Translating oolong tea’s long and storied culture in Taiwan and China into U.S. markets presents the issue of context. Bridging this gap of culture and context is difficult—though not impossible. First, the barriers: Several innate characteristics of American culture impede the widespread consumption of oolong tea and the appreciation for traditional culture. Generally, Americans tend to be more concerned with efficiency rather than appreciation of aesthetics hence the popularity of the teabag. Traditional tea culture often struggles to find a place in a society so focused on convenience.
In 1955, Richard L. Jenkins, M.D. made the following astute observations: “In America, we are too formal to cultivate or develop the artistically patterned and highly formal grace of the Japanese tea ceremony. Probably our national temperament will not easily lend itself even to the leisurely and graceful patterning of the English tea custom. But even in our striving, restless, overtense pattern of living the American custom of iced tea on a summer afternoon adds something of what we need to maintain balance.”
An Oolong in Disguise. Categorially, the world of oolong is deep and varied, ranging from green to roasted to heavily oxidized teas. The lack of standardized naming system likely decreases recognition of an already foreign product in the American market, and steepens the learning curve for tea novices. For example, Dong Fong Mei Ren’s other monikers bear little resemblance to one another: Eastern and Oriental Beauty, Noble Concubine, Silver Tip Oolong, and Bai Hao Oolong. The use of multiple spellings further confuses neophytes. Consider the following: Dong Ding/Tung Ting, Wen Shan Bao Zhong/Pu Chong, and Oolong/Wulong.
Is it Organic? Is it Local? Strict locavores have trouble swallowing the ambiguity that comes with foreign-grown products like tea. In recent years, the growing market for locally grown and organic products has likely steered some consumers away from foreign-grown tea, and products that cannot be labeled definitively as 'organic' create hesitation.
Competing with the Familiar. Oolong tea competes with many well-established replacement goods in the American beverage market, such as wine, beer, soda, coffee, and more familiar teas: green, black, white, Yerba Mate, herbal, and scented tea. Further, lack of knowledge and tools for brewing tea in more traditional ways impedes widespread loose-leaf tea consumption.
Who is Drinking Loose-Leaf in the U.S.? It’s an eclectic crowd comprised of those seeking an alternative to coffee, people looking for an affordable luxury, individuals motivated by health concerns, as well as hobbyists and devotees who dedicate time to study tea. The growing interest in high-end tea is also fueled by broader trends in food culture towards high-quality specialty foods and beverages and the preservation of traditional culture. Tea also attracts people who are looking for a deeper connection and way to slow down in a fast-paced world.
|Hand picked leaves during Spring harvest on Dong Ding Mountain|
Source: Jenkins, R. L. (1955). Psychological Effects of Tea Drinking. Tea: A Symposium on the Pharmacology and the Physiologic and Psychologic Effects of Tea (H.J. Klaunberg, Ed.) Presented at a conference of the New York Academy of Sciences, May 16, 1955.