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Is Black Tea Losing Ground?

When I was growing up tea was a thing of mystery. My family drank powdered iced tea of dubious quality, but that was about all I knew about tea. Except that tea was black and you bought cheap teabags at the grocery store and steeped them and probably added milk, sugar, lemon or whatever.

Some of the many black teas available for tea drinkers. (ETS image)
Some of the many black teas available for tea drinkers. (ETS image)

Once upon a time, at least outside of Asia, this is how things were done. Tea and black tea were synonymous and that was that. Yes, as I’ve noted before, imports to the United States of Japanese green tea and other types were significant in the nineteenth century but somewhere along the way something changed and black began to prevail.

But there are indications lately that black tea is not quite the dominating force that it was. Even a casual observer to what’s happening in the tea world has probably noticed the surge of interest in green tea and some of the lesser known types.

As it turns out, there is apparently evidence to support all of this. In the United Kingdom, that great bastion of black tea drinking, a recent article in the press there notes that “While sales of ordinary black tea bags have dropped by nearly five per cent in the past year, demand for green tea has rocketed by almost 10 per cent.”

In addition to green tea, beverage lovers there are also turning to fruit flavored teas and tisanes such as peppermint and chamomile, all of which have seen an increase of eight percent in a year. The good news for black tea is that the category still accounts for nearly twice as much in sales as all others combined. Not that the news is bad for all tea companies, mind you. At Yorkshire Tea they’ve managed to buck the trend and claim that their sales of mostly black tea have jumped by 66 percent over the course of the last five years.

A recent article in the Washington Post claimed that we’re gradually becoming a nation of tea drinkers. Maybe so and maybe not and I’ve already discussed that claim in a recent article for this site. But it’s also interesting to note the facts that were cited in the article, courtesy of the U.S. Tea Association.

As they note, the tea market in the U.S. has jumped from about two billion dollars in 1990 to more than ten billion dollars last year. Half of all the tea we drink is of the black kind (I’m certainly doing my part on that front), followed by fruit and herbal “tea.” Both categories are faltering however, with a small increase in the latter since 2000 and a drop of about 2.5 percent for black tea.

Not so for green tea, which has grown by about 40 percent since 2000 and now accounts for about a tenth of all of our tea. So-called fringe and artisanal teas like white and oolong and others have grown by about 8,000 percent in the last decade but still make up a fairly small portion of our tea market overall.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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