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Tea's Time

Mingcha Director Vivian Mak leads a workshop to help customers develop an appreciation for tea  

Mingcha Director Vivian Mak leads a workshop to help customers develop an appreciation for tea

 

Earlier this year, Austrian wineglass-makers Riedel announced a partnership with British tea-trading company Lalani & Co, which supplies some of the finest tea to high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom. The move highlights the growing influence of the gourmet tea sector. Tea companies looking to convince consumers to trade up to quality tea are injecting their brands with a new friendliness and accessibility a world away from its traditionally stuffy image. 

In the United States, general tea consumption is on the rise. In 2010, Americans consumed more than 65 billion servings of tea, according to the Tea Association of the USA. Drinkers there are rediscovering premium loose tea in specialty tea and coffee outlets. 

Teavana Holdings Inc specialises in selling loose-leaf premium tea in boutique stores in US shopping malls. The company, which owns 161 stores, launched a successful IPO in 2011. In June, US coffee retailer Starbucks announced plans to open its first tea-only store, after acquiring Tazo Tea in 1999. The move fuelled speculation that teahouses could eventually become as popular as coffee shops. 

There are about 3,500 tea retail locations in the US, compared to some 25,000 coffee houses, according to Kim Jage, Sales and Marketing Director of World Tea Media. And Ms Jage expects tea retailing to grow. 

Touch Organic

Organic tea offerings from Touch Organic 

Organic tea offerings from
Touch Organic

 
Quality tea is often marketed on its perceived health benefit. Such brands as Touch Organic, run by Hong Kong-based Graham Co Ltd, says its strength lies in offering only organic tea. The product immediately attracts a higher-end clientele, according to Marketing and Development Director Patrick J Roches.

“In the last four to five years, major ready-to-drink teas like Lipton, Tetley and Snapple have been heavily promoting ready-to-drink green tea, white and black teas on television and print advertisements in North America,” says Mr Roches. “This has contributed to the overall education and awareness on the benefits of tea. We also have seen a spike in sales due to the fact that our teas are made without harmful chemicals, unlike typical conventional teas found on the shelf today.” 

Premium brands often try to incorporate a brand story, but Mr Roches says Touch Organic’s brand strategy hinged only on delivering a reliable health-conscious product at mainstream prices. “Our main objective was to surprise international buyers and consumers with our most appealing selling feature: organic tea products sold for the price of conventionally grown tea.” 

The company reduced spending on mass marketing to keep its retail prices low, and produced clean, crisp packaging to attract buyers in grocery stores. 

Teapigs Tale

Nick KilbyLouise Allen

Nick Kilby and Louise Allen,
co-founders, Teapigs

In the United Kingdom, where there’s a strong tea culture, black ready-to-drink tea prevails. “The category in the UK was very boring,” says Nick Kilby, co-founder of British company Teapigs. “People were doing great stuff with coffee, but the tea option was disgraceful.” 

Teapigs teas are sold in such traditional retail stores as Selfridges, but the company has also focused on expanding through delicatessens, gastro-pubs and coffee shops, challenging these outlets to offer a full menu of gourmet tea and tea-based drinks, including iced options and lattes. 

Teapigs tea is marketed on its quality, but the brand is modern and engaging. Each box of tea contains a “story” about that variety’s origins written by company co-founder Louise Allen, a trained tea taster. The idea was to turn gourmet tea into an accessible, fun subject. “We wanted to appeal to as many people as possible. No airs, no graces,” says Mr Kilby. 

He says the company strives to maintain this message through social media, its website and even by sending out “friendly” invoices. 

Gourmet tea may be a niche segment in such countries as Britain, where items like oolong or silver tips white tea are relatively new discoveries. In China, however, there is a long history of drinking such tea. 

Tea Myth

Mingcha’s tearoom in Quarry Bay 

Mingcha’s tearoom in Quarry Bay

 
At MingCha’s tearoom, water tinkles and, at the far end of the showroom, an employee brews Phoenix Oolong tea in a porcelain gaiwan before pouring it for customers. The whitewashed walls are fronted with simple shelves that house clay pots and the brand’s private-label tea. The effect is both modern and calming. A closer look reveals tea that ranges from about HK$40 to more than HK$20,000 per catty (500 grams) for a handcrafted Single Day Shi Feng Longjing tea. 

The challenge for MingCha, a Hong Kong-based Chinese tea retailer that launched just over a decade ago, is to tear down tea-associated myth and mystery. Some customers request only the highest priced or most famous tea, often in a bid to show status. Others can be ignorant of being sold marked up sub-grade goods elsewhere. “There is a lot of seniority, snobbery,” says company Director Vivian Mak. “I don’t like that hierarchy. We needed to be a place where people could come and know real tea.” Her idea was to form a space that allowed people to explore and experiment with tea to develop preferences rather than being led by trends, fame or price. 

Tea Revival

 Mingcha sources tea directly from tea farmers on the Chinese mainland
 

Mingcha sources tea directly
from tea farmers on the
Chinese mainland

Her retail space offers peace and tranquility. Prices in the MingCha store are noticeable, but not a main feature. The packaging, simple white, with grey lettering, is unobtrusive. Customers are invited to browse, touch tea leaves, and learn how to brew and taste the teas, many of which are award-winning and sourced from tea farmers by Ms Mak herself. Tea-tasting courses and other workshops are offered to help tea drinkers develop their knowledge in an atmosphere that is fun and informal. The idea is to revive the tea-drinking tradition for long-time tea drinkers as well as for novices. 

This kind of interaction may be a key to continuing sector growth. “Customers are willing to try different kinds of tea, like fruit tea or herbal tea,” says Pat Lee, a food buyer for CitySuper, an upscale Japanese supermarket with branches in Hong Kong. She adds that specialty tea is becoming popular and expects to see more teashops opening in Hong Kong over the next five years. 

At the Starbucks-owned tea store, scheduled to open in Seattle in October, there will be a blending station, with trained tea experts ready to assist consumers in creating custom blends. The idea is to create a dialogue, to discuss flavour profiles and tastes, much like wine. At Teavana, meanwhile, “teologists” serve customers.  

Having an expert, front and centre, helps convince increasingly cynical customers, according to Teapigs’ Mr Kilby.  “People relate to the fact that here is a tea-taster, she travels the world, she loves tea, she knows what she is doing.”    

MingCha Director Vivian Mak will host a tea-and-food pairing session, 18 August, at the HKTDC Hong Kong International Tea Fair, which runs 16-18 August, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Related Links
MingCha
Teapigs
Teavana Holdings Inc
Touch Organic

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