The Confusion of “Purple Tea”

The whole thing about “purple tea” seems to be marketing jargon, almost like calling some lightly oxidized teas “yellow teas” instead of “oolongs” or even “pouchongs.” But is it really just hype to gain the interest of tea drinkers who seem to constantly crave something new on the tea horizon? Or is this tea different enough from other types of tea to be truly set apart in the tea lexicon?

Purple tea of Kenya (Yahoo! Images)
Purple tea of Kenya (Yahoo! Images)

Tea Experts on the Topic

One vendor selling purple tea from Kenya states:

While still Camellia sinensis, purple tea is a new varietal that is propagated by grafting and cutting as opposed to seeding. This particular varietal is known as TRFK 306/1 and is rich in anthocyanin (a flavonoid), which pigments the leaves a purplish color. Purple tea was primarily developed for tea health products and is rich in antioxidants. Malvidin, Pelargonidin and Delphinidin are prominent in purple tea. The purple species has been in development for 25 years in Kenya and is more resistant to frost, disease, drought, and pests.

They go on to say their tea is processed like a green tea, that is, oxidation is halted immediately after harvest, and that you can steep the tea like a green, oolong, or black tea and get similar flavor characteristics. Other vendors sell partially and fully oxidized versions of “purple tea.”

The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya, who helped develop this varietal, points out a few things to note:

  • They hope that besides just tea to drink, the varietal can be used for extracts marketed for health aids, bottled teas, etc.
  • The new varietal currently commands a price 3 to 4 times higher than black tea.

It is that final point that causes me to wonder.

My Two Cents’ Worth

I don’t mind paying more for something if it is worth that additional price. If the higher price, however, is just the result of marketing, then I do not see that price as being justified. Time to take a closer look.

First, if the “purple tea” name is based on the color of the leaves, then why not call something like Alishan (a Taiwanese oolong) a “purple tea” instead of an oolong? The leaves have a purple green color when dry (after processing). Then there is Oriental Beauty where the high quality versions have dry leaves that are dark purple to brown in color. Some 2nd flush (Summer) Darjeeling teas will have the leaves turn a coppery-purple after steeping. There is also a 99% Oxidized Purple Oolong, from Sumatra, Indonesia, that looks dark purple in the after-processing dry leaf form. Of course, you could quibble and say that the leaves of “purple tea” are purple on the bush whereas these other are purple after processing or steeping. Which is a fair point.

That leads me to wonder if the varietal was developed to have a purple coloring to the leaves as part of the marketing efforts. New varietals come along all the time but without all this hype.

The main issue here seems to be that a green tea is called a green tea because the leaves are not oxidized and therefore remain green, an oolong starts as a green tea but is oxidized to varying degrees and therefore changes color, and a black tea is called a black tea because (for Western countries) that is the color of the leaves after full oxidation and processing. It seems a bit inconsistent, therefore, to call something a “purple tea” because of the leaf color on the bush. Clearly, “green,” “oolong” and “black” are used to account for the level of oxidation. Since the vendor quoted above states that “purple tea” can take on the qualities of each of these, then why not just call this another type of green or oolong or black? The answer goes back, in my humble opinion, to marketing. And, as you saw, the term “purple” is now being applied to other teas such as that oolong previously mentioned.

As Bill Lengeman pointed out in his article on this blog (“The Color Purple (of Tea)”), the varietal has been in development for about 25 years. With all that money and effort, you’d better have a marketing gimmick to catch buyers’ attention (which says more about the buyers than the tea growers). Just calling this a new type of tea would not stir much interest, but tea reviewers were clamoring (yours truly being the exception) to jump on the bandwagon and try this new tea. Personally, I’m not adverse to such tactics nor to trying something just because it’s new. In some ways, that’s the fun of all this. And I still have the choice of whether to pay what appears to be an artificially inflated price or not.

As one who lives the “tea life” where tea isn’t just a beverage but a way of life, I think it might be good to try some purple tea!

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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4 thoughts on “The Confusion of “Purple Tea”

  1. Pingback: The Best of the English Tea Store Tea Blog in 2013 | Tea Blog

  2. Indeed, just back from the 2nd East African tea Convention I raise similar questions; there was some purple tea on display at the KTDA booth, no cup though!!
    the Kenya TRF says: commercially released only 3 years ago there is not yet any harvest, sic!!
    have also seen the “purple puer “in Yunnan, there is a lot available at the local TRI in Puer city, but , oh dear, so bitter that I could not drink it; the cup colour is beautiful, could make my pics available…
    so “gimmick” for Africa the time, let’s wait to find out when there is the first crop!!

  3. shiv kumar saria

    Purple tea, is made from a camellia sinensis tea plant, which is rich in anthocyanin. TRA Tocklai has release a no of cultivars which have a high %age of the reddish pigmentation especially TV 30.
    It is a marketing gimmick, not popular here in India.

    1. A.C. Cargill

      I would tend to agree that is marketing gimmick, especially since there is a purple tea made from the leaves of tea trees in Yunnan, China. Seems to be a lot of clamor out there for new things in the word of tea. For me, I go for a nice cuppa Assam or Ceylon black tea! 🙂

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