Green tea is gaining ground in Europe

After centuries of black tea as the exclusive cup in Europe, a skillful marketing of green teas started in the 1990s, based on a health benefits strategy initiated by multinational tea majors in the mainstream market, together with a novelty origin approach launched by China in the premium segment. By Barbara Dufrêne

All tea leaves are green on the bush, except for rare purple and white leaf varieties. It is the tea-manufacturing process that divides the made teas into the two main families: the black teas, which are fully oxidised and the green teas that preserve their green colour through a heat shock, which halts further enzymatic development, be it with dry heat through panning/frying or by steaming.

These two different ways of processing are neatly divided out between the Asia-based tea-producing countries, where green tea is the ancestral cup, and the former colonial tea growing areas, where black teas are commercially produced for export to the European consumer markets. The cup profiles are contrasting and completely different, which can make it truly uncomfortable to switch from black tea to green tea, unless there are powerful incentives such as highly favourable health benefit announcements or the expectation of discovering highly attractive new flavours and tastes.

There are many traditional local varieties of green teas in China, the world’s biggest green tea exporter with over 300,000 metric tonnes in 2019; followed by Vietnam with green tea exports around 96,000mt, and Japan around 76,000mt. Japanese green teas are usually made with the steaming process, which makes the leaves needle shaped and the premium quality mainly goes to export. Most green teas are marketed as loose leaf and are rarely blended and the CTC process does not apply to them.

The catechin buzz

When green teas started to tip toe into the European markets, it was under the premises of tea and health research, carefully monitored by Unilever for the start, out of their Tea Research Center in Colworth, England, with its carefully tendered tea bushes, well shielded against Britain’s cold winters.

Green tea from Paris, France-based premium tea purveyor, Palais des Thes. Image: Barbara Dufrene

In these early times, mainstream green tea, mostly gunpowder from China, was introduced with messages that made it a remedy cup against aging, strokes and cardiovascular disease, promoting the antioxidant power of the green tea polyphenols, i.e., the various catechins. Doctors were contacted and informed about the benefits of green tea and many then advised their senior patients to drink green tea instead of coffee. This very rapidly rang alarm bells for the coffee companies and generated an important campaign of funding scientific academic research, with the purpose to underlining the health effects of both cups, by elaborating research on the physiological effects of the tea and coffee polyphenols. These compounds all belong to the same big family of natural plant chemicals, but they have many different names and structures etc.

With green tea on the verge of becoming a medicinal cup, as many swallowed the astringent drink for better health, but without any pleasure, new input was required. At that time the European labelling provisions were drafted and hence ISO methods were being developed to allow the measuring of the various cup’s catechin contents, to attract more consumer interest and foster consumption. However, the finalised EU health claim regulations did not include any such health benefit claims for tea, neither green nor black, considering that the science was not sufficiently sustained, which was a blow to mainstream green teas. A new strategy was the switch to flavoured green teas, blending them with attractive plants, such as mint and lemon, to appeal to new target groups, namely younger consumers who had no previous black tea experience and were keen to discover these easy to brew, flavourful, untraditional novelty cups.

Exotic premium terroir green teas

Following the promotion of green tea as a healthy beverage to attract European tea drinkers was the introduction of premium green teas. First came China’s famous Longjing tea, with its lovely flat pan-fried leaf and nutty buttery flavour notes. Originating from Zhejiang’s beautiful and famous West Lake area, the high yield cultivar Longjing number 43 had been fostered in the heart of China’s Tea Science and Research capital, Hangzhou, with its mythical origin story carefully spinning all over the Western tea drinking world.

Matcha tea at a tea salon in Paris. Image: Barbara Dufrene

The West Lake Longjing green tea became the first tea ever to be awarded an EU Protected Geographical Indication in 2011, followed by the same distinction given to the black teas from India’s 78 Darjeeling Tea Estates. This carefully groomed process has made green teas more conspicuous by giving them status, which attracted growing consumer interest for this elegant, tasty, expensive, and healthy premium origin cup.

It was also clear in the early years of the new millennium that consumers needed to be informed and educated, to better understand and fully appreciate the new green origin teas. Tea schools and tea training institutions sprang up, with the founding of the US Specialty Tea Institute for training the American tea professionals in 2002 and the Ecoledu Thédu Palais de Théin 1999 in Paris, France, for educating clients and consumers, as the pioneers and fore runners.

London-based Jing Tea Baojing Gold green tea. Image: Jing Tea

These developments have paved the way, not only for more premium green teas from China, but also for the premium green teas from the neighbouring producing countries, namely Japan and South Korea, with their different taste profiles, attractive stories and hefty prices. They are all riding on the wave of a recently emerged demand, issued by a target group of well educated, widely travelled and affluent tea lovers who are happy to invest in fine green teas and their brewing accessories for their own pleasure and joyful relaxation.

The new premium green teas 

China’s fine green teas are mostly rather robust and hence easy to brew, with freshly boiled water poured over the leaves, extracting the flavours through several infusions, with a great preference for the early spring picks. These cups offer a rich range of pleasant, sweet, buttery and chestnut/nutty fragrance notes, which are familiar to the Western palates. The leaf is always beautiful, after unfolding with re-hydration.

Various green teas and their resulting cups. Image: Barbara Dufrene

Following in the footsteps of China, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture has launched an intense promotion of Japanese premium teas, which also offer longstanding cultural traditions but have a completely different taste profile and more complex brewing requirements. Attracting a growing fringe of knowledgeable consumers who are keen to explore novelty cups, these generally small volume and expensive premium cups also build on the Zen attitude and the high theanine content of the shade grown harvests, which are made into matcha, gyokuro and some premium sencha.

South Korea has picked up the thread and has also started to promote fine green teas in Europe, originating mainly from the volcanic island of Jeju, south of the peninsula. Most of these highly fragrant cups are rare, precious and expensive, but sought after for moments of relaxing and delight, individually or shared with company who also care and fully appreciate such treasured leaves.

Increased availability and further potential

Good mainstream green teas are available on all supermarket shelves, either as genuine leaf or in tea bags, there is also a wide choice of flavoured green teas provided by multinational brands like Lipton, Tetley’s and Twining’s. The premium operators and the small retailers all carry green teas from prestigious origins in their portfolios. There is a growing focus on Japanese green teas, which are being heavily promoted in France, Germany, Italy and in the UK.

Image: Clipper Tea

Statistics from the International Tea Committee’s 2021 Annual Statistics Bulletin show however, that the import share of green tea varies widely, with 3.6 per cent in the UK, 7 per cent in Ireland and 10.4 per cent in Russia – the three big markets where black tea remains the king of the cups – 12 per cent in the Netherlands,14 per cent in Poland, 24 per cent in Germany, 26 per cent in Italy and 57 per cent in France. Adding up the total tea imports of these eight markets, the overall share of green tea imports amount to 12.6 per cent, compared to 8.5 per cent in 2007, which is a moderate growth for a 17-year period.

Supply is mainly sourced from China, followed by Indonesia and Vietnam, with small volumes of premium teas imported from Japan and Korea. China’s premium green teas are hardly available for export, all gobbled up by the affluent domestic consumers who have even recently paid USD $730 for a 500g pre-Qingming Westlake Longjing lot, as reported by the China Tea Marketing Association in Beijing.

There remains a huge potential for expanding green tea consumption further in Europe with the younger generations, who have no previous black tea-drinking experience and are keen on Eastern traditions such as the Zen-attitude and mindfulness, whilst the light colour and taste of the cup continues to attract health-oriented and more senior tea lovers. The pandemic has also increased the focus on stress reduction, healthy hydration and well-being, which is expected to increase the demand for green cups.

  • Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrê[email protected].

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