The great debate: black tea vs green tea
Green tea fields in Japan. Image courtesy of Sugimoto Tea
Black tea and green tea are the leading teas consumed around the world. Green tea has an advantage over black tea for its “perceived” health benefits, while black tea has the familiarity and versatility advantage. How can both teas aim to attract more consumers? By Anne-Marie Hardie
Next to water, tea is the most commonly drunk beverage worldwide. For generations, black and green tea consumption levels were divided by continents. Historically, black tea was the predominant choice for the majority of Western Europe, North America, Africa and some parts of Asia. However, in East Asia, in particular China and Japan, green was the dominant tea of choice. Today, the regional divide is still in existence. However, the tea story is evolving with consumers across the globe increasingly experimenting with both varieties of tea.
In 2018, Americans consumed over 84 billion servings of tea or more than 3.8 billion gallons. About 84 per cent of all tea consumed was black tea, 15 percent was green tea, and the small remaining amount was oolong, white and dark tea. Although black tea still leads the way, the consumption of green tea in North America is steadily growing.
“There has been an overall decline in black tea consumption, in particular with CTC tea,” shared Matthew Barry, senior beverage analyst, Euromonitor International, based in London. “This could be in part because the health positioning of black tea is weaker than both herbal and green, and the fact that black teas are often consumed cold and with sugar.”
Canada is experiencing a similar trend, with a two percent decrease in black tea consumption in 2018. However, Shabnam Weber, president of the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada, shared that specialty black tea (flavoured) shows a nine percent increase in 2018. “Our changing demographic is looking for variety in both the black and green tea categories, presenting an opportunity for both flavours and blends.”
The perception of tea is continuing to shift from a milk and sugar-laden beverage consumed by the older demographic to an innovative beverage that presents a seemingly limitless variety of taste experiences. “The educated and informed tea drinker who is coming to cafés and coffee shops, wants a premium grade tea,” said Andy Byron, trade and communications sales executive, Teapigs, based in Brentford, England. He added that although mainstream tea as a whole is declining, customers are more interested in provenance, health and quality, which has resulted in a demand for premium, green and specialty tea, especially among younger consumers.
The wellness story has awakened a large portion of the Western world to green tea and its dietary benefits. Based on search history alone, green tea seems to hold first place when it comes to health attributes with regular consumption of it being positively linked to protecting against several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure and decreased risk of cognitive impairment.
“The health and well being sector will continue to grow with more people drinking functional teas,” said Byron. “Consumers are also placing more focus on sustainability so vendors need to check their product’s green credentials and remember that provenance is key!”
The core chemical difference between black and green tea are the number of catechins. The high level of catechins in green tea, including epigallocatechin 3 gallate and L-theanine, continue to support the argument of including green tea as part of a healthy diet.
In a 2017 study published in Food Research International, authors Schmidt, Garcia, Martins, Melio-Carpes, and Carpes found that green tea plays a protective role in different, neurodegenerative conditions, including the memory deficits in Alzheimer, and is the only tea that has shown to be effective in reducing the oxidative stress and damage in the hippocampus. The oxidation process which is done to create black, oolong and puer tea, convert catechins to theaflavins. It is these theaflavins that have been positively linked to cardiovascular health, reduced cholesterol and lower blood sugar levels.
“Green tea is known as healthy which has great branding potential but can be slightly misleading from a specialist perspective,” said Ashley Lim, founder, Mansa Tea, New York. “There is a huge opportunity to bring green teas forward, not just for its health attributes but taste profiles.” Per a 2017 Statista survey on Consumers Favourite Type of Tea, 30 per cent of consumers preferred green tea, while 25 percent preferred black.
“Black tea remains the dominant type of tea consumed in the US, but consumer research suggests the facts don’t tell the whole story,” said Jason Walker, marketing director, Firsd Tea, the US import office of China-based Zhejiang Tea Group (ZJT), based in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. “When interviewed, consumers actually prefer green teas, however, they may not be getting the green options they really want.”
The preparation of green tea has been one of the primary stumbling blocks that the industry has to overcome. “Keeping the category fresh and interesting has always been a challenge, as well as getting the message through to consumers that preparing tea is not difficult,” said Weber.
Steeped incorrectly, and the highest quality leaves can quickly become burnt and bitter. A push for education, including proper preparation techniques, has also helped consumers become aware of the variety of green teas that are available resulting in an increased demand for specific types of green tea including sencha, genmaicha, gunpowder and longjing. “We’ve really introduced the US market to a higher grade Japanese green tea,” said Miriam Colman, Sugimoto Tea Company, Redmond, Washington. “When it comes to consumers it’s about letting them know that green tea, can in fact, taste good.”
For both products, there is an opportunity to introduce consumers to the nuances of the beverages including highlighting single origins and unique preparation methods. “Most people are familiar with English Breakfast and Earl Grey but with black tea there is an opportunity to introduce single origins, including Japanese black tea and Chinese black tea, that consumers may not be aware of,” shared Lim. Consumers are actively exploring the unique notes of Japanese black tea, the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong, the champagne of tea Darjeeling black tea, and other terroirs including Assam, Yunnan, and Ceylon, and new entries including Taiwanese teas Ruby Black and Black Jade. One advantage with black tea, she said, is that it is easier to create different flavour profiles and tends to blend better with milk, providing the perfect template for unique beverages like boba milk tea and chai.
Overall Demand for Tea is Increasing
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, global tea production is continuing to rise with a projected annual increase of 2.2 per cent for black tea, for a total of 4.4 million tonnes by 2027, and 7.5 per cent annual increase for green tea, for a total of 3.6 million tonnes by 2027. The growth of green tea is largely driven by China.
“The last decade has seen remarkable changes in the volumes of tea produced and the amount of tea bushes planted in China,” shared Walker. As of 2018, the total combined acreage of all tea gardens in China’s Guizhou province was 7.52 million mu (5,013 square kilometres). This province has focused on the tea industry as a whole, with total tea production reaching 362,000 tonnes. This type of growth pattern is being experienced throughout the country, with Guizhou and Hubei provinces reporting the largest gains in production.
The shift towards premiumisation presents additional opportunities for growth for both black and green tea. At the same time, younger consumers are drinking fewer alcoholic beverages, shares Barry, and are more mindful of the beverages that they are consuming. These consumers may be originally turning towards tea for its health attributes, but stay with the beverage for its variety, including the option of having a tea that responds to a variety of occasions and moods. “It’s about experiencing tea in a similar way that consumers drink coffee today,” said Colman. “Coffee is very productivity focused. Tea is a lot more social, it is about taking a moment to breathe and slow down.”
From a marketing perspective, green tea may appear easier as this is what is continuing to drive the interest in tea. However, there is ample opportunity in black tea, particularly in the specialty sector where consumers can begin to appreciate the nuanced stories of the leaf. “It’s about adding on another layer to the story, by focusing on the origin and offering varieties of each (black and green tea),” said Lim.
Black and green tea do not have to be presented as enemies in a game of tug of war. Instead the two teas can work together highlighting the benefits of each, including their unique taste profiles, traditions, and health attributes. For black tea, there is an opportunity to turn the slight decline around by bringing forward specialty teas, and the range of origins available. Green tea, on the other hand, will benefit by expanding the health conversation to include taste profiles and origins.
For the industry as a whole, there are growth opportunities for both types of teas as consumers’ increasing interest in specialty teas and innovative beverage offerings paves the way for exploration and experimentation. “It doesn’t have to be a competition between teas,” said Colman. “Having both options available opens the doors to more people and provides an opportunity to bring tea into their lives more often.”
- Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected]