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Brits are absolutely positive that their cuppas will suit China to a tea

IN Europe, tea culture has flourished and modern trends feature fruit teas and herbal combinations. Twinings is to bring these tastes to China. Nancy Zhang sips the new brew. Selling tea to China may sound as foolhardy as carrying coals to Newcastle, but British tea brands such as Lipton and more recently Twinings are doing exactly that. They're hoping to tap into the changing tastes of a new generation of Chinese tea drinkers.

Chinese tea with its long history and cultural importance comes in a phenomenal range of shapes, flavors and styles. There are green teas, black teas, flower teas and combinations of herbal infusions.

In 2008, 1.24 million tons of tea were produced in China, roughly one-third of the total around the world. Last year the industry was worth 32 billion yuan (US$4.68 billion).

But there is an increasing variety of styles of tea being produced in the world each with a flavor unique to its geography.

In Europe, which was introduced to tea first from China, the tea-drinking culture has flourished and modern trends feature new fruit teas and herbal combinations such as chamomile and cinnamon.

Upscale British tea brand Twinings is hoping to bring these new varieties to China.

"The time is right to bring our teas to China," says Stephen Twining, public relations director of the company and 10th generation of the family business. "There is interest in choice and what the rest of the world can offer."

Having been born a member of one of the oldest tea-making families in Britain, Stephen drinks up to 15 cups of tea a day. He describes tea blending as a uniquely human art that is different every time depending on the weather and the conditions of the particular tea garden.

Different types of tea suit different times of the day - a strong English breakfast tea in the morning, followed by a lighter Earl Grey at lunch time and caffeine free herbal infusions in the evening. In British tea-drinking culture, tea is often paired with cakes - a stronger tea for chocolate cake, whereas Earl Grey suits fruitier cakes.

Chinese green teas have a light, refreshing flavor compared with Western blended black teas with stronger flavors that soak into the water faster.

According to Edward Bruno You, a tasting expert for a Chinese tea trading company and a freelance writer on Chinese food and tea, different types of tea had traditionally defined markets.

Northerners preferred flower teas with simple flavors, and the Oolong tea of south China's Guangdong Province was different to that in northern part.

There were also established, major regional players such as the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) Tea Co in Shanghai, and the Yutai Co in Beijing.

But because of the traditional varieties already in the market, few new flavors have been developed. Fruit teas are not well known, as there is already a defined market for Chinese flower teas such as chrysanthemum and jasmine.

China also has its own blended teas, such as ginseng and green tea combinations.

But as China opens up to international trade in general, even these traditional products are not exempt from change.

"Chinese people are not elitist with regard to tea - they can accept new tastes and cultures. This is especially true with the younger generation for whom our long tea tradition is not so strong," says You.

You says Oolong tea is getting lighter in taste and brighter in color because of the preferences of the younger market which is setting industry trends.

The young are also more open to Western lifestyles which are being imported along with the tea.

Founded in the 1700s, Twinings has supplied the British Royal family and luminaries such as writer Jane Austen in its 300-year history. According to Stephen they hope to introduce to China the very "civilized" British culture of afternoon tea with dainty cakes and sandwiches. Since 2006 their products have been available in large supermarkets such as Carrefour.

But as a global tea brand giant, the rival Lipton competes using its slick business models as much as its tastes. Although varieties of Chinese tea are well known, such as Oolong and Pu'er, few Chinese tea brands have the same brand exposure internationally.

According to You, Chinese tea suppliers also suffer from variations in price and quality and are limited to domestic markets - only 30 percent of the tea produced in China is exported.

"Lipton's entry into the market has set standards for Chinese tea suppliers and expanded their export web internationally." Tea and health with Stephen Twining Q: Is green tea better for you than black tea?

A: Evidence suggests both types of tea are good for us. Black teas help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and reduce cholesterol in long term. Drinking moderate amounts of green tea over a prolonged period is helpful in preventing high blood pressure and is also thought to give some protection against bowel cancer.

Both black and green teas contain flavonoids which act as powerful antioxidants that help protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals caused by pollution, smoking and exposure to sunlight. Free radicals are known to cause damage to cells and play a significant role in the development of heart disease, strokes and cancer.

Herbal teas - which are not made from tea leaves (camellia sinensis) - don't have the same effects. However personally I find chamomile tea helps me relax, while peppermint tea aids digestion.

Q: Is tea fattening?

A: Not at all. Without milk, tea is calorie-free. Even with milk, tea contains only around 13 calories - much, much lower than most soft drinks and "posh" coffees.

Q: Doesn't tea dehydrate?

A: No. Contrary to popular belief, tea is not a diuretic, it is actually hydrating and drinking tea throughout the day can help prevent dehydration.

Tea is also a great hot weather drink as it causes a slight increase in the body temperature and perspiration which then cools the body - this doesn't happen with cold drinks.


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