan Tea Company of Toronto told me, “We carry about fifty green teas in loose leaf form. These range from simple Hysons to flavored greens, fancy handmade varieties such as Beauty Rings, green chai blends, white teas and scented greens. Green tea sales have increased over the past few years.”
Speaking as someone who serves a lot of tea to the consuming American public as well as selling it for home consumption, Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn in Perryville, Kentucky (a famous venue for tea events) agrees that the trend is growing: “Green tea sales continue to escalate. We first offered Gunpowder because it was such a widely-consumed tea in our historic village 150 years ago…. We added Lung Ching to our list in the dining room last year and we will begin packaging it for resale this spring. Our tearoom customers are buying green tea regularly, and internet sales have increased dramatically.”
In Europe, green tea sales are also growing and Twining’s Elizabeth Edwards told me that “in Germany, sales have increased nine fold in five years.”
Why the New Interest in Green?
Although Lipton told me, “Green tea, although growing, is still a very small part of the total tea market in the U.K., just over 1% in terms of value, and black tea still firmly dominates the U.K. tea market,” the trend is very evident. So why this new fascination with green tea?
Most people I talked to have similar opinions as to the reasons for this new craze. Lipton says that it is due to “worldwide consumer trends in health and stress awareness, and the desire for a more balanced lifestyle.” Whittard of Chelsea, who offer six varieties of green teas, tells customers that “green tea is the most natural of all teas, and still contains many of the natural ‘compounds’ which make tea such a healthy drink.” Twinings, whose range includes Pure Green Tea, Jasmine, Lotus, Green Earl Grey, and Gunpowder, says, “The appeal lies not only in their light, delicate and refreshing taste, but also because of the health benefits offered. Green teas are a natural source of antioxidants which help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals and are naturally lower in caffeine than most black teas.” Fiona Hunter of Taylors told me, “We are slowly waking up to the idea in Britain that tea - especially green tea - doesn’t just refresh and revive, but offers lots of health benefits too. The real increase in the popularity of green tea has been largely fuelled by reports that it’s incredibly good for you. Not only does green tea contain vitamins A, B, and C, it also contains polyphenols which are thought to boost the body’s immunity to disease.”
In the U.S., the response to my questions was the same. Sharon Davidson of Davidson’s Teas, remarked that “Our feeling is that more and more people desire caffeine-free tea…. Most recently, since publication of the Swiss study on metabolism, the interest has shifted to the idea of green tea as a diet aid. We are cautiously promoting this idea.” Bruce Richardson of the Elmwood Inn also told me, “My customers seem to know that they should be drinking green tea for the health benefits, although they are not always sure of the exact benefits. The recent flurry of articles in magazines and newspapers has certainly piqued their interest and many are ordering it for the first time.” John Chaffey of The Metropolitan Tea Company says the increase in sales is partly due to “the earlier attention to the health benefits promoted prominently in the media, and then by evolution of the sophistication of consumers’ palates through experience.” And Ken Rudee reckons that the increase in sales is “due to increased media coverage of the health benefits of green tea and the availability of high quality green teas. We also receive many questions about the caffeine content of tea in general, and many comment that they are now drinking tea due to their physician’s suggestions.”
Sales and Marketing Approaches
How are the tea companies developing the green tea market and taking advantage of the new public awareness? Twinings is confident that it is “creating a completely new sector within the specialty tea market. We have made a significant investment in stylish and very contemporary packaging that will convey the Eastern aura but retain the endorsement of the famous black and gold Twinings brand.”
The company has also recognized that some tea drinkers need a gentle introduction to the more grassy, sappy flavor of green teas. So, one of the new range, the Green Tea Blend, is a mixture of 60% green tea and 40% black in order “to allow consumers to experience the benefits of green tea but with the flavor of black tea. Our research showed us that there is consumer demand for a quality green tea with a more familiar black tea taste.”
In developing their line, Taylors has “taken the benefits of drinking green tea one step further by blending green organic tea from the Himalayas with herbs long recognized for their specific qualities.” Their Mountains of the Moon contains lemon balm, chamomile, lime flower, and strawberry leaf. Wild Mountain has the energizing properties of rosehip, lemon grass, hibiscus, and ginger. And Crystal Mountain is made refreshing with peppermint, angelica, and ginseng. Their packaging reads: Green tea is a rich source of antioxidants, natural substances also found in fruit and vegetables. Antioxidants help protect the body from damage caused by harmful free radicals and form part of a healthy diet. Green tea also contains less caffeine than many black teas.
Lipton has adopted a completely new approach to packaging for the TCHAÉ line. Instead of cardboard boxes, the tea comes in drums and has a decidedly oriental look. They also use the health message in their publicity material, telling consumers that “green and black tea - like vegetables, fruits, and red wine, are rich in antioxidants called flavonoids. It has been found that tea flavonoids are effectively absorbed by the body. Results from studies concerning the health promoting effects of flavonoids have been promising, and active research in this area continues.”
In the U.S., Davidson’s Teas “wanted to introduce a very palatable group of flavors to the American market. So we created six very lightly flavored teas with a ‘neutral’ green tea base. The result is teas which balance some lovely natural flavors with a strong background of green tea but without the smoky, fishy notes of some of the stronger greens.” Because of their recognition of consumers’ interest in caffeine free and low caffeine teas, the company “this year will introduce some organics - a decaf black and a decaf green, both H2O processed. We also have lots of herbals, and some greens blended with herbs to create some ‘light’ caffeine teas.” Price is a further consideration when designing the list of teas offered. Davidson’s Teas philosophy is that it’s important to “hit a variety of price ranges. We have people ordering in all these ranges, including the most expensive - a tung ting oolong for $48 per quarter pound on the retail level.”
Barnes and Watson understands the need for an educational approach to promoting their teas. Ken Rudee told me that “the percentage of consumers and wholesale customers that understand the differences between green and black tea is rising along with the desire to become more educated about those differences. The questions most often asked about green tea and tea in general is about the caffeine content.” He recognizes the potential for the use of tea not just as a drink but as an ingredient in cooking. He told me, “As a result, Barnes and Watson has been a leader in supporting the efforts of award winning chefs and cook book authors, such as Robert Wemishner and Diana Rosen, in their efforts to inform and help the public experience the diversity of flavors that tea provides, as both a beverage and a cooking ingredient.”