Monday, March 07, 2005

And the new leader in Japan's soft-drink market is . . .

. . . tea! Unsweetened, bottled or canned tea, that is. This according to a recent article in Japan's Sankei newspaper.

"Well, then what was the market leader before?" you may ask. The answer, surprisingly, is coffee. For years, the most popular drink sold out of Japan's ubiquitous vending machines was coffee, served either chilled (in the summer) or hot (in the winter), almost always sweetened and "whitened" with nondairy creamer.

(Vending machines, incidentally, are still the primary venue for soft drinks. Most people in Japan don't buy soda by the case, like we do here in the U.S. Instead, they buy soft drinks by the can from vending machines. These vending machines are everywhere-- train stations, bus stops, parks, shopping malls, even hospital waiting rooms. Some old Japan hands say that you're never more than 5 minutes from a vending machine in Japan.)

Recently, however, beverage giant Suntory announced figures that showed that the unsweetened tea segment (which includes green tea) has finally overtaken coffee as the largest segment (26.8%) of the country's total soft-drink market.

And showing the largest year-to-year growth in the unsweetened tea segment is . . . (Drumroll, please) . . . green tea! Green tea is staging a comeback in a country where it's been traditionally consumed for thousands of years but had been forsaken for a while by urban consumers who were lured away by sweet, Western-style soft drinks.

What could be responsible for the recent resurgence in the popularity of green tea in Japan? The article doesn't venture why, but a big factor could be all the scientific data about the health benefits of green tea that have come out in the past few years.

Paradoxically, however, this renewed popularity has not always helped Japan's own tea producers, who are mainly family-owned and -operated farms, like the Nagata family, who supply our Monk's Choice" and "Top Leaf" teas. This is because the big beverage companies that are cranking out ready-to-drink teas by the truckload are turning to cheaper overseas sources of tea in order to keep their costs low and profits up.

(By the way, we've tried many of these bottled and canned green teas, and they're pretty awful. And this isn't just sour grapes -- or sour tea, in this case.)

Hopefully, the next phase in green tea's resurgence in Japan will be young people's rediscovery of the joys of honest-to-goodness loose-leaf tea produced the old-fashioned way. It's happening here, so why not there?

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