CHANGSHA, Jan. 23 (Xinhua) -- Once a niche product reserved for border trade, Chinese dark tea is now making another long and bumpy journey toward new-style beverage shops, which are the darling of the young sipping class.
Dark tea, or fermented tea, has a long history of being compressed into tea cakes and carried on horseback to northwestern hinderlands and foreign countries, winning it the sobriquet "border tea" or "export tea."
As the fashion of new-style tea brews swept across China, dark tea found new clients in big cities: the many bubble tea shops vying for the hearts of young urbanites with innovative recipes.
In Changsha, the glitzy capital of Hunan, tea shops mix dark tea with light cream and pecans and advertise its health-enhancing effects, such as lowering cholesterol levels.
"I like bubble tea but don't want to get fat, so I'm attracted to the 'fat-scraping' effect of dark tea, as well as its special taste," said Peng Hongzhi, a 37-year-old Changsha resident and fan of dark tea-based bubble tea.
Peng notes dark tea's bitter taste and special aroma, which have long made the tea an outlier in China's mainstream tea market. Its unique bitterness also poses a challenge for developers of popular beverages.
Sexy Tea, a popular tea brand also known as Modern China Tea Shop, said it began to develop dark tea-based beverages in 2019, in a bid to diversify its portfolio of green, black and oolong teas. The company selected dark tea categories with richer flavors and added cream to improve the taste.
"Dark tea has a strong personality. Some clients love it, some hate it," said Liu Qiaofang, who works in public relations with Sexy Tea.
Liu Yang, founder of Chaermasi Chinese Dark Tea, is one of the young entrepreneurs working to unleash the market potentials of dark tea, which remains a niche product among young consumers.
"We wish to introduce dark tea into the lives of young Chinese in a more fashionable manner," said Liu, who has opened four outlets using dark tea leaves to make bubble tea and fruit tea.
As a newcomer in the new-style tea market, fermented tea drinks have few successful predecessors to draw experience from, so Liu's team creatively mixes the tea with the Momordica grosvenorii fruit and dried orange peel to amplify its health benefits.
"To our delight, 30 percent of our first-time buyers have become regular customers," he said, anticipating a growing number of health-conscious consumers.
According to research firm iiMedia Research, the value of China's new-style tea market is estimated to reach 374.93 billion yuan (about 55 billion U.S. dollars) in 2025, with 26.2 percent of consumers in 2022 expecting to consume more new tea beverages in the future.
To attract wealthier young customers, many new-style tea brands have replaced fannings and low-quality cream with high-quality tea leaves and fresh milk. Demands for more diverse and unconventional brews have also opened opportunities for niche categories like dark tea.
Not all forays into this rising market have succeeded. A pub-like tea house in Changsha said it once introduced cakes made from dark tea, but they were eventually taken off the shelves due to a lukewarm response from clients.
Li Shengfu, a master of making Anhua Dark Tea, is optimistic about the market prospects of dark tea's synergy with pastries and popular beverages. The addition of China's traditional tea-making to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list in late 2022 will also boost the rural tea industry and the supply chain, he said.
"The dark tea's unique fragrance and the properties of fermented tea are suitable for secondary processing. It will take some time, but dark tea derivatives will surely be loved by more people," said Li. ■