Black tea remains trendy in Europe

After ending some 250 years of China’s imperial tea trade monopoly in 1842, Europeans have continued to drink black teas, but grown in their own colonial areas; the big buzz created by  the arrival of green teas from China and Japan from 1980 onwards has boosted cup consumption but has not eroded the dominance of black tea. By Barbara Dufrêne. All images are courtesy of the author.

Producing black teas for European consumers was the remit for the new colonial tea estates, which had sprung up in India, Sri Lanka and East Africa after British settlers had gained access to the botanical material. The big leaf tropical variety, Camellia sinensis var assamica, was discovered by British explorer Robert Bruce in the Burmese/Assam jungle forests in the 1820s.The small leaf high grown variety, Camellia sinensis var sinensis, was smuggled out of China in the 1840s by Scottish botanist Robert Fortune.

Tea cultivation prospered and spread outside of China, with research and technology improving both yield and quality, attracting more investment and fostering the emergence of big brands, based on short supply chains, integrated from the leaf to the cup. Dominated by the British tea trade and the London Tea Auction, which closed in 1998, all these cups were black teas, grown as export-cash crop for the West.

Premium black teas from Darjeeling at a tea shop in France

That situation gradually underwent changes from the late 1970s onwards when China softly tip-toed back into the global tea scene, followed by Japan and South Korea, all displaying their ancient tradition of producing green teas, which were their main domestic hot brewed cups. An important expansion of the cup offering was gradually introduced by these newly arrived stakeholders, who promoted their novelty green teas with the help of significant government budgets. A new era began for European tea consumers, who discovered the green, white, blue-green, and dark teas with their completely new taste profiles, leaf and quality grades, and brewing styles.

Black Tea versus Green Tea

Black tea has been dominating the European tea market since inception, with its easy brewing way of using freshly boiled water, a steeping time of several minutes and one spoon per person plus one spoon for the pot, a straightforward and simple way for achieving a tasty brew. The widely shared adding of milk and sugar made the cups not only reviving and rehydrating, but also providing nutritional value, for breakfast as well as for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon break. Black tea was served in factories, company offices and purchased on-the-go, as an intrinsic part of the daily diet.

During the late 19th century tea was also an important vector for social and family gatherings, like sitting together for afternoon tea, meeting out-of-home in a public tea garden, or inviting friends and celebrities for a tea party. Industrialisation followed by globalisation allowed the big brands to bring black teas to any household in Europe, most conveniently with the introduction of the tea bag, and then with ready-to-drink (RTD) teas, all these cups being black tea.

Single origin Ceylon black tea (from Sri Lanka)

When green teas were introduced to Europe, with a first entry point being Chinese food establishment, they were met with surprise by their pale colour and rather weak taste. When premium qualities became available in retail shops, they quickly generated a need for knowledge and learning, because the green tea cups were different from the established black tea profile.The novelty needed to take root, which takes some time.

It is worthwhile to note, that Europe had not experienced any previous encounter with green teas, contrary to the craze in the United States for Japanese green tea, that had developed after the opening of Japan by the Meiji Emperor in the later 19th century, which had boosted the Japanese tea economy, attracted many American coffee consumers to the green cups, and lasted asa significant fashion and consumption trend from the 1870s until World War I.

Premium teas versus mainstream teas

Black teas, which arrived in Europe from India, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and East Africa, have an established market segmentation. The premium cups are mainly single origin leaf teas from prestigious mountainous areas such as the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling, India and the central highlands of Sri Lanka; and the upper mainstream teas are leaf tea blends, most often assembled from Sri Lanka/Ceylon, Assam and Kenya teas, according to established taste profiles, like strong breakfast, mild afternoon, good with milk. Finally, the mass market black teas are mainly tea bags with blended CTC (cut/crush, tear, curl) teas, i.e. small particles and dusts, usually containing a mix of various origins.

The premium green teas sourced from the traditional origin markets, which are China, Japan and South Korea, are mostly unblended leaf. To attract consumer awareness, there have been long-lasting promotion operations to introduce such quality green leaf to Europe with claims ranging from terroir origin, dedicated cultivars and artisan processing to health benefits. With China and Japan rivalling for throat share, Korea joining in, consumption is taking root slowly but steadily.

Premium black tea from Saitama, Japan

Concerning the mainstream green tea segment, it is important to note, that the CTC process is not applicable for green teas. Mass market green teas are known as ‘gunpowder’, consisting of more or less tightly rolled leaf, they come mainly from Zhejiang, China’s summer harvests, and are made mainly for North African consumers who blend them with mint and herbs to soften the astringency.

All green teas remain newcomers to the Western markets with their untraditional taste profiles that have no background experience on which to build. The fact that they require more skills for knowledgeable brewing ways as well as additional and different accessories makes them less convenient to prepare, which may be one of the reasons for the continued consumer preference and unchallenged market dominance of the long-established black teas.

Amongst the most popular flavourings for robust black teas are the various citrus fruit, such as bergamot and the world famous ‘Earl Grey’ recipes and the ‘Russian Teas’ with orange and lemon added, which all pair perfectly with black teas and smooth out some astringency. Other highly popular recipes are the spicy teas like Christmas teas and of course, ‘chai’, a spicy milk tea.

Classic and new premium black teas

The reputation of the first flushes from Darjeeling and the spring picks from Ceylon’s highland regions have never lost their longstanding fame and ‘must have’ attraction. The same applies to the famous Chinese black teas, namely the Keemuns from Anhui Province, the Dianhongs from Yunnan Province and, of course, the iconic cup favoured by the British Royal family, Lapsang Souchong from Fujian Province. These incredibly fragrant and iconic terroir teas all rank at the top of the list of the European tea consumers’ most favoured black teas, sought after by many discerning and affluent tea drinkers.

French tea experts Carine Baudry and Lydia Gautier, tea book authors, tea teachers and both deeply involved in the premium tea hospitality segment in France, acknowledge that the revival of special afternoon tea offers, namely by the Palace Hotels, focus on the famous premium origin black teas on their menus. This confirms that these exquisite premium black cups have maintained their position as great favourites of the French tea lovers, also because their familiar and appreciated flavour profiles pair perfectly with sweet dishes, such as the highly elaborate French chef desserts.

Premium black breakfast tea from Korea

In addition to the classic famous black teas, most portfolios now also include an interesting selection of newcomers, fine black teas from untraditional origins, namely from Nepal, from Japan, from South Korea, and from East Africa. Skillfully processed, these fine terroir black teas are mostly single estate products and have attracted attention as award winning cups, after competing in their home markets as well as internationally. They greatly appeal to the consumers who look for novelties, whilst staying within a well-established cup profile.

Continuing to dominate

Investigating statistical details, between 2007 and 2020, green tea imports into the main European markets have grown from 8.5 per cent to 12.6 per cent of the total import tonnage; these figures include the UK, Russia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, and Italy as per the International Tea Committee’s (ITC) Annual Statistics Bulletin. This shows clearly that black tea continues to fully dominate the European tea market in volume and value. However, green tea is gaining progressively in throat share.

Established senior tea drinkers’ preference for black tea will likely remain, whilst younger generations will be attracted by the proactive communication that continues to focus mainly on green teas. As premium quality becomes pricier–due in part to climate change incidents and the lower yields induced by the requirements for certified organic farming–consumers will have to make choices, and they may consider investigating other tea categories. Revamping the image of genuine black tea to highlight its benefits, provenance and profile, is an option that holds considerable potential.

  • 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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