Tea flavour innovation in China unites tradition with modernity13 Apr 2022
Chinese tea brands are innovating with new flavours, blends and formats, and even making a foray into food with tea-flavoured food and drink launches.
The art and science of tea production have a history rooted in Chinese food and drink culture. In recent years, the growing popularity of tea houses has led to increasing demands for new tea varieties and exciting formats, according to Mintel.
Western processed foods have become new to China in recent decades, while tea is considered a traditional and favourite beverage among consumers in the country. As a result, Chinese consumers likely “see tea-flavoured foods and beverages as safe and familiar”, says Alex Woo, CEO of W2O Food Innovation, a food technology company based in the US.
Matcha tea has become popular in new food and drink products containing tea flavours in the Chinese market. However, its share has declined in the past three years, according to Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD). “Japanese matcha has always been a niche, even in Asia,” says Woo. As a result, there is the opportunity for food and drink launches to explore new combinations of flavour profiles or add a contemporary twist to existing favourites.
New flavours of peach and oolong tea, bubble tea, red bean, and matcha tea, for example, are especially active among Chinese consumers. Equally, emerging flavour blends such as oolong tea & white peach, brown sugar bubble tea and lemon & black tea have entered the tea flavours scene in China. Jasmine and white teas, Woo notes, are also likely to garner attention from Chinese consumers.
The country’s tea segment is taking inspiration from the popularity of tea drinking and its varieties, and is influencing new food and drink product launches. In the Chinese market, the share of tea-related flavours in the food and drink category rose from 1.4% in 2019 to 2.2% in 2021, signalling a growth rate of 52.9%, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD).
Tea-inspired treats and staples
With tea houses increasing consumer awareness around the popularity of tea flavours, food and drink brands and manufacturers are turning to China’s tea culture to inspire their new product launches.
Qia Qia launched its Peach Oolong flavoured fruit and nut assortment, which it states is made using 100% freshly picked nuts and fruits containing tea polyphenols. Miss Berry Peach Oolong is another brand that combines tea with fruit by flavouring fermented fruit that is free from colourings, flavouring and preservatives. Mengniu’s red grapefruit and four-season spring tea flavoured milk beverage is said to combine quality oolong tea with red grapefruit and fruit bits.
The snack category is also seeing tea-infused formulations grow. Glico Pejoy Osmanthus has unveiled its Oolong tea flavoured-filled biscuits and Capico Green has introduced green tea and greengage plum flavoured potato chips.
Simple strains and tea types still dominate
Increasingly, consumers care about the contents of their food and drink products and want transparent information about their ingredients and production. Minimal ingredients and single-flavour teas have, therefore, retained their place in tea consumers’ list of go-to tea favourites.
“Although we see some companies preparing flavoured teas for the export market, most of the teas we see from China are traditional, one-ingredient products, or in the case of flower-scented-only teas such as jasmine, there are two ingredients,” says Lydia Kung, founder of Verileaf, a US-based direct importer and purveyor of specialty teas. “As consumers pay more attention to what is in their foods, most China teas are therefore very straightforward,” Kung adds.
When consumed with meals, these traditional one-ingredient or flower-scented-only teas do not have other flavours such as passionfruit or mango to distract or detract, the Verileaf founder notes. Many high-quality China teas, especially oolongs, are complex, enabling the drinker to experience layers of flavour.
However, Kung details that these all come from features inherent in the tea, with nothing else added. A lightly oxidised Tie Guan Yin, for example, is friendly and approachable due to its floral notes, yet the tea production process does not use flowers.
“When paired with richer, heartier dishes, the range of flavours of China oolongs and distinctive black teas offers many choices that can stand up to bold food flavours,” says Kung.
“The appeal of China teas in large part lies in the myriad tastes and styles produced from one plant,” says Kung. Green teas, for example, that require minimal processing to produce, come in many leaf shapes. In addition, Oolong varieties offer substantial properties, delivering complexity, depth and long finishes that stem solely from the plant’s inherent components.
Four Tea Trends in China for 2022
We can anticipate various new developments in tea flavours in China that expand upon consumers’ demands for traditional and simple one-to-two ingredient tea varieties as well as new and exciting flavour blends and product options.
Here we look at four of the leading shifts in tea flavours taking shape in China, with the opportunity to influence global tea flavour trends.
1. High-quality loose-leaf teas
As the summer approaches, consumers can look forward to high-quality loose-leaf teas expressly processed for cold brewing. “Lengthy research along with microbiological testing has been conducted to make these safe,” says Kung.
These high-quality loose-leaf teas will include non-oxidised or lightly oxidised teas such as white teas, green, jasmine and “green” Oolongs, with recognisable names such as Bi Luo Chun. The caffeine content is lower in these teas than those hot brewed traditionally, therefore, garnering interest from consumers wanting to reduce their caffeine consumption.
2. The evolution of bubble teas
Bubble teas remain a favourite with consumers in China and around the globe. Now, the renowned tea-drinking variety is expanding into new varieties.
“The continuing popularity of bubble teas has led to another tea base, darker oolongs,” says Kung. The anticipated variety is not the dark oolong that is aged but is instead an oolong style that is more heavily oxidised with higher roasting to create a deeper, more concentrated flavour in the cold beverage.
3. New varieties of black teas
“From the revival of interest in black teas in China’s domestic market, we can expect to see more varieties of specialty black teas emerge,” says Kung.
The increasing number of specialty black teas may, Kung relays, come from cultivars, a plant variety produced in cultivation by selective breeding that is then traditionally made into oolongs. Once formed, producers may transplant these varieties into a region outside the historic origin tea base.
The new group of black teas comprises elegant teas that typically offer a natural honey-like note. In leaf-style teas, some varieties are robust, while others have plentiful golden tips, offering nuances distinct from better known black teas such as Keemun and Yunnan standards.
4. Tea-based treats
We may well also see tea flavoured cookies, tea ice cream and tea yoghurt in future launches, Woo notes.
“Google ‘tea flavoured cookie and ice cream’ and you will see more than what you can read, but all from ’Small Food”, says Woo. In recent decades, new developments from big food corporations that form the global top 100 companies have been “lagging”, Woo says.
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