As Hot As Tea: The Chinese Consumer Goes Back to Leaves

Among Chinese consumers under 35 in Shanghai, coffee is cool. Tea? That’s for taxi drivers and parents, who waste their time and money brewing loose leaves.

Or so the thinking about goes. But tea is back, and not just the cheese tea variety that has hit like a meteorite in 2017. Yes, that is the year’s major China food trend, with some estimates showing that chain store Heytea may take in as much as RMB 100,000 per day, but there’s a significant spin-off from this trend now brewing: young Chinese consumers are using cheese tea as a gateway drug, and being ushered deeper into the world of high mountain oolongs and sticky cakes of pu’er. Tea is becoming cool again.

oolong tea[PHOTO: Oolong tea plantation]

Shops like ZeeTea, which opened in early summer 2017 in Shanghai, aim to do for tea what patisseries did for eggs and sugar, and what hip chains like Seesaw, did for coffee. They want to elevate it into a product for the Chinese consumer to fetishise, and they do that with a menu exclusively of tea drinks, from cold-brew Taiwanese oolongs to ‘tea pots’, boiled teas, usually with alcohol, that bubble away in copper pots at the front of the shop. Tea-flavoured desserts sit in a glass case like museum pieces. It’s a veritable exercise in premiumization.

ZeeTea’s space itself is highly designed and sits on an expensive piece of real estate. Its neighbours are essentially a list of China food and beverage trends: an oyster bar, a Spanish ham bar, Mellower coffee.

zee tea menu shanghai

[PHOTO: ZeeTea Shanghai]

According to April Shi, the general manager of ZeeTea, the founders see more potential in China’s national beverage, and they see younger consumers drinking more tea than they even expected before opening the store, unlike the coffee industry, where, according to Shi, the market is saturated and profits are declining. Chinese consumer behaviour is in their favour.

Down the street, the same could be said for ORITEA朴茶, a four-store chain with branches in downtown malls, whose most eye-catching feature is their iced tea. Iced, as in, ice, sitting on a glass funnel, slowly melting and dripping over the loose oolong and green teas, to be drunk as is, mixed with fruit or topped with their “macchiato” cheese concoction. In Beijing, a brand called Kraftea has a similar brand strategy, a contemporary take on tea, with five categories, from the pure loose-leaf style to lattes and macchiatos.

oritea interior shanghai[PHOTO: ORITEA朴茶 Shanghai]

It’s not just the independents, either. Lipton has rolled out a pop-up tea ‘party’ experience titled PARTEA on the rooftop of one of the downtown Shanghai’s trendiest malls.

chinese beverage consumers

[PHOTO: Lipton’s PARTEA pop-up in Shanghai]

In the convenience stores, Nongfu Shanquan has rolled out a premium line of fruit teas known as Cha Pi, as in the Greek symbol (π), using a hip design and brand influencers like Korean pop star G-Dragon.

nongfu shangquan's fruit teas[PHOTO: Nongfu Shangquan’s fruit teas]

On a different level, the culture of “sang”, or a kind of melancholic satire, has sprung up to counter to the popularity of the big cheese tea brands like Heytea. What started online, with users Photoshopping menus to poke fun at Heytea, ended up with an actual pop-up store in Shanghai back in May, with actual menus selling drinks named “My ex-boyfriend is better off without me” (black tea) and “Overtime never ends, but the promotion never comes” (green tea). While just a short-lived play between NetEase and Eleme, it shows there is always room for expansion through understanding local culture — in this case the pressures and tension that youth in China feel.

While selling tea to the Chinese might seem like the ultimate retail challenge, clearly there is room for entrepreneurs and trendsetters who are connected directly to the consumers, and the bigger brands have begun paying attention.

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