April 26, 2023
BEIJING – Sitting cozily around a charcoal stove, upon which boils a pot of tea, Sui Xin and two of her friends spend a whole afternoon roasting nuts and fruits while chatting and relaxing.
Over the past two years, it has become one of the 28-year-old’s new ways to connect with friends outside the hustle and bustle of her daily routine.
Sui, who works in the fast-paced office of an internet company in Beijing, says enjoying freshly brewed tea and flipping food is a more relaxing and intimate choice for a gathering of friends, compared to a Western-style afternoon tea.
“We usually boil white tea, which is light in flavor, and roast some nuts, small sweet potatoes, rice cakes or oranges to pair with the tea,” Sui says.
The process of tea brewing over a charcoal fire provides a calming and mindful experience for her, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sui is not alone in her newfound love for Chinese tea. From Chinese-style tea drinks to the kung fu tea ceremony, Chinese tea has become an increasingly popular choice for people looking to incorporate healthy habits into their modern lifestyles.
At the same time, tea makers and teahouses are exploring new ways to promote tea culture, from providing unique tea experiences to creating new tea blends and collaborating with other cultural entities.
Brewing tea over a charcoal fire is a traditional custom in Chinese culture that has been practiced for centuries. It’s a social activity that brings together friends and family to share warmth, conversation and love for tea. The custom has been depicted in many Chinese paintings, poetry and literary works.
According to Shen Dongmei, a researcher of tea culture at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, brewing tea over charcoal has always been part of people’s life, especially during cold winters in rural areas, especially Yunnan, Guizhou and Hunan provinces.
In Yunnan, people roast their homemade tofu on the stove. They often put a clay pot on the stove to warm up before putting the tea leaves into the pot. When the tea leaves are cooked and start to give off an aroma, water is added to the pot to boil the tea.
“For young people who may not have heard about this traditional custom, it is a fresh experience. The slow-paced activity can act as a cure to regulate the body and mind,” Shen says.
Shen says brewing tea over fire is quite attractive for young people, who have a tendency to be health-conscious. “It has become popular in the past few years, which may give young people a chance to get to know more about Chinese tea. They may fall in love with tea culture as the result of a pop culture trend.
“That’s the vitality of traditional culture. Even though the environment may change, it can emerge in another form that fits the era,” Shen says.
As some traditional teahouses, whose main customers are businesspeople or middle-aged people, are transforming into new-style Chinese teahouses, more young people are starting to walk in and enjoy their wares.
“Such venues have been decorated to meet the preferences of young people and have created new social scenes. They are working on promoting tea culture among younger generations, which has been quite successful in the past few years,” she says.
More exploration of new combinations between traditional tea culture, pop culture and modern life can be done, Shen says.
In China, tea is more than just a beverage; it’s a way of life. Tea makers and modern teahouses are devoted to introducing the culture to more people by creating new drinks, designing related products, and crafting comfortable spaces for tea consumption.
In Shenzhen, Guangdong province, after launching a stove-boiled tea set last winter, the Bay by Chef Fei, a restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Huang Jinghui, launched a roasted green tea in spring, which is handmade by tea experts.
An art salon discussing the relationship between public art and the aesthetics of life was held in Shenzhen in February, when all the participants were seated around a tea-brewing stove.
With over 950 stores across China, beverage company Heytea has established a strong connection with people’s daily lives.
On May 20, 2022, Heytea partnered with the marriage registration offices of the civil affairs bureaus in Shenzhen, Wuhan in Hubei province, Xi’an in Shaanxi province, and Chengdu in Sichuan province to launch the “great joy day” flash-gifting event, bringing even more happiness to newlyweds on their special day. Over 70,000 couples received free Heytea on their wedding day last year.
Heytea also launched a series of products in collaboration with the hit drama A Dream of Splendor, which is set in a period of ancient China when tea culture was flourishing and tea drinking had become an integral part of the lives of both the literati and common people. The co-branded drinks, inspired by those consumed in the drama, sold over 300,000 cups on the first day of their launch.
The decor of some of Heytea’s stores features a combination of traditional Chinese styles and youthful design to deliver a new tea-drinking experience for young Chinese consumers.
One notable example is the store located in Beijing’s Zhongguancun area, where traditional architecture is given a modern twist. The store’s design team has reinterpreted the iconic roof elements of traditional Beijing buildings and incorporated them into the modern tea space, creating a unique fusion of old and new.
Heytea has recently launched a series of limited edition fridge magnets at its branches across the country, featuring over 200 designs related to different cities that highlight their local culture and history.
Sun Xuling, co-founder of Theatre Tea, a modern teahouse chain in Beijing and Shanghai, has noticed people have been paying more attention to their health, which is showcased in their preference for seasonal teas and drinks with less sweetness.
“The health benefits of tea become particularly apparent when it is combined with the four seasons,” she says. In winter, people prefer to drink black tea or fermented tea, while in summer, green tea is much preferred.
People are developing an interest in a slower pace of life and enjoying their time, which is a good start for those who want to try tea, Sun says.
“But it needs time for younger generations to develop an enjoyment of drinking tea,” she adds.
Sun recalls that they have done a small-range survey of people who don’t drink tea, and their impression of tea is its bitterness.
Tea blends at Theatre Tea are quite popular, such as the lychee white tea with coconut milk and the oolong tea with fresh grapefruit juice and red guava puree.
According to Sun, when they create new tea drinks, pairing different tea with fruit or seasonal ingredients, one key rule is to make sure the flavor of the selected tea stands out, but, at the same time, that the overall flavor is balanced.
“The tea blends may be a first step for the customers in trying tea, and they may get to like the tea flavor and want to drink pure tea,” Sun says.
At Theatre Tea, tea-flavored dessert is one of their signature items, which is always ordered together with the drinks. “The flavor of the tea drink can enhance the taste of the dessert, which will distract people’s attention away from sweetness,” Sun explains.
Sun notices that when people are ordering cakes, they often opt for flavors that they are already familiar with, such as jasmine tea and matcha, but when they’re ordering desserts, they are more likely to try something new, such as Pu’er tea flavor.
Theatre Tea is planning on launching a tea experience store, which will enable the customers to try the different ways of making tea and to learn more about tea culture.
Sun notes that there has been a significant increase in people’s awareness of Chinese tea in the past two years.
“Of course, among the large number of young people who visit our venues, it’s difficult to identify those who come to just take pictures and those who are genuinely interested in tea and willing to participate in ongoing tea culture exchange,” she says. “The proportion of the latter is currently low. However, I believe it will gradually increase over time.”