English Tea makes the cover of Shanghai Times, August 6, 2014

The Westward flow of tea out of China has been unending since the first tea was brought to Europe in the mid-1600s.

Now, thanks to a growing generation of young tea drinkers enamored of Downton Abbey, British literature and Western television, that great river of tea is beginning to reverse direction and British imports are filling the tea shelves of stores throughout China.

Why is this country, considered the birthplace of tea, now importing Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Darjeeling?

“Previously, Chinese consumers were more exposed to American culture, McDonalds and Hollywood-style 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.

In an interesting twist, some of the British tea sold into China and Hong Kong was 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.

Tea imports into China climbed 15% from 2014 to 2015.

I first became aware of China’s blossoming love affair with British tea in 2014 when I spent a morning with Stephen Twining at the Twinings Tea Shop on The Strand in London. The Twining family opened the shop in 1706. Stephen is the newest face in a family tea dynasty that stretches back ten generations.

Stephen Twining at the family’s 1706 London shop on The Strand.

Twinings at The Golden Lyon was the first coffee/tea shop into which respectable ladies could enter to buy tea. They originally sourced their teas from the same East India Company warehouses which dispatched 600,000 pounds of Chinese teas to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston in the fall of 1773. (We well remember the famous tea party where that tea ended up!)

Stephen made a nice pot of a very tippy single estate Assam and we compared notes on the current state of tea in the UK and US. There are a lot of similarities – a growing demographic of young tea drinkers, a greater preference for loose leaf teas, the influence of tea’s healthy reputation, and tea’s universal ability to bring people together.

“Where do you see the strongest growth for Twinings?” I asked.

“China.” He quickly replied. “Chinese consumers want to display British packaging in their homes. It’s a sign of showing their friends that they know what’s going on in Western culture. You know – Downton Abbey, Jane Austen and all.”

I suggested that Stephen might flaunt the Jane Austen appeal a bit more. After all, the novelist was a frequent shopper in this Twinings shop from 1800 until her death in 1817. 

That bit of information, well-planted in the Chinese press, might boost Twinings exports even more!

Read more about tea’s influence on British and American culture in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA, by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, 2014 Benjamin Press.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.