Straining to Savor the Tea of Emperors ; Heady Consumers Pay Top Dollar for Chinese Brew with Long Pedigree

By Kolesnikov-Jessop, Sonia | International Herald Tribune, November 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

Straining to Savor the Tea of Emperors ; Heady Consumers Pay Top Dollar for Chinese Brew with Long Pedigree


Kolesnikov-Jessop, Sonia, International Herald Tribune


Spurred on by marketing that exalts perceived health benefits, more consumers are now seeking out white teas, despite, or maybe because of, their high price.

Like good wines, teas are a reflection of their "terroir," the geology, climate and geography of their origin.

Yin Zhen, the rarest of white teas, is produced only in China's Fujian Province and for centuries was reserved for the pleasure of the inner circles of the imperial court.

In post-imperial times it has become established as a favored brew among tea connoisseurs who appreciate its delicate flavor, though it has remained largely ignored by a general public used to stronger tastes.

That, however, is changing. Spurred by marketing that exalts the perceived health benefits of white teas and by new blends that add flowers, fruits and spices for a richer experience, more consumers are now seeking out the higher graded white teas, despite -- or maybe in part because of -- their high price.

Yin Zhen can retail for 60 Singapore dollars, or $49, for 50 grams, or 1.76 ounces, compared with 11 dollars for the more common Pai Mu Tan white tea or 43 dollars for the finest first flush Darjeeling black tea, said Taha Bouqdib, president of TWG Tea, an international tea company based in Singapore.

Yet the company has sold about three tons of white teas so far this year through its retail outlets in Asia, the Middle East, Britain and the United States, up almost 60 percent compared with last year, Mr. Bouqdib said.

"This is due entirely to the launch, in April, of our Yin Zhen white tea blends," he said, sipping a white Earl Grey recently in one of the company's tea salons. "These teas are appreciated not just by purists, but by a much wider clientele now."

In the same time that white tea sales rose 60 percent, the company's sales of black tea rose only 10 percent and those of green tea just 2 percent, he said.

Still, white tea -- so called for the fine, silvery-white hairs on the young leaf buds -- remains only a small part of the company's sales, which totaled about 680 tons last year, and is likely to stay so, given its limited production.

Other companies are also reporting increased white tea sales.

"We believe a key factor of the success of white tea in general is that it meets high-end consumers' fascination for luxury goods and new experiences," Franck Dessain, a director of the Paris-based Mariage Freres, said in an e-mail. "Because such tea is rare, it has become a status symbol."

"There is no doubt that Yin Zhen is the lead product, but every single white tea takes profit from the status and prestige of Yin Zhen and then is considered a top luxury product," he said. …

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