17 February 2009

The Western Pu'er Trend Officially Begins

The pu'er bubble may have burst in China, but it appears the Western pu'er bubble has begun inflating at rapid speed. It's been a long time coming, but the predictions I and many other teaheads made about pu'er being the next fad tea have come true.

Two headlines today at World Tea News display this. First, the lead article discusses how the pu'er bubble burst is an opportunity for less knowledgeable sellers to begin selling pu'er. Second, Numi has announced that pu'er will join the bottled tea fad ranks of rooibos, white tea, and kombucha on the shelves at major supermarkets throughout the country in flavors like Moroccan Mint Puer Green Tea, Magnolia Jasmine Puer Green Tea, Earl Grey Puer Black Tea, Mango Passion Puer Black Tea, and Peach Nectar Puer Green Tea.

Aside from the content reality of these news pieces that demonstrate the trend, the method of news transmission feeds a positive feedback loop that will inflate the trend further. That is to say, by announcing the opportunity to buy (news item 1) and the corporate leap of faith in pu'er (news item 2) to the thousands of tea and tea-related businesses worldwide that subscribe to or read the World Tea News, the trend is reified. The news distribution packages the trend and distributes it, creating a powerful market force that will ultimately echo at all levels of the market, from other ready-to-drink tea products to small tea rooms.

Others have drawn parallels between an anticipated pu'er boom and the recent cigar boom that diluted the quality of cigars and placed enormous market pressure on a scarce resource. As USA Today summarised the cigar burst, "[T]he supply of quality tobacco couldn't keep up with demand. The market became flooded with inferior but pricey cigars hastily rolled with lower grade tobacco, as many of the poseurs and neophytes moved on to something else." This nearly limbs the pu'er burst in China, and the cigar industry only recently recovered its quality and returned to a normalized, peacefully steady increase in sales ten years later, I wonder if the same will hold true for pu'er. But will the Chinese pu'er bubble-burst history repeat itself in the West?

In all likelihood, I think not. First, the Western market is marginal. The fledgling market in the United States, at most a few million potential consumers, cannot put the same pressure on the trees and bushes that tens of millions of East Asians did over the past 15 years when buying and selling pu'er like a commodity in enormous volumes. With the Western markets comprising--a guess--2% at most of the pu'er market even after the burst, doubling our market demand to 4% of the total demand remains marginal.

Secondly, pu'er requires more time, patience, and exploration than previous fad teas like rooibos and white tea. In the first article, Guang Lee of Hou De Asian Art remarks that successfully selling and marketing pu'er demands hardcore enthusiasts. The article itself even suggests hiring pu'er aficionados or encouraging nascent ones to help spread the madness. The implication here is that in order for pu'er to fly off the shelves, businesses need to cultivate the customer base. It doesn't sell itself; potential consumers need educating.

Numi intends to sell the tea through "educational" campaigns about pu'er's supposed health benefits, and the first article likewise suggests selling the health benefits of pu'er rather than the tea itself. Oddly enough, people who know very little about pu'er will take on the role of educating the public--about health benefits that have no proof in human clinical studies.

While this marketing tactic hardly surprises, as it reiterates previous trends, using unproven health benefits to sell tea is hardly an ethical practice. While some large long-term clinical studies have examined green tea's potential in health improvement, what few clinical studies have been done with pu'er were not long-term nor had enough participants to be considered statistically significant. However, pu'er is great beverage choice if you're an overweight rat. Moreover, studies about pu'er haven't isolated the mechanism that reduces cholesterol and blood lipids, so what becomes of the cholesterol in those rats remains unknown. Fat and cholesterol removed from the bloodstream can simply remain as unprocessed body fat or find its home elsewhere in the body.

Lastly, studies on tea largely deal only with the antioxidant ECGC, which is found in all camellia sinensis teas, not just pu'er. These studies also usually examine ECGC at doses far higher than could be gained from brewed tea, the difference in dosage making a health benefit claim from drinking brewed tea unsupportable. While it's not as unethical a practice as, say creating a false need, selling pu'er as a weightloss or cholesterol tonic exploits needs that it cannot yet claim to fill.

Of course, watering the tea down with fruity flavor additives sweetens the deal for the average consumer. All tea fads fall prey to fruitification and health claims, ready-to-drink or otherwise, in order to sell product to the average consumer. But is pu'er (or other tea) so good for you when it's ingested with 25g of sugars per bottle? I could not find nutrition data for Numi, nor do I know off-hand if they will sweeten their pu'er RTD beverages, but given the high sugar content of many RTD teas, it seems the same tonic that supposedly helps your cholesterol could help make you fatter. Sounds like a catch-22.

At least nobody's talking about tea as investment anymore. Giving investment advice as a tea vendor sounds like an invitation to litigation. Then again, tea vendors already seem to think they're qualified to give health advice.

Tangent aside, now that green tea, white tea, oolong tea, rooibos tea, and now pu'er are fallen dominos in the line of tea trends, what's next?

12 comments:

Nicolaus Mote said...

Maybe instead of meeting up for tea this Sunday we can stop by the local starbucks and all get ice-blended chocolate mango peach puerh.

=/.

Bill said...

"mango peach puerh" Sacrilege!

waltpark said...

Is it not hypocritical for tea snobs to criticize blending teas with flavors, and yet drink tea with meals, or assert recipe XYAB from year 19XX goes well with smoked pork, or fish? How many tea houses are there that do not serve snacks to enjoy with tea?

Tea drinking for the sake of drinking the tea is great and all, but when we consider that puerh has traditionally been served with heavy food/meals/dimsum, does that not make us particulary hypocritical?

I'm not sure adulterating the flavors in a bottle is any worse than in your mouth.

Jason Fasi said...

Walt:

That same line of thought would put wine coolers next to Opus One because wine is most often a table drink.

~j

waltpark said...

Jason: a more realistic comparison would be the husband who would drink wine from a box, criticizing his wife for drinking a B&J.

We are not talking about blending 25+ year heirloom puerh with fruit juice concentrate or tapioca balls with powdered creamer.

Faced with reality, we must admit that 99.9xxxx% of tea drunk every year comes from teabags, or what we would consider low grade tea sources that are less than ideal, but we've all drunk them.

I like good tea as much as the next guy, but I'll also tap the vat of overbrewed iced tea at restaurants and throw some lemonade in it to cut the bitterness without considering it a travesty.

Jason Fasi said...

Walt,

I'm confused as to what you read in my post that says I think blending tea with fruit is a "travesty"? I do not express a gourmet opinion about blending pu'er with fruit. Regardless, that particular accusation is the fallacy of the excluded middle with a dash of ad hominem.

Saying people who drink pu'er only by itself can launch criticisms of blended tea creates a false either/or scenario that isn't true for blended tea or any other gourmet discussion.

Secondly, suggesting that people who do fall into the "excluded" middle are hypocrites is simply ad hominem that invalidates their arguments/opinions based on a presumed character flaw, rather than addressing the argument directly.

Personally, I drink bag tea or iced tea in a pinch or at restaurants. But even if I pair my pu'er with pork, that doesn't mean I'd easily accept pork-infused pu'er in a bottle. According to your belief, my refusal of such a beverage would make me a hypocrite.

I don't see how "facing reality" invalidates opinions like Bill's, either. Maybe most people do drink bag or blended tea, and pu'er is traditionally served with dim sum in one province in China, but these are separate issues from the discussion of blended pu'er in the United States. Just because most people do something doesn't mean it's immune from criticism or that the criticisms are less valid.

~j

waltpark said...

Jason: I think my first post was not directed toward your post. In fact, I agree with pretty much everything you say in your article. It's very similar in vein to Marshaln's thread about Teavanna and their business and marketing strategy.

Good or bad, people will read your article and the comments and conclude either, hmm.. another snapple clone. Or they'll think.. great another tea swill sell out. Since most will probably hit this site from the LJ community, that audience will likely come from the latter purist stance. I did not intend to lump you personally into the "snob" category, and so did not direct my comment at you.

The comment I directed to you was in response to your comment in relation to opus vs cooler, which I don't think has much to do with the original article, which does not really have a "this is good or bad" stance.

Personally I am indifferent about most things in life. The rub for me here is that some have judged something not only for themselves but for others, and are proclaiming their opinions as doctrine.

Joie de vivre said...

First time on your blog! What a lovely site you have. Had to comment, my hubby just asked last night if the local tea shop I frequent sold Pu'er. Now where did that come from? Maybe it is the next big thing.

Anonymous said...

I hope honeybush. Seriously, the health thing is a big drawback for long term creation of a market. I'm thankful for rooibos bringing a serious tisane to global awareness, but honestly? Rooibos is the tofu of tisanes.

It should be all about the taste! And how it makes you feel when you drink!

-shah8

Jason Witt said...

There is nothing next. There are no teas left in line. That's why Pu-erh isn't a fad but is here to stay. I would advise caution with all this skepticism about the health benefits of tea and specifically Pu-erh. There are a huge amount of studies done on this, and they include a lot of bad ones and sloppy science. That's a big reason why there's supposedly inconclusive evidence. If you don't believe there are any real health experts because only flavor matters for tea then I guess you can ignore what millions of people nevertheless recognize about tea--it's good for you. --Spirituality of Tea

jenae said...

I’m new to puer. I LOVE black tea, but am very caffeine sensitive. Also, I go thru periods of functional dyspepsia, where I’m scared to eat anything that isn't totally bland.

(The idea that tea-selling clerks think they are qualified to give health advice did make me smile/ chuckle. On the other hand, the guy who gave me a free sample and some tea-related health advice was very nice.)

Do you all think that puer does in fact have an altered, and therefore mellower, form of caffeine? That it aids digestion?

Re: How to drink tea. I think with food is okay, dif from mixed with fruit, but I instinctively want nothing else in my mouth before or after when I drink tea. SO delicious. For me, regrettably, all too illicit.

jenae said...

Question to Jason W.--Do you think Pu-erh has a softer caffeine effect and aids digestion?

(As I said in my comment, I adore tea but have to be very careful because the caffeine messes me up and my digestion is sometimes ridiculously delicate.)