Apparently Japanese Sake brewers are gradually letting loose their ultra-traditional stance and looking for new ways to push their products in foreign markets. According to an article in the New York Times titled ‘Sake With Your Burger? Japan is Looking West to Save a Tradition’, Japanese Sake brewers are partnering with restaurants in cities like New York to re-position the beverage. Pairing sake with burgers in New York can by no means be an easy shift to make for traditional Japanese brewers whose roots are steeped in history, but they have rightly identified the need to bring this Far-East alcoholic beverage up to speed with contemporary international food and drink trends.
While reading the article I couldn’t help but wonder, should’t Ceylon Tea consider a similar strategy? With demand for orthodox teas here facing stiff competition from CTC (cut-tear-curl) teas in Kenya and other locations, ‘pure Ceylon tea’ is facing it’s biggest challenge in decades. The issue is certainly not new, and the debate over whether we should relax our strict laws on blending tea for export markets or retain absolute purity of Ceylon tea continues unabated. But like what Dilmah (and to some extend Heladiv Teas) have done, it’s surely time for the entire tea industry to think about a much more ambitious foreign markets strategy. Similarly to the Japanese sake brewers, could Sri Lankan tea estates actively and directly approach cafés and restaurants in major cosmopolitan cities globally to get them to have single estate teas on their beverage menus? Or clever tea-inspired drinks that can compete with the mocha lattes listed alongside them on a menu?
After sharing this article on Facebook, a friend commented that Sri Lanka really should be pushing it’s ‘yaara the’ – a frothy milky full-bodied tea drink that is sweetened with condensed milk. It’s a favourite among Sri Lankans, but can it be taken global? Served at Dilmah t-Lounges as “t-Kitsch“, ‘yaara the’ is our tea equivalent of a flavoured latte/ mocha/caramel macchiato or what have you in the coffee world. I had a visiting British chap try it out at the Hilton t-lounge recently. He’s not a tea drinker, and doesn’t even like milk with his coffee. But he loved the strong, milky, sweet, full bodied flavour of the ‘yaara the’, spiced up with shavings of ginger. Yet, this is a very very traditional tea drink and is it in keeping enough with the global trends in tea preferences towards flavoured teas, especially black teas with no milk?
What I’m hearing from some exporters of value-added tea is that what sells, for them, in the non-traditional markets of the West is not the traditional teas but their flavoured tea bags, tea sticks, flavoured iced teas, etc. But if we went “gung ho” on it – investing heavily in altering the narratives, positioning ‘yaara the’ as a truly kitsch and cool beverage – could Sri Lanka successfully shift consumer tastes and preferences in the global market?
But change is not easy in such an old industry with seemingly little commitment to go beyond the traditional. A couple of brands may have done it, but hundreds of other estates are lagging behind, struggling to get better prices for their product. Will the change be industry-wide? Will it be driven by a master strategy for the country’s tea product and the brand proposition as a whole? (Expensive, but necessary, but also difficult to get pan-industry agreement on anything) Or will it be company specific? More and more individual brands doing it themselves like Dilmah did? The latter may be too slow. It may also be too expensive, with very few companies having the means to go it alone.
Many traditional tea industry veterans don’t like the idea of moving beyond the ‘pure Ceylon tea’ model. But it is time to look beyond tradition, if the 100-year old industry is to survive into the next several decades and beyond. As the NYT article quoted one Japanese brewer Mr. Shichida as saying, “I’d be lying if I said pairing sake with burgers didn’t hurt my pride as a Japanese…But we need to be exploring this path to survive as a brewer”. If the ultra-traditional sake industry – with a legacy of 2000 years – can bite the barrel and make change, our tea industry surely can too.