By Lara Berendt
Inside a tiny tea shop in central Beijing, Ye Huabin rinsed oolong tea leaves with boiling water before brewing the first pot of pale golden liquid, while speaking animatedly about the importance of the Chinese tea ritual.
“If you go through the [traditional tea preparation procedure] you will get a more authentic flavor from the tea, and benefit from the peaceful process,” Ye said.
This time-honored ritual is part of a larger tea culture that has been ingrained in Chinese society for millennia, but as Western beverages infiltrate China’s urban centers, younger consumers increasingly opt for sodas, processed bottled teas, and coffee, according to a 2008 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The tea tradition, with its rich history, is becoming a fading art form—the domain of middle-aged to elderly Chinese populations.
“When people are young, they don’t have that much time or money to enjoy a cup of tea because it’s for leisure,” Ye said. His customers are primarily middle-aged and older, and young people visit the shop during festival seasons to purchase gifts for older relatives, he said.
The UN study found that people who don’t drink tea at all were mostly under 25 years old, and those who drink the most tea were 50 and older. Although China has a huge population, only 20 percent of Chinese are tea drinkers, according to the report.
Jeff Fuchs, author and Tea Ambassador for Templar Food Products, a New Jersey-based company, has spent the past decade traveling and sampling teas from indigenous mountain communities in Asia. As older populations in both rural and urban areas of China gain greater purchasing power, Fuchs said he doesn’t “think they’ve necessarily changed their quantities” of tea consumption. Instead, the rural drinkers might switch to a higher grade of their favorite teas, while urban buyers are more likely to try different varieties of tea.
“Many city youth and newly ‘promoted’ middle-class are moving away from much that is traditional and time-consuming, Chinese medicine and traditional foods included,” Fuchs said.
“Coffee is fast, sexy and part of the imported outside world and it is been marketed well in the city centers. Hip shops in the downtown cores where tea shops still have that faint whiff of the past, which [...] many Westerners like, but for many young Chinese simply [doesn't] mean much.”
“The younger generation may think that tea drinking is an old-school concept,” said Fan Lin, a store clerk at a Beijing branch of Fujian Pinpinxiang Tea Industry Co.
Even though young people in China might have trouble relating to their national tea culture, health-conscious Americans are getting turned on to their own local tea trends.
Jonathan Sims, co-owner of the Tea Embassy, a retail store in Austin, Texas, said many of his customers, from students to Babyboomers, want to drink less coffee and tap into the health benefits of tea.
“I think that the specialty tea consumption in America and Austin is still growing,” Sims said, predicting a huge increase in the U.S. tea market over the next five years.
Gretchen Twill, founder of Medford, Ore. distributor Devi Tea, said that bagged, flavored, and bottled teas are growing faster in the U.S. than specialty loose-leaf teas, a phenomenon that parallels the taste preferences of the Chinese youth market.
“Americans still want convenience and they want the health benefits of tea so all the manufacturers are putting tea into as many prepared concoctions as they can,” Twill said.
In Beijing, tea lovers frequent the Maliandao Tea District, where streets are lined with tea vendors. The crowning jewel is the Beijing International Tea Center, a multilevel shopping complex for tea and tea paraphernalia.
At the summit of the fourth-floor escalator lies Man Tang Xiang Tea Shopping Mall, where fine teas from all over the world are artfully exhibited for sale.
“There is hope for the younger generation, but they need more promotion in the Chinese tea culture,” said Li Zan, 22, a recent college graduate who inadvertently ended up in high-end tea sales. Like Ye Huabin, she said most of her customers are middle-aged or elderly.
Li said the involvement of large corporations in China’s tea industry is beneficial, as big multinationals can educate the youth and promote tea culture in a way small vendors can’t.
“Lipton tea quality is not that good, but I don’t think any other company in China can make as large a quantity or have as great an impact as a big company like Lipton,” Li said.
At the Tea Shopping Mall, promotion efforts are focused on consumers born in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the hope of changing the younger generation’s concept of tea, Li said.
And the drinks of choice for Li and her friends? Sweet, blended milk teas, Coca-Cola and coffee.