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?