Friday, March 23, 2012

Marketing Oolong in the U.S: Difficult But Not Impossible

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
And, the popularity of traditional Chinese and Taiwanese style gong fu tea brew ceremonies has surged recently thanks to new and old generations of tea enthusiasts. Using social media as a vehicle for sharing gong fu tea brewing techniques, students of brew are spreading traditional tea culture one pot at a time.

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.


  1. It's been my experience that most of die-hard fans of local eating actually love loose-leaf tea, especially if you find the right ways to present it to them, connecting with the things that they value.

    One selling point is that tea is less resources-intensive (and thus more sustainable) than coffee. I also think though that people who value local foods tend to be more committed to slower-paced food culture, and I think tea fits into this more than coffee, which fits more into the fast-paced elements of American society.

    And the single-origin nature of artisan teas, and the traditional processing methods used to make them also appeal to these "locavores". People who support eating local don't do it strictly out of wanting to eat things from close to them, they do it because they want to support local food traditions, and move away from an industrialized food supply. If you can show them how high-quality loose-leaf teas fit into this framework, it's been my experience that they get quite excited about tea!

  2. Yes, the "locavores" do get excited about tea as do the slow foodists. Out here in Eugene, Oregon, I've seen some initial resistance to anything that is not local, but that seems rare overall. Once again, thank for your comment! When are you heading out here to try some tea at our teabar?