By Barbara Dufrêne
France’s tea market value is high with 30% by volume marketed by specialty tea companies that quadruple the import price through marketing special blends and unique packages worldwide. Though modest in quantity, France imports a large selection of the world’s outstanding specialty teas—most sourced directly from origin.
Imports of gourmet tea have grown threefold in the last 25 years. A more impressive statistic is that France earns an average $17.13 per kilo for exports. Among European nations, France ranks fourth in tea consumption at 15,000 metric tons with a relatively low 230 grams per capita. This is because 73% of the hot cups consumed in France are coffee with only 15% being tea and another 12% being hot cocoa as shown in the market study by XERFI (institut d’études économiques privé).
In France loose leaf served hot has not been supplanted by sweetened bottled tea gulped on the go or by convenience store packets of instant tea. Women make up the main bulk of tea drinkers. Manufacturers are also investing in ways to attract younger tea drinkers and the senior population, which has a higher disposable income and is aware of tea’s cultural and health benefits.
French retailers offer the largest choice of fine origin leaf teas on the continent, making it the most selective specialty tea market in the West according to French and foreign tea market experts. Century-old proprietors carry 500 selections for discerning tea drinkers both domestic and from abroad. In 2010 France earned $37 million exporting mainly scented and fruit-flavoured teas to Italy, Switzerland, the U.S., and Japan.
François-Xavier Delmas, founder and c.e.o of “Palais des Thés,” launched in 1992, said that the culinary traditions in France are very longstanding, making consumers naturally aware of the link between a fine food and the place where it has been farmed and processed.
This inherent understanding leads on to the desire to explore in greater depth and to appreciate fully, generating acceptance to pay higher prices for the premium quality of authentic teas, he explains. Palais des Thés started very early to focus on consumer education. The company’s tea school was established more than 10 years ago, with all its courses fully booked every quarter.
Olivier Scala, c.e.o. of “Thés George Cannon”, a third generation tea taster currently training his son Augustin, closely follows the market in his capacity as chairman of the “Comité Français du Thé”. He reports a significant growth in sales of quality tea. Fine leaf teas today represent about 15% of the market, compared to less than 10% in 2000, when supermarket shelf tea bags accounted for more than 90% of tea volume. The total market is valued at $72 million.
Iconic “Mariage Fréres” shook to wakefulness a stagnating market in the late 1980s by introducing innovative concepts defining tea as a luxury cup. Kitti Cha Sangmanee, c.e.o. and president of the company, positions their teas in the luxury food niche. He said that many of their teas are from traditional tea gardens exclusive to the firm.
“These often small family gardens produce some of the best tea in the world, and they know that our customers are fully aware of the outstanding quality and full traceability of the Mariage Fréres teas,” said Sangmanee, adding, “They also know that tea lovers travel from all over the world to visit our shops and are ready to put their hands deep into their pockets to pay for these exquisite and unique cups.”
All the specialty tea companies offer lovely stories about their travels to origin and proudly display details about their suppliers and their tea gardens on their websites. Today everyone compares availability and prices of the many teas as listed in the companies’ portfolios, however the cup quality needs to be assessed, either by sipping a cup in the tea house or buying some leaf in the tea shops. In order to attract consumers, each company is carving out its own specific profiles that appeal to a narrow range of buyers. All these companies have several hundred teas on file, maybe one third genuine origin leaf tea, and the rest are flavoured teas of their own creation together with herbals and a few blends.
France’s established names include Dammann Fréres, Mariage Fréres, Georges Cannon, Kusmi, and Betjeman & Barton. All were founded more than a century ago and each has since been purchased by new owners.
Newcomers include Palais des Thés, Cha Yuan, Les Jardins de Gaïa, and Comptoir Français du Thé which were established in the 1990s by individual tea lovers and tea travellers who have decided to invest and compete in the high end market. Through hard work and a wealth of experience and creativity they have prospered and grown to become full-fledged national players, winning awards, exporting some of their rare teas abroad and expanding their tea shops to Japan and the U.S., two of the world’s most discerning tea markets.
In addition to the dozen national brands there is a network of small local tea shops. Many cater to the various quarters of Paris, with others in larger cities including Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, and Montpellier.
These owners value tea as a reason to travel to develop direct links between tea producers in faraway places. They often work with family members or a small team and love their business more for its human values than for the monies they earn. All buy part of their teas directly from small gardens and attract the local customers with their good advice, fresh tea, and authentic stories.
Also See: The China Connection
Foreign operators have also entered the market to promote their countries’ fine teas. The old Japanese family company “Jugetsudo” has opened a Paris teahouse in the Latin Quarter in 2009, hosting tea ceremonies and Japanese style tea tastings and stocking a large range of high-end single-origin teas. Taiwan native Tseng Yu Hui sells a vast choice of vintage pu-erh teas in her “Maison des Trois Thés” near the Panthéon. Zhen Lui Xiang has a traditional choice of fine Chinese teas in her “Tch’a” tea house in the Latin Quarter.
Thés de Chine is the oldest Chinese tea house in Paris. Established in 1992 by Yun Jing Zhong (now known as Vivien Messavant), his shop on the famous Boulevard de Saint Germain was a pioneer of fine Chinese teas. Messavant travels to China and Taiwan two or three times a year to bring back small lots of exclusive pickings and custom made teaware, some direct from the Jing de Zhen imperial porcelain factories.
Commodity market leaders
Most tea is sold in supermarkets. Bagged tea from the world’s major brands include Lipton, Twining, and Tata. Together they account for 60% of tea volume with another 10% imported directly by tea packers and sold as private label brands. Private label accounts for 15% of sales.
France established the National Commission of Fair Trade (CNCE) in 2010 which is one reason why organic and Fair Trade teas are popular at prices 10% to 30% above other brands.
Since the 1970’s Unilever France is the market leader with a 37% share in 2013. According to Euromonitor International. Foods International ranks second with 18% for their Twinings brand and La Tisanière. Pyramid bags were recently introduced in the market and are gaining favor.
Fine tea importers and wholesalers formerly concentrated on selling to fine grocery shops and the HORECA channel but this has progressively given way since 2008/9 as they have now all gone retail. Making their prestigious brands directly available to the end consumer in their own branded tea shops and tea houses had become a must, in order to level out the playing field in this high added value market segment.
Tea is now also entering the food-to-go and tea bar market, with a first new concept store “Tea by Thé”, attracting the many passers-by in front of the Louvre Museum with tea cocktails and tea smoothies. The shop also sells a selection of 30 good quality leaf teas. A vast network of high-end tea bars, to be grafted onto a well-known coffee shop chain, is currently being planned. This is expected to generate a significant increase in sales volume of specialty teas and will certainly favorably impact consumer perception leading to market growth.
The geographical indication (PGI) and controlled origin appellation (COA) are thoroughly enshrined in the consumers’ minds thanks to French fine wine production. Retailers found these same principles readily applicable to fine coffees first, and now to fine teas. Based on this understanding and with a subtle message to drink more good teas for better health, the sale of fine teas is a strong trend. They crystallize many desires: encouraging consumers to show their knowledge about origins and tea varieties, display tasting capacity and inventiveness for tea and food pairing, practise tea culture and handle nice tea accessories.
Advancing from fine wines to fine coffees to fine teas is a true French success story.