Tea picker in the mountains of China.
Tea drinkers around the world who traditionally drank black teas are now switching to whites and greens. Is this because there are so many types available today? Or because they are perceived as offering more powerful health benefits? Or simply because people like them?
By Jane Pettigrew
Until 15 years ago, the tea offering of most tea stores outside China, Japan, and Taiwan included very few green teas and no whites. Green teas were usually limited to gunpowder, chun mei, jasmine, and a few unappealing teabags, while white tea to most meant a cup of black tea with milk added.
Browse through the lists of specialty tea retailers today and you will find an impressively expansive offering of green teas ranging from Chinese Long Jing, Mao Feng, Mao Jian, Pi Lo Chun, Taiping Huokui, Jasmine Pearls, Japanese Gyokuro, Sencha, Kukicha, Karigane, Genmaicha, unusual greens from Nepal, Darjeeling, Nilgiri, and South Korea, and hundreds of blends flavored with rose, mint, lemon, berries, salted caramel, apple and pear, mango, raspberry, etc. As suppliers have seen interest grow, so they have created innovative blends using the most popular flavors and ingredients.
The range also includes organic, bio-dynamic, ethically traded, Fair Trade certified, and GABA teas that are exposed to nitrogen during processing to ensure a high level of Gamma Amino Butyric Acid, a neurotransmitter for the central nervous system that reduces stress and promotes relaxation. Consumers may even find themselves buying green teas that have been processed in a microwave oven rather than in conventional steaming and panning equipment.
A similar explosion is occurring in the number of white teas available. White tea has been hitting the headlines regularly for the past 15 years with stories about both its high price and its high level of antioxidants. And public interest has pushed stores and online retailers into stocking an engaging array that includes top quality China Yin Zhen with its plump downy buds, Bai Mu Dan’s little shoots of silvery bud and one or two open leaves, the slightly larger and more mature Shou Mei, white teas plucked from ancient wild trees in Yunnan province, compressed cakes of white buds, Ceylon Silver and Golden Needles, Hawaii-grown whites, Snow Mountain White from Nepal, and a wide variety of flavored whites.
But why are consumers so attracted to these beautiful and sometimes very expensive, specialty teas?
Leo Kwan’s ice & fire technique of brewing Taiping Huokui
Green tea’s health halo
In most countries, tea traders are strictly controlled by government regulations as to what they can and can’t say on their packs and websites about the health benefits of tea. However, the media has kindly spread the message, and consumers have, almost by osmosis, absorbed the news. This has undoubtedly been the most helpful and powerful force in growing the tea market over the past 10 years or so. And green tea seems to have benefited the most from all the press interest and is now thought of by many as the most beneficial.
When discussing the reasons for the change in green tea consumption patterns, tea businesses around the world say that they have seen the same trends.
Spanish retailer Per Sundmalm of Tea Shop said, “Green tea has always been known for its significant amount of antioxidants but now we see that there’s interest also for its supply of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols, or its diuretic effect.” In the U.K., Twinings tea buyer Philippa Thacker said, “Sales of green teas continue to rise slowly and more consumers seem to have a better understanding of what green tea is and its association with antioxidants as there have been numerous articles on this subject. There is still a buzz around the health benefits of green tea, meaning that black tea has less association with health. Some consumers are green tea purists who relish the dry notes associated with this brew; others are drawn to the drink by the health story but need to ease into the taste by choosing a flavored variety of which we have plenty! The newest of these are our ‘Sweet greens’ with flavors such as salted caramel, gingerbread and caramelized apple.”
Also in the U.K., Jennifer Wood of Canton Tea Company, has found that: “There is more interest and excitement now around what green tea has to offer and there is a perception that green and white teas carry the highest levels of antioxidants, ergo they have more health-giving properties. In terms of health, people often buy matcha as it is marketed purely as a health kick since it’s known to be packed with antioxidants.”
In Germany, Christian Draak of Mount Everest Tea has also seen sales of matcha increase and said its success “is based on positive news coverage about its supposed health benefits”, but also recognizes that its versatility as an ingredient in matcha-lattes, frappes, confectionery, and baking has aroused growing interest. Also in Germany, Lynn Hazelwood of The English Tea Store in Stuttgart, has found, “Black teas are definitely perceived as less healthy than green, but more healthy than coffee. With the Japanese and more expensive Chinese teas, it’s all about taste; with the lower-priced organic green teas, it’s more about health. The famous German author, Atilla Hillman, recommends matcha to supplement a vegan diet. The producer of our house-brand matcha, based just outside Uji, is experiencing far more orders than ever before. The European market is really growing and despite having 100 matcha mills working around the clock (each one producing 30g an hour) he’s struggling to keep up with demand. We have a steady flow of matcha customers and due to its popularity it was even worthwhile for us - a very small business – investing in our own branded labels.”
See More: GREEN TEA
In the Czech Republic, the demand for green teas has increased and customers often go shopping for tea carrying magazine and newspaper articles in which the names of particular teas are highlighted. The sales team at Oxalis, which has shops all over the country, has noticed that, “In the past, flavored green teas prevailed but now people are discovering pure teas and they think that if they drink teas without flavoring they are healthier. Many articles have been published recently about the health benefits of green tea and people do care about a healthier lifestyle and natural products with health benefits. And a lot of customers ask for matcha.”
In North America, Eva Lee of Tea Hawaii & Company, in Volcano Hawaii, said, “Interest in green teas tends to come in waves, due in part to news coverage. Many people have the idea that green tea is bitter and when they experience a tea that is really sweet, they become very interested. Many people comment that green is better than black.”
At Tea Hong in Hong Kong, Leo Kwan has observed that: “The rise of interest in green tea has been quite steady, even before white. My customers are beginning to understand that it’s quality that matters. The habit of good tea – consistently drinking a reasonable amount – is what delivers the benefit. The rise of high-end tea following the trend of drinking only for health is logical. Health has converted new drinkers but it has to be the taste that retains them.”
In Canada and America, the trend towards green teas was particularly noticeable between 2007 and 2009, according to Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis in Montreal. “Seven or eight years ago, it was all about antioxidants, since many sources cited green teas as the only tea that contained them. Many drinkers discovered a real love for green tea during that time.
Some customers buy for the highest antioxidant level or caffeine content, as many of our teas have been tested in the lab and the results are openly available.”
In Africa too, where black tea has long been both the traditional product in tea factories and the chosen beverage among consumers, tea drinkers have developed a taste for greens. Alexander Kay, who produces a range of specialty green, white, oolong, and black teas at his Satemwa Tea Estate in Malawi, has seen “a rise in interest in steamed green teas amongst both our international customers in the U.S., EU, and Russia, and also with our local and regional customers in Africa.”
And in Argentina, Victoria Bisogno sells her Charming Blends brand to customers in Latin America and Spain and feels that: “The benefits of drinking green tea are quite prominent in people´s minds right now. There has been a rise in consumption and more green teas are consumed than whites, but I don´t think this is anything new. Attention now is moving to white tea and also to Puerh.”
Shou Mei white tea with its darker, more oxidized leaves, available from Oxalis in the Czech Republic
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Perceptions about white tea
Most tea retailers have also noticed increasing sales of white teas over the past few years. ‘The rise has been for at least 10 years since some scientific reports said that they have higher levels of polyphenols than green teas,” said Kwan. “Antioxidant is the word we hear the most often!” In Argentina Bisogno thinks that people are attracted by information in the media about “its health and cosmetic properties: it is known as ‘the tea of beauty’. Customers are aware of the wide availability of beauty products that contain white tea - anti-aging creams, medicines, perfumes, etc. They often ask if the health facts are true.” In the U.K., Thacker said, “Some customers are actively requesting white tea as they have heard by word-of-mouth of its health benefits. They know generally very little apart from the fact that it is reportedly healthy and ‘good for you’.”
Oxalis sells a lot of white teas and finds that customers “usually ask about the caffeine and antioxidants levels and are interested to know about its detox, weight loss, and invigorating effects. Men usually buy them for the health benefits, while women are mainly focused on the taste. Around 70% of our customers drink white teas for the health benefits, and 30% for the taste.”
Lee in Hawaii has found the same and said, “Men are readily informed about the high level of antioxidants while women are more interested in the taste. One of our customers, a doctor in Canada, gives high dosages of white tea to his cancer patients to boost antioxidants in body cells during chemotherapy.”
At Babingtons Tearoom in Rome, Chiara Bedini has noticed that more white tea is selling because customers “have been told it’s good for them and they drink the more expensive silver needle teas because they think they offer more benefits and will fight cancer.”
At Satemwa Tea Estate in Malawi, Wouter Verelst, knows that customers love the taste of the farm’s white teas, but explains, “we use a unique cultivar to make our white teas – the Bvumbwe varietal that is known for its high level of polyphenols and theanine and rich in EGCG, the most powerful of tea’s flavonoids. We have found that people ask about antioxidant levels and tend to see green and white teas as more healthful, but we try and educate our customers that the blacks and oolongs also have health benefits and that tea in general is rich in antioxidants.”
Sundmalm in Spain has found that people have been influenced by “an increase of information about tea’s health benefits in general and the particularities of each of the varieties. At Tea Shop we work day by day to spread the news about the benefits of white tea and the majority of our costumers ask for white tea for its antioxidants and because they think it is low in caffeine.”
Hazelwood in Germany thinks that the rise is because, “People are mostly interested in the health benefits of green and white tea. They perceive white as being more pure and healthy and are sometimes surprised that it contains caffeine!”
In the U.S. too, Newman Johnston of Teas Etc has found the same: “Most people have heard that white teas offer the highest concentration of antioxidants and believe that white teas are good for building the body’s immune system, fighting cancer and increasing one’s longevity. Historically, consumption in white teas was driven by consumers’ perception that it offered the most health benefits and lowest caffeine. We explain that tea is a healthy lifestyle choice so find the tea you like and then you will drink it every day and enjoy the benefits. In addition, if they believe it offers the lowest caffeine content, then we educate them on caffeine and tea.” Many people assume or have been told, mistakenly, that white teas contain no caffeine or only very small quantities.
Gascoyne said, “People tend to think, many journalists and bloggers included, that the sweet, subtle, and delicate flavors indicate less caffeine, but our lab results show clearly that this is not the case.”
For completely different health reasons connected to pesticides residues and food safety rather than to levels of antioxidants, many customers seek out organic teas. For Kwan in Hong Kong, the organic trend has a positive influence and his organic green teas continue to sell well.
Malawi’s Satemwa Estate has a number of customers who specifically ask for products that are pesticide free. “We see this requirement as one of the biggest changes compared to ten years ago. All our teas are tested and approved and people like the idea that we work in close collaboration with the communities and the nature around us,” said Verelst.
The importance of quality and taste
It seems from comments all over the world that consumer choice is not solely governed by perceptions of tea’s health benefits. Taste and quality also play an important role. It may be that consumers discover the whites and greens because of the health story, but then other factors come into play.
Johnston in Florida, says: “Ten years ago it was all about health and caffeine content. Today, in addition to health and caffeine content, we are getting questions on blend and flavor ingredients, brewing times and methods, and country of origin.”
Bisogno is quite sure that, “Most people buying tea, enjoy drinking it, and the health benefits are not the only reason they consume it.”
At Canton Tea in the U.K., Wood says, “We sell our teas on their taste, quality, and provenance – not on the health benefits. Often people want to try something new, delicate, and unusual, something that has a traditional, artisan quality, and a story behind it. They may initially choose something because of its purported health benefits but, hey! Who knew it would taste so good! The expectation that green tea is bitter is still pretty prevalent so a soft, nutty bean flavor with a sweet aftertaste comes as a massive surprise and a delight to many!”
In Hong Kong Kwan too says that there is a trend “for better-tasting, handcrafted traditional teas. Higher quality tea does mean better health content as well as better taste, and customers are beginning to see that. For example, more people opt for our top-quality, aged white peony over silver needle not because of price but because of the taste.”
Kwan highlights the fact that artisan quality tea is so much more readily available today because of a rise in small niche teashops and internet stores which concentrate on quality as an alternative to the big brands. Since consumers have become more aware of loose-leaf specialty greens and whites, they have learned to appreciate the difference in taste, quality and value between the mass-produced teabag teas of the large brands and the super-special loose leaf available from boutique retailers.
Oxalis sales assistants know their customers find that “white tea is sweeter and finer and therefore more palatable. Some people study the basic information and come to our shops to try it and explore tea with all the senses. They like to understand the difference in the appearance of the dry leaves, the color, the origin of each tea,” according to Oxalis.
Satemwa’s Verelst says that their customers “like the natural processing and minimal involvement in white tea manufacture. White teas also have the image of being exclusive and expensive, plucked with care and in limited amounts. I guess the exclusivity attracts people as well.”
Whatever the reasons, it is important to heed what Gascoyne said when commenting on these current trends: “Whichever tea people choose, the benefits of tea are a default condition, tea is a tonic and let’s not forget how good pleasure and enjoyment are for our health!”