Taste for tea

World’s leader in tea sud­denly grows in­ter­est in Bri­tish fla­vors.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in Har­ro­gate, Eng­land

Ji Mengyu sinks into a soft chair with her cup of tea to the sound of tin­kling tea­spoons and light chatter. The op­u­lently dec­o­rated Vic­to­rian tea sa­lon is quintessen­tially Bri­tish, some­thing straight out of Down­ton Abbey. Ex­cept it’s in Bei­jing.

The 25-year-old HR pro­fes­sional is one of a grow­ing num­ber of Chi­nese who are look­ing past their coun­try’s an­cient tea tra­di­tions in fa­vor of im­ported Bri­tish blends. For Ji, the tea has an aura of lux­ury and qual­ity, and gives her a sense of par­tak­ing in the posh Bri­tish cul­ture pop­u­lar­ized glob­ally by TV shows and fash­ion brands.

“I think Bri­tish peo­ple’s tra­di­tional cus­toms and cul­ture have a kind of clas­si­cal style,” says Ji Mengyu, who says she’s in­spired by TV shows like Down­ton Abbey, but also Sher­lock Holmes and Game of Thrones.

For three cen­turies, coun­tries in Asia and Africa have been quench­ing Bri­tons’ thirst for tea, sup­ply­ing dried leaves worth mil­lions of pounds ev­ery year.

Now, that trend is show­ing some signs of re­vers­ing. China in par­tic­u­lar are see­ing a surge in ap­petite for Bri­tish tea blends — some of which are made with leaves from China it­self, an ex­am­ple of the twists in trade that the glob­al­iza­tion of tastes can cre­ate.

Up­scale tea blends from sto­ried Bri­tish com­pa­nies like Twin­ings, Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate and Hud­son & Mid­dle­ton oc­cupy in­creas­ingly more space on shelves in Chi­nese su­per­mar­kets, restau­rant menus and on­line shops.

Tea houses serv­ing Bri­tish af­ter­noon tea have sprouted up in the big­ger ci­ties in China.

Five years ago, An­nvita English Tea Com­pany man­aged 10 tea houses around China, serv­ing im­ported blends and pas­tries in Bri­tish-style tea rooms. The num­ber has since grown ten­fold, with more planned.

“It fits the taste of peo­ple who want to pur­sue a higher qual­ity of life,” says Li Qun­lou, gen­eral man­ager at An­nVita English Tea House in San­l­i­tun in Bei­jing.

As a re­sult, Bri­tish tea com­pa­nies sell­ing pre­mium blends have seen their ex­ports to China sky­rocket.

In the first five months of 2016, Bri­tish tea ex­ports to Hong Kong nearly tripled in value com­pared with two years ear­lier. They dou­bled to the rest of the Chi­nese main­land, data from the UK HM Rev­enue & Cus­toms show.

Ship­ments to China only make up 7 per­cent of to­tal Bri­tish tea ex­ports, but the share is grow­ing quickly.

Some of th­ese de­liv­er­ies come from Har­ro­gate, a small town in north­ern Eng­land that is the home to Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate. The fourth gen­er­a­tion fam­ily-owned com­pany has been sell­ing tea to China for more than 10 years. In the past three years, sales have more than dou­bled ev­ery year, al­beit from a low start­ing point.

“China pro­duces nearly one half of the world’s tea, so on the sur­face you would think that there is a lim­ited op­por­tu­nity for Tay­lors ofHar­ro­gate,” says Matthew Davies, head of In­ter­na­tional Sales at Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate.

Tea orig­i­nates from China and has been a cen­tral part of the cul­ture for thou­sands of years. In Bri­tain, tea was not in­tro­duced un­til the 17th cen­tury, though it has since be­come a sta­ple and adapted to lo­cal tastes.

Ev­ery day thou­sands of tea sam­ples ar­rive in­Har­ro­gate for the tasters to eval­u­ate.

The busi­ness es­sen­tially re­lies on their taste buds to find the right mix of leaves to main­tain the sig­na­ture fla­vors that the com­pany bases its rep­u­ta­tion on. Chi­nese cus­tomers mainly buy Tay­lor of Har­ro­gate’s Earl Grey and English Break­fast tea.

“Our ap­proach was to in­vest time and re­sources to un­der­stand con­sumer be­hav­ior and we found that there are a num­ber of Chi­nese con­sumers with a high level of dis­cre­tionary in­come and de­mand for Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate brands,” says Davies.

The de­mand is grow­ing mainly among China’s wealthy mid­dle class and is fu­eled by por­tray­als of Bri­tish high so­ci­ety fea­tured in TV shows, newssto­ries of the Bri­tish royal fam­ily and clas­si­cal nov­els like Jane Austen’s, an­a­lysts say.

“Pre­vi­ously, Chi­nese con­sumers were more ex­posed to Amer­i­can cul­ture, McDon­alds and Hol­ly­wood­style things. Th­ese few years, be­cause of the pop­u­lar Bri­tish TV dra­mas, Chi­nese con­sumers are more ex­posed to Bri­tish brands and the life­style,” says Hope Lee, se­nior drinks an­a­lyst at Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional.

An­other rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of Bri­tish im­ported tea is the seem­ingly end­less string of food scan­dals.

Im­ported pre­mium Bri­tish tea brands are per­ceived as be­ing safer and of higher qual­ity.

Para­dox­i­cally, some of the Bri­tish tea sold in China is orig­i­nally grown in China. How­ever, it rep­re­sents only a small amount of Bri­tish ex­ports there — about 3 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Frost& Sul­li­van, a mar­ket re­search com­pany.

Bri­tish tea mak­ers mainly im­port leaves from Africa and In­dia, re­gions where the taste for Bri­tish tea blends has not grown in the same­way, for economic and cul­tural rea­sons.

De­spite the re­cent slow­down in the Chi­nese econ­omy, Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate and many other com­pa­nies and in­dus­try ex­perts are op­ti­mistic about the coun­try’s con­sumers.

“We are con­tin­u­ing to strengthen our links in China,” says Davies.

PHOTOS BY LEONORA BECK / AP

An em­ployee packs boxes of tea at the pro­duc­tion line at Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate’s tea pack­ag­ing fa­cil­i­ties in Har­ro­gate, Eng­land.

From left: Boxes of tea are trans­ported down the pro­duc­tion line; Matthew Davies, head of In­ter­na­tional Sales at Tay­lors of Har­ro­gate.

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