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February 23, 2017

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Tea franchises keep pace with changing tastes

WHEN coffee chains took Shanghai by storm, many people lamented what they saw as the demise of tea drinking in China.

But old traditions not only die hard, but they also reinvent themselves.

When the franchise Heytea opened its first outlet in Raffles City Shanghai 10 days ago, queues of people stood in line for up to two hours for a cup of tea.

The brand, originally called Heekcaa but later changed for easier pronunciation, was already very popular in Guangdong Province in southern China. Its custom-made tea drinks and chic cafe-style decor have proven a commercial success.

Heytea isn’t the only beverage chain taking advantage of the swing back to tea drinking. Milk tea shops like Yidiandian or Gong Cha in downtown Shanghai are springing up everywhere, even offering delivery via WeChat and popular apps like

The menus of these tea outlets provide something for everyone.

Pearl milk tea, also known as bubble tea or boba milk tea, originated in the 1980s in Taiwan. It was created as a beverage that mixes juice or milk with tea, adding textures like bubbles made from tapioca starch or fruit jelly. The drink is especially popular among children and young people.

The majority of the tea beverage creations on the market now are milk and fruit teas in a dazzling range of flavors and textures that keeps changing and expanding. Every season sees creative new ideas for tea.

“Tea drinks are fairly priced and delicious,” said Emily Wang, as she bought a cup of oolong tea macchiato at one of Yidiandian’s downtown shops.

“The shops are easy to find. Drinks made with real tea and milk are also healthier if you select one that’s sugar-free or low in sugar,” she added.

Scandalous past

Less than two decades ago, pearl milk tea was a trendy drink and quick sugar fix, made from cheap powder and tapioca bubbles and served in a plastic cup with colorful straws.

Many may remember the lilac-colored taro milk tea of the past.

It was sold cheaply on the street and mostly made with dairy powder and fruit flavoring. There was neither real tea nor fresh milk in the cup.

Such drinks were unhealthy and sometimes even risky to drink when dodgy ingredients were used.

In 2004, there were media reports about pearl milk teas that were processed in unsanitary factories that mixed bleached coconut water jelly with water and some kind of solid coconut juice concentrate, along with industrial hydrogen peroxide.

Tea drinks had stooped to new lows and were a far cry from traditional Chinese tea culture that stresses the quality of tea leaves and water. Small wonder that coffee chains took hold.

The transformation

The situation began to change in the past decade. Tea franchises started to revolutionize recipes, business models and marketing strategy. The primary focus was back on purity of ingredients.

In major tea franchise shops, barrels of different teas are lined up on the shelves to assure customers that the beverages they are buying are made from real tea. Menus highlight the source of tea, such as Tieguanyin and Pu’er, Assam and Darjeeling.

Heytea has a shorter menu than many other outlets, but it focuses heavily on the tea leaves used. Tubes of leaves are displayed at the counter, including Taiwanese spring tea (sijichun tea), Pu’er and oolong.

ICHA, a modern tea beverage shop in Xintiandi, sells some of the city’s most expensive milk teas and pure tea beverages. It offers high-quality Chinese teas, like Wuyi Bohea, Biluochun and even phoenix aria, a kind of oolong tea.

The tea shops have borrowed a page from Western coffee chains, creating new drink variations all the time.

They have even pinched some of the coffee lingo. Macchiato, traditionally made from shots of espresso shots and small amounts of milk, has been parlayed into milk tea names.

Taetea, the world’s largest Pu’er tea group, has opened two cafés in Shanghai. One is located on Nanjing Road W.

The café sells mostly Pu’er tea, but also offers non-tea drinks like mango yogurt and coffee. The menu includes Kingpuresso macchiato, but instead of espresso, the drink is made of Taetea’s own Pu’er tea, extracted through a specifically designed counter pressure machine.

Classic Kingpuresso is the pure Pu’er tea, costing 30 yuan (US$4.36). The barista described it as the “Americano-style Pu’er tea.” The shop also sells the loose tea at quite reasonable prices. A 100-gram tin of loose Pu’er tea leaves costs 75 yuan.

The Gong Cha chain from Hong Kong has popularized Taiwan-style milk cap tea, featuring a two-layer tea beverage with a slightly salty, dense foam made of milk cap powder, milk and whipping cream. One can taste the refreshing tea and creamy milk cap at the same time. The concept has now been adopted by many brands.

Though most tea beverages are cheaper than coffees, the business of selling milk tea is far more profitable.

Tea shop franchises open storefronts at prime locations, such as shopping malls or busy downtown streets, to guarantee sales volume,

In January, Heytea opened a store in the MIXC Mall in the southern city of Shenzhen. It was next door to a Prada outlet. Nie Yunchen, founder of Heytea, has said in past interviews that the company’s shops in Guangdong have average monthly sales exceeding 1 million yuan. Heytea’s official website claims that the cost of opening a franchise can be recouped in the first month of business.

Shop guide

Now that tea has followed coffee into the franchise realm, outlets under the same brand pretty much practice the same standards.

Customized drinks are a big selling point, allowing consumers to create their own beverages. In most franchises, there’s a three-step process to placing an order: pick the beverage, select the level of sweetness and choose the desired temperature. Different shops follow slightly different sweetness and temperature measures.

One thing to keep in mind is that the menus offer drinks made with both fresh milk and other dairy products, like milk powder, creamer, evaporated milk or condensed milk. The ones with fresh milk are often slightly more expensive.

Hong Kong-style milk tea is traditionally made with evaporated milk, and the classic silk stocking milk tea is much stronger than average tea drinks, so it’s best to drink in moderation and not on an empty stomach. Many Hong Kong-style tea shops also sell desserts and egg puffs, a kind of hot waffle that pairs well with milk tea.

Many tea franchises allow customers to choose additional ingredients for free or for a small charge. The original and still most popular extra are the black pearls made of tapioca starch, which add no taste but give a certain “chewiness” to tea drinking.

In addition to coconut jelly and aloe fruit, han tian is a low-calorie red alga product of similar texture that’s offered by some shops, including Gong Cha.

Oats, barley, taro balls, red beans and glutinous rice are also growing more popular as add-on ingredients. Some people like pudding or ice cream in their milk tea beverages, and some shops offer cheese crumbs or toasted buckwheat as toppings.


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