How Starbucks Can Revive China’s Lost Tea Culture

Starbucks’ announcement to enter China’s tea market has raised a few eyebrows. Some questioned why Chinese consumers would want to drink tea from a foreign coffee chain, given their own rich tea tradition. I wondered, however, why it took Starbucks so long to venture into China’s tea business. 

China may have thousands of years of tea-drinking history, but its tea culture has been largely lost.

Little has changed in China’s tea culture

I recently visited Longjing Village in Hangzhou, one of China’s famous tea capitals. A college friend wanted to treat me to my hometown’s finest green tea—the Longjing tea, also known as Dragon Well tea. Legend has it that the Qing emperor Qianlong favored Longjing tea so much that he planted 18 tea trees in the hills himself.

Farmers at Longjing Village have been growing tea for centuries. In recent years, they turned the village into a tea garden with restaurants featuring local cuisine. Its countryside setting is much sought after by locals and tourists alike who want to escape the stress of city life.

At such a renowned tea village, I was surprised that the restaurant owner served us with loose tea leaves in a mug, and poured water from an old-time thermos. There was no tea etiquette, no tea set, no strainer for the leaves, and no consideration of the correct water temperature to brew the tea.

The Longjing tea may have its delicate flavor. But through repeatedly pouring water from the thermos to the mug, whatever flavor it may have had was completely lost. Most people in mainland China have been drinking tea this way ever since I was a child—and little has changed. 

Enter Starbucks. With Teavana, the U.S. coffee giant can very well help reinvigorate a new tea culture in China.

What Starbucks can change

First, tea production in China is mostly plain tea leaves. There is no flavor variety with fruit or herb infusion. What Starbucks offers is something new. Their first two tea items are black tea with ruby grapefruit and honey and green tea with aloe and prickly pear. And there is plenty room for creativity to include teas with local ingredients such as lychee and goji berries. Chinese middle class consumers are becoming increasingly health-minded. Tea with added health benefits will have a great appeal to them.

Second, the teahouses in China are mostly mom-and-pop shops. There are no national brands. People frequenting the teahouses are older generations who usually smoke and play Mahjong (a Chinese board game). Younger generations, who are spenders, are drawn to trendy settings with chic designs, free wifi, friendly staff and good service—something Starbucks has already proven to excel at.

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, there is a lack of modern tea makers and knowledge of tea-brewing techniques in China. The archaic thermos should be thrown out. Even traditional teapots may not be adequate as the water temperature is hard to control. In addition to introducing different tea collections, Starbucks could bring new tea-making techniques to China. 

A bigger success than coffee?

Chinese middle class consumers are craving a modern, healthy, and sophisticated lifestyle. They naturally drink tea more than coffee, and the tea market is estimated to be at least ten times bigger than the coffee market in China. 

Just as Starbucks created demand for its coffee, it can very well enjoy even greater success with tea in China.

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