Changsha, China – Chinese dark tea, once considered a specialty product exclusively reserved for border trade, is now traversing a challenging and winding path towards new-age beverage shops favored by the young sipping community.
Fermented tea, also known as dark tea, has been traditionally compressed into tea cakes and transported on horseback to China’s remote northwestern regions and other foreign lands, earning it the reputation of “border” or “export” tea. However, as the trend for modernized brews took hold in China, dark tea has gained a new following in big cities, primarily due to the competition amongst bubble tea shops to capture the hearts of young urbanites.
In the past, dark tea was considered to be a drink that primarily appealed to the elderly or to those who lived in rural areas. However, the growing interest in traditional Chinese culture has led to a resurgence of interest in the drink amongst younger generations. To meet the demand for new flavors and variations, tea makers are experimenting with different fermentation techniques and packaging, creating new and exciting dark tea products that appeal to young, trendy consumers.
As a result, dark tea is being introduced in new and creative ways, with packaging that is designed to appeal to a younger, urban audience. For instance, some brands are selling their tea in small, convenient sachets, perfect for on-the-go consumption, while others have developed flavored versions that cater to the taste buds of younger consumers. Additionally, many bubble tea shops have started to incorporate dark tea into their menus, offering it as an alternative to their traditional offerings.
Despite the growing popularity of dark tea amongst young consumers, the drink’s journey to mainstream success has not been easy. In addition to competing with other tea varieties and beverages, dark tea has had to overcome a reputation for being an acquired taste, with some describing it as too strong, bitter, or even unpleasant. Moreover, as the drink’s fan base grows, there is a risk that the traditional techniques used to produce it could be lost, as tea makers seek to modernize and streamline their processes.
Despite these challenges, dark tea’s popularity continues to rise, and tea makers are confident that they can create new and innovative ways to appeal to younger generations. With the increasing interest in traditional Chinese culture, the demand for dark tea is likely to grow, leading to more experimentation, innovation, and new, exciting ways of incorporating the drink into modern Chinese society.
Chinese dark tea, once a niche product reserved for border trade, is now finding a new and growing fan base amongst younger, urban consumers. As tea makers experiment with new flavors and packaging, and bubble tea shops incorporate the drink into their menus, the popularity of dark tea is expected to continue to rise, paving the way for new and innovative ways to enjoy this unique and traditional Chinese beverage.
In the vibrant city of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, tea shops are now serving up a unique and healthy twist on dark tea. By mixing it with light cream and pecans, they are promoting its health-enhancing properties, including the ability to lower cholesterol levels. This innovative approach has caught the attention of many health-conscious individuals, like 37-year-old resident Peng Hongzhi, who is attracted to dark tea’s “fat-scraping” effect and special taste.
However, dark tea’s bitter taste and distinct aroma have traditionally made it an outlier in China’s mainstream tea market. The challenge for tea makers has been to develop popular beverages that incorporate this unique tea without losing its essence. One company that has successfully managed to do so is Sexy Tea, also known as the Modern China Tea Shop. They began developing dark tea-based beverages in 2019 to diversify their portfolio of green, black, and oolong teas. The company carefully selected dark teas with richer flavors and added cream to improve the taste, making it more appealing to a wider audience.
However, as Liu Qiaofang from Sexy Tea’s public relations department points out, dark tea has a strong personality that can be polarizing. While some clients love its bitter taste, others dislike it, posing a challenge to developers of popular beverages. To address this, tea makers are experimenting with new flavors and ingredients to enhance the tea’s taste and appeal to a broader audience.
One such entrepreneur is Liu Yang, founder of Chaermasi Chinese Dark Tea. Liu and his team are working to unleash the market potential of dark tea, which, despite its growing popularity, remains a niche product. Liu has opened four outlets that use dark tea to make bubble tea and fruit tea, introducing it to young Chinese consumers in a more fashionable and modern way. To amplify the tea’s health benefits, they mix it with monk fruit and dried orange peel, adding a unique twist to their offerings.
As a newcomer to the new-style tea market, fermented tea drinks have few successful examples to draw experience from. However, Liu’s team has already seen success, with 30 percent of their first-time buyers becoming regular customers. They anticipate that as more consumers become health-conscious, the demand for dark tea will continue to grow, presenting a significant opportunity for tea makers to introduce innovative new products that cater to this market.
The growing interest in health and wellness among young Chinese consumers has opened up new opportunities for the traditional Chinese beverage of dark tea. While its unique taste and aroma have traditionally made it an acquired taste, tea makers are now experimenting with new flavors and ingredients to make it more appealing to a wider audience. As entrepreneurs like Liu Yang work to introduce dark tea to a younger generation in a more fashionable and modern way, the potential for this niche product to become a mainstream beverage in China’s new-style tea market is becoming increasingly evident.
In the Chinese city of Changsha, dark tea is no longer a niche product reserved for border trade, but is instead finding new fans among young urbanites frequenting new-style beverage shops. This development is a result of the fashion for new-style brews sweeping China, with dark tea finding its way into bubble tea shops and mixing with ingredients like light cream and pecans. This has made it attractive to those who want to enjoy the beverage without worrying about weight gain, as well as those who appreciate its special taste and health-enhancing effects, such as lowering cholesterol.
Sexy Tea, a popular tea brand, has diversified its portfolio of green, black, and oolong teas by developing dark tea-based beverages since 2019. It selected dark teas with richer flavors and added cream to improve the taste, but acknowledged the challenge posed by dark tea’s strong personality, which can be either loved or hated by consumers. Despite this challenge, young entrepreneurs like Liu Yang, founder of Chaermasi Chinese Dark Tea, are working to unleash the market potential of dark tea, which remains a niche product despite its growing popularity. Liu has opened four outlets that use dark tea to make bubble tea and fruit tea, and his team mixes the tea with monk fruit and dried orange peel to amplify its health benefits. This has resulted in 30 percent of their first-time buyers becoming regular customers, indicating the growing number of health-conscious consumers.
According to research firm iiMedia Research, China’s new-style tea market is projected to be worth 374.93 billion yuan ($55 billion) in 2025, with 26.2 percent of consumers surveyed last year saying they expected to try more new tea beverages in the future. To attract young, wealthier customers, many new-style tea brands have replaced low-grade tea dust and low-quality cream with high-quality leaves and fresh milk. Demand for more diverse and unconventional blends has also opened up opportunities for niche beverages.
However, not all forays into this rising market have been successful, with a pub-like tea house in Changsha having tried to sell cakes made from dark tea, but they were taken off the shelves following a lukewarm reception. Li Shengfu, a master of Anhua dark tea, is optimistic about the prospects for synergy between dark tea, pastries, and popular beverages. The addition of traditional tea-making to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list late last year is expected to boost China’s rural tea industry and the supply chain, with dark tea’s particular fragrance and fermented properties making it suitable for secondary processing. This will take time, but dark tea derivatives are sure to be loved by more people, according to Li.
In conclusion, as the fashion for new-style brews sweeps China, dark tea is finding new fans in big cities and is now making its way into new-style beverage shops. The growing popularity of dark tea has opened up opportunities for niche beverages, and many new-style tea brands have replaced low-grade tea dust and low-quality cream with high-quality leaves and fresh milk to attract young, wealthier customers. Despite the challenge posed by dark tea’s strong personality, young entrepreneurs are working to unleash the market potential of dark tea, and Li Shengfu is optimistic about the prospects for synergy between dark tea, pastries, and popular beverages.