Milk tea shops thrive despite the pandemic

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Wang Shikun, a store assistant in Zhaotong, a city in Yunnan Province in southwest China, makes milk tea on August 8, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Changsha, capital city of Hunan Province in central China, has received a new tagline in recent years—a must-go place for milk tea lovers.

Tu Liyuan, a 26-year-old employee of a public relations company in Beijing, made two journeys to Changsha, about six hours one-way by express train, in 2020. The purpose of the travels was to sip local milk tea. Modern China Tea Shop, the locally developed milk tea shop in Changsha, has over 300 branches in the city but had never expanded beyond it before December 2020. Those living outside Changsha had to travel there to taste it.

Established in 2015, the shop has gained increasing popularity among milk tea fans for its great taste. Milk tea lovers who spent hundreds and even thousands of yuan to go to the city solely for this special tea commented "it is totally worth the money." They recorded the trips and uploaded them onto short video platforms such as Douyin, fueling a craze.

"I drank milk tea from Heytea, Nayuki, and Yidiandian in Beijing, and I would say the taste of the Changsha milk tea is superb," Tu said. The milk tea brands she mentioned have caught nationwide attention in recent years.

The tea mania

"The first cup of milk tea in autumn" was a popular term in 2020, coming from a real incident about a police officer saving a 12-year-old girl who intended to commit suicide in Sichuan Province in southwest China last September.

The girl, feeling abandoned by the world as her parents both worked in other places and she had no friends in school, wanted to jump from the top of a 32-story building. One of the police officers who tried to convince her to give up the plan said, "How about I buy you the first cup of milk tea in this autumn?"

This sentence is believed to have played a major role in calming down the girl, who finally gave up the thought of suicide at the sight of the milk tea delivered urgently to her. The story may have made the beverage even more popular.

"Milk tea is my source of happiness," Tu told Beijing Review. The happiness, she concluded, comes from the combination of the sweet, smooth taste of milk and tea flavor. Compared with coffee, which is a foreign taste for Chinese, tea is more acceptable to many.

"In a way, it has provided a new choice for young people in China," said Geng Zongheng, a Shanghai local who has studied the beverage market for years. "For some young people, plain water is boring, coffee is a bit formal and heavy, and bottled beverages can hardly offer surprises in flavors. They want something freshly made with diverse flavors, something they can hold and drink casually."

Milk tea is not a new thing in China. Drinking milk tea has long been a habit of people living in areas such as Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region. Modern milk bubble tea originated in Taiwan Province in the 1980s, where people blend black tea with milk, and then shake the mix to produce bubbles.

The booming milk tea shops are now making efforts to refine every detail to attract young consumers—in flavors, shop decorations and services. Heytea, a milk tea shop originating from Guangdong Province in south China with over 100 branches all over the country, won popularity from the beginning with its "cheese cap," a layer of cheese on the tea. The "cap" tastes slightly salty and can be mixed with the tea to make it less sweet with a unique flavor.

Creative design is also important. Modern China Tea Shop spent millions of yuan, equivalent to hundreds of thousands dollars, to purchase authorization from museums of ancient Chinese paintings in order to print the patterns on paper cups and other products in the shop.

The endeavors are justified by market prospects. Information from CBNdata, a Shanghai-based market data analytics provider, shows that in 2020, despite the impact of the pandemic, the investment into milk tea shops hit 1.74 billion yuan ($269 million), seven times of that in 2019.

Modern China Tea Shop finally branched out to Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province in central China, with its first branch outside Changsha opened on December 1, 2020. The line to buy tea in the new store is almost always long. It is reported in local media that the maximum waiting time can be eight hours. A young woman arrived at the shop at 4 a.m. in order to get the first cup of tea that day but found that there were already several others waiting, and the earliest customer had arrived at 11 p.m. the previous day. "It has blown my mind," she said in a video she uploaded on Douyin.

Such mania is not uncommon for popular milk tea shops. When Heytea opened its branch in Beijing in 2017, the line was no shorter.

Healthy or happy

However, there are some concerns related to this drink. The two major ones are sugar and the non-dairy creamer that many producers use to create the drink's signature sweet and smooth taste.

In August 2017, the Shanghai Consumers Council tested 51 cups of milk tea from 27 brands. They found that the average sugar volume in a cup was 34 grams. The World Health Organization recommends that one's daily intake of sugar should be no more than 50 grams. That means after a cup of milk tea, there is not much space left for sugar from other foods and drinks.

Some people choose to make milk tea at home, but it isn't easy to create the distinctive taste of the drink. Tian Xue, a nutritionist from Shanghai, said for the taste you need to use condensed milk, which is thicker and contains more fat. But condensed milk increases the cost. To reduce cost, many shops use non-dairy creamer, which creates a similar taste but has hidden health risks for consumers.

For Song Xiyan, a college student in Beijing, what bothers her more than the health issues is the body weight. "I gained over 10 kg after starting to drink milk tea," she said. "I searched online for ways to keep slim while drinking it frequently."

Milk tea shops have also taken action to "slim" their teas such as offering more choices in the sweetness level.

A report on the market of the milk tea industry released by a think tank named Qianzhan Industry Research Institute in July 2020 showed that the industry had been upgrading the ingredients. "In the future, milk tea shops using high quality ingredients and offering more innovative choices will win the market," the report said. 

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