Business / Industries

Luxury tea trend threatens traditional tea culture

(Xinhua) Updated: 2012-04-20 13:15

ZHENGZHOU - For centuries, tea has been considered one of the seven daily necessities of ordinary Chinese life, alongside rice, cooking oil, and cheap condiments like vinegar and soy sauce.

Nowadays, however, some tea is no longer a humble necessity, but an astronomically prized luxury good few can afford.

During promotion of this year's first batch of green tea, which usually hits the market in April, a Chinese company rolled out its top tea priced at 26,800 yuan ($4,253) per 100 grams.

The tea, named "Daqi," or "treasure" in Chinese, is a type of Xinyang Maojian, a renowned subcategory of green tea produced in Henan province. The tea comes in a cloisonne container with a jade lid and a sandalwood base.

While ordinary Xinyang Maojian sells at several hundred yuan per kilo, a three-gram cup of Daqi can cost 804 yuan, which, according to its producer, reflects the value of its rarity and "cultural flavor."

"Only a few kilos of Daqi tea are produced every year -- the tea only grows on a tiny patch of land, and our master-level selection and processing techniques have added to its value," said Huang Yixing, vice general manager of the tea's producer Henan Auspicious Cloud Tea Co Ltd.

Huang said the high-profile promotion could increase the fame of Xinyang Maojian, which is not as well-known as China's other famous teas.

"Compared with Anji White Tea, Pu'er, and Longjing, which have all fetched high prices, Xinyang Maojian has lagged behind. We hope our efforts can make consumers realize the tea's true value," Huang said.

China's tea market, which is now the largest in the world, has churned out a large number of luxury teas in recent months. In March, a high-end Longjing tea outvalued gold with an auction price of 180,000 yuan per 500 grams in east China's Zhejiang province.

In another eye-popping story, a Sichuan businessman introduced a new type of tea fertilized with panda dung. He is charging 20,000 yuan for 50 grams of the exotic tea, provoking public debate on his sensational bid to produce the world's highest priced tea.

Some entrepreneurs say they want to push the ancient brew into China's luxury market to compete with chronometers and red wines in appealing to the country's rising parvenu class.

"A watch can easily fetch 1 million yuan with its fine craftsmanship, and we want to show that tea also has this, as well as a profound cultural background," Huang said.

According to Wang Yong, head of the Henan Tea Association, the profit margin for luxury tea is unduly high, as its production cost is at most 3,000 yuan per 500 grams.

To make tea appear luxurious, companies tend to overpackage and overprice, contributing to a 10-percent rise in this spring's tea price in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, over the last year, Wang said.

The retail price surge, however, does not please Chinese tea farmers. Many have complained about a drop in purchase price due to a surplus after this year's bumper harvest as well as the exploitation of tea traders.

The bubble in the tea market has also left a bad taste among experts and the general public, many of whom identify the luxury tea trend with money worship, obsequiousness and corruption.

Zhang Jinbo, a professor at the Henan University of Economics and Law, said the competition among tea producers to set high prices reflects the broader social trend to measure things by price rather than by their inherent value.

The luxury trend in tea is also dangerous, because it might fuel a bubble and push up the price of consumer teas, Zhang said.

Although many companies are tapping into tea's cultural elements to command a higher price, Wang said such practices will actually threaten Chinese tea culture.

"In China, the main tea consumers are still middle- and lower-income earners, and the millennium-old culture of tea drinking should not become materialistic," Wang said.

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