Bringing black tea back into the spotlight

Although black tea dominates production in the global tea industry, consumption has been declining as consumers increasingly favour green and herbal teas. However, it is essential for the health and sustainability of the global tea industry to have black tea consumption thrive once again. By Anne-Marie Hardie.

In the Western world, black tea is still the most consumed tea beverage, particularly by older demographics. However, consumption levels remain substantially below production, resulting in a market where black tea has become highly undervalued. There needs to be significant changes within the industry, including a substantial expansion of the consumer base, to increase the value and create a sustainable market for black tea.

Low prices pose significant challenges to sustainability

“Black tea is hugely undervalued, it is being sold for barely the cost of production, and that is on a good day — it is usually below the cost of production,” said Shabnam Weber, president, Tea and Herbal Association of Canada. “Brands are placing a higher value on their green tea products, even in circumstances where both their black and green tea haven’t been blended with any other products and are in similar packaging.”

Although there has been an elevated interest in other teas and infusions, black tea remains the category sustaining most of the tea industry in the Western world. “When we are talking about wanting fair pricing and sustainability, we cannot get there without black tea,” said Weber. “To obtain these goals, there needs to be more money in the pot so that it can be distributed across the supply chain.”

Image: Vahdam Tea

Peter Goggi, president, Tea Association of the USA, agreed, emphasising that the price of tea is not sustainable, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to survive. “There is way too much tea in the world, and there are only two ways to take care of that: either increase consumption or reduce the amount of tea that is produced,” he said. Reducing production levels will profoundly impact those countries that depend on tea as a primary industry. However, increasing consumption levels is a complex task.

“In the USA, we are still undeveloped in terms of the number of people drinking tea,” said Goggi. “85 percent of people drink tea, but not every other day, so it’s about converting that daily consumption into reality.” When it comes to consumption levels at origin, there is also room for growth. Countries like China and Kenya have little to zero consumption of black tea. South America, which includes several coffee-consuming countries, is another market that black tea could potentially tap into.

Increasing the overall quality and, in turn, the value of black tea is another way to help drive the product’s price up. “The specialty tea arena has demonstrated that consumers are willing to pay for tea, and so, there is no doubt that we need to raise the overall quality of tea being sold and, in turn, charge for it,” said Goggi. One of the side benefits of focusing on quality is that it naturally reduces the quantity of tea produced as the producers will not be plucking as far down the bush.

In the US, black tea remains the most common beverage, with iced being the most popular American preparation method. “Covid helped the overall tea market in the United States; it is valued, practically by millennials, Gen Z and Gen Xers as a destressor,” said Goggi. “People were drinking more tea at home, and this trend seems to be continuing, the growth of hot tea in the United States is happening.” In addition, the wellness trend has helped to accelerate the growth of black tea in the American market, with consumers gravitating towards the beverage for its taste and health properties.

“We are still very much a black tea-drinking nation, and rank in the top five tea consuming countries, per capita,” said Sharon Hall, chief executive of the UK Tea & Infusions Association (UKTIA). “But the percentage of black tea consumption is decreasing, with standard black tea accounting for 50 percent of the category. Seventy-four percent of the UK nation reported drinking some form of black tea during the day, with 40 percent drinking a cup several times a day. The key drivers for black tea in the UK are taste and, for the 18-29 demographic, the desire for a warm beverage. However, an increasing proportion of the population is shifting towards other warm drinks, with 55% reporting drinking green tea and 47 percent drinking herbal infusions. True tea sales value fell by over 6.0 percent to £578 million (2021 vs 2020), however, decaffeinated tea did continue to grow in value (1.3 percent) to almost £68.5 million.

“Over the past few years, particularly across the pandemic, we’ve witnessed increasing interest in products prioritising both planetary and human health. Ethics and the environment are high up on consumers’ agendas, supporting a rise in demand for organic and Fairtrade products,” shared Adele Ward, Clipper Teas marketing director, which is owned by Ecotone, UK. “We are also seeing a significant increase in demand for our Organic Decaffeinated Black Tea, which uses the natural CO2 process for decaffeination.”

Image: TAZO Tea

The need for innovation

Black teas remain a huge part of Vadham India’s overall portfolio because traditional tea consumption has always been dominant in the black tea category across India and other geographies. Vahdam has seen a growth of 5-10 percent in its black tea sales across all channels. “There’s been a change in outlook toward the consumption of tea, a growing prominence of black teas in cafés and QSRs, and a change in leisure drink habits across age groups leaning towards tea,” said Bala Sarda, founder and CEO of Vahdam Tea. “This has resulted in a higher demand for black tea worldwide.”

Continual innovation in the black tea category is critical, shared Sarda, to respond to the changing pattern of consumers actively seeking more from their beverages, whether it’s wellness, flavour, or newer formats, like lattes. “Vahdam’s formulations and format innovations have repositioned black tea as a preferred wellness beverage for the new-age millennials and Gen Z consumers, who are looking for an alternative that is contemporary yet clean, stylish yet sustainable and healthy yet high-fashion,” he said.

Health perceptions are skewed towards green

The continued interest in health and wellness has helped drive the demand for tea; in fact, it remains one of the critical drivers for consuming green tea in the Western world. However, one of the challenges in Canada, shared Weber, is that there remains a disconnect between black tea and its health benefits. “Every time we survey people’s perception of the health of the tea, black tea always ranks at the very bottom,” said Weber. “Canadians are quicker to associate the benefits of flavonoids with herbal teas before black tea. So, there’s a huge disconnect that’s happening, there is no question that green tea has had a head start, but the fact that the herbals are outranking black tea is shocking.”

Although the USA has been good about sharing the tea and health message, more needs to occur to help drive the consumption levels. “We need human studies to demonstrate an improvement of health in the population,” said Goggi. “That is the holy grail to get that structure/function claim; then we could state claims like drinking tea helps you to prevent cancer.”

Image: teapigs

However, these messages may fail to connect with the younger generations.

“Cardiovascular health, metabolic, and bone health, which are all significant benefits that black tea provides. However, I’m not sure that the younger generation is really in that headspace at the moment,” said Hall. “We must find ways to fit black tea into their lifestyle and understand how it will work for them.” Potential messages that could connect with the younger generations suggested Hall, are hydration, specifically as a pre- or post-exercise beverage, and highlighting how black tea can be consumed as an alternative to alcohol.

“As a category, black tea declined by 5.6 percent versus two years ago. Despite this, organic and Fairtrade tea is up by 0.3, in line with positive changes to consumer habits,” said Ward. “We’re confident that tea will remain a staple for years to come, not only for its taste but for its link to taking a break — especially in line with younger consumers who are increasingly prioritising wellness. As a brand, we’re always looking for ways we can bring new younger consumers to the category by offering this, alongside our fun identity.”

This includes increasing focus on black tea promotions through traditional and social media channels to drive demand and increase consumer awareness. “I don’t know if that is because the tea market has become dominated by black tea for decades that we’ve kind of taken it for granted, thinking people will always drink it,” said Weber. “You can’t take it for granted; you must celebrate the goodness of black tea.”

The reality is that black tea is competing with a growing number of beverages, making it increasingly challenging to draw younger demographics towards this beverage, which is in desperate need of a facelift. However, failing to connect with younger demographics places the black tea sector at risk of disappearing. Attracting and maintaining the interest of the younger consumer is essential to both drive demand and enable the market to increase the price (and in turn the value) of black tea. “The positioning of black tea as a culturally important part of our lifestyle is essential to have a sustainable industry; this includes getting millennials to drink black tea so that they encourage the tea-drinking habit in the next generation, alpha,” said Hall. “Otherwise, we’re not going to create a new generation of tea consumers.”

  • Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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