Tea exports rise but domestic consumption on the decline

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The Chinese are gradually losing the traditional tea-drinking habit in favor of coffee, largely because of the length of time it takes to brew a decent cup, experts say.

"I prefer coffee to tea," said Wang Yan, a 25-year-old downtown girl in Beijing. "Drinking coffee refreshes me and makes me feel chic."

The history of Chinese tea is a long and gradual story of refinement. The original idea is credited to the legendary Emperor Shennong, who is said to have lived about 5,000 years ago. One summer day in 2737 BC, while visiting a distant part of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest. During the break, his servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from a nearby bush fell into the boiling water, and became infused. Being of a scientific nature, the emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it tasty.

Thereafter, tea and China developed an extremely close relationship, with a culture springing up alongside its consumption based on a combination of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist traditions.

After thousands of years of the development of the tea industry, China has become the No 1 tea maker, producing 1.47 million tons in 2010, up from 1.36 million tons in 2009, according to the China Tea Association. Per capita consumption was 0.7 million tons. It exports tea to more than 120 countries and regions and imports tea from more than 50 countries and regions.

"Drinking tea is a kind of pastime leisure, but daily work and life is getting faster and more stressful in China, which makes the two activities contradictory," said Liu Zhonghua, deputy director at the China Tea Association, speaking at the 2011 International Tea Convention and Trade Fair in Hangzhou.

Mao Limin, a tea expert, said: "Tea is a very healthy but more and more younger Chinese are cutting back their consumption."

Paul Higgins, a tea specialist with the Canadian Mother Parkers Tea and Coffee Inc, said: "While Chinese tea consumption is dropping, interestingly, Western countries are drinking more tea for its health benefits," said

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the British drink 1.89 kilos each a year, more than twice the 0.82 kilos consumed per capita in China.

Marco Berton, the president of the Italian Tea Council said at the tea convention: "Although Italy is a 'coffee country' more people are turning to tea, especially green tea and Oolong tea from China."

Liu added: "One way to increase tea consumption in China is to improve tea bag production instead of using traditional tea leaves in order to cope with the fast pace of life." He also said another approach is to develop crossovers in the industry, such as introducing new tea products which have low caffeine levels or can be used in the beauty and pharmaceutical sectors. There is already a tea-flavored toothpaste.

"We have introduced specialty teas to Canadians. They love them and are enjoying more and more green tea because of the health benefits," said Louise Roberge, president of the Canadian Tea Council.

"I don't like focusing too much on introducing new technologies or products into traditional Chinese teas," said Yang Ruiling, managing vice-president of the Hecheng Investment and Development Group Co Ltd in Southwest China's Yunnan province. "How relaxing it will be if one just slows down, enjoys a cup of tea, tries to reach a balance or an inner peace after a hard and busy day."

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