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Brewing success: Global sales surge for tea from China

Updated: May 18,2015 11:21 AM

Tea is becoming more popular in the US. Imports have soared by 40 percent in just the last ten years. Much of that is coming from China, where tea was first discovered thousands of years ago.

The Brazilians have their coffee, the French have their red wines. In China’s temperate Southeast, we have our very best tea, a commodity that was shipped to Central Asia, Africa and Middle East along the Silk Road nearly 800 years ago. Today, the tea business is still very much the same.

In China’s southeast Fujian province, prosperity has come from the scrubby tea trees that blanket the mountains. For outsiders, the business of exporting tea seems pretty straightforward: you grow the leaves, process them, then pack & send, as long as you can keep one thing right — satisfying the tastes of customers who are thousands of miles away.

Unlike our ancestors, Chinese tea exporters now have to follow much stricter rules and meet rising quality standards. International customers want to know where their drinks come from.

“In order to pass the relative requirements of exporting tea to the EU, Japan and others, we had to prepare from the very scratch — to select the location away from pollution before growing tea trees and to monitor the use of fertilizer. These are just the basics,” said Xie Chengchang, overseas marketing manager of BAMA Holding Group Company LTD..

Insiders who understand the tea business follow the same strategy as big corporations: You don’t change the Coca-Cola recipe, for example. You focus on the look instead. It’s all about marketing. The Chinese love lavish packaging, while foreign consumers prefer budget friendly packs.

Still, properly brewing loose leaf tea can be complicated. Oolong, for example, traditionally required as many as 20 steps for the tea to release its full flavor. It’s no surprise that some foreign drinkers would opt instead for tea bags.

“My suggestions for those who want to have their products being successful overseas is that: to know what to inherit from the rich tea culture and how to innovate in order to stand out through competition,” said Wang Wenli, chairman of BAMA Holding Group Company LTD..

“Few years back, my company has come up with the idea of simplifying the method of making loose leaf Oolong by cutting down the brewing steps to 8, so Western consumers can easily master the techniques. Today our tea is all over the world.”

The growth of loose leaf tea exports goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of global consumers who are health conscious and interested in Eastern culture. If coffee is the elixir of efficiency, perhaps tea is what encourages reflection and reprieve.

“If we look back in history, the prosperity of tea exporting business is in pace with the economic strength of the country; I think that explains why the traditional loose leaf tea has gained recognitions overseas,” Wang Wenli said.