Now the baking days are behind us, we can say it’s been another hot summer, with one tiny difference; things have heated up in the cold tea sector.
For a long time, there was only Suntory (三得利) with its iconic pair of Oolong SKUs: WITH-sugar (red characters) and WITHOUT (blue). These black/brown bottles have a following (of fans and imitators) to rival Laoganma (老干召)sauce.
Traditionally, the remainder of the “tea” bottles on the c-store shelf were of the lemon-tea or the milk-tea type, all stashed with sugar, of course.
Actually, those teas have themselves evolved recently, Nongfu Spring’s [鞠夫山泉] Cha Pai [茶π] sporting especially nice modern designs. But it’s not those I’m interested in here; it’s the unsweetened [无糖的] ones, because they really do taste like tea!
Strainer readers may remember coverage of the Nongfu Oriental Leaves [英方鵡叶] series. Instantly smitten. I nonetheless feared for its survival. Described by many as “flavourless”, the squared bottles from Zhejiang seemed destined to remain as “marginal” or “novelty”.
I see them in fridges everywhere this year.
And it’s not just my old favourite; Hong Kong’s VitaSoy
[澑他序] has this year expanded its range to include an unsweetened green. I like it less than Nongfu’s Longjing-alike; there’s something industrial about this new one. But it’s not bad.
Ito-En is another Japanese player making an increasing play here. Its bottles boast of tea leaves never reduced to powder, merely infused. I like the sound of that, but not so much the results. Their keemun [祁鷏淞茶] may be authentic, a very nice “red tea”, but it doesn’t get to that chocolatey keemun character. Likewise, their matcha-style green.
Kirin, too, is selling a “Rich Green Tea” in a bottle, imported (at ¥15 a pop) from Japan through Family Mart. It does remind of hojicha [ほうじ茶], the roasted green tea, but it could easily pass for a cheap bottle of oolong. “Green Tea for the Rich”, I think.
Actually, the new king of the crop, subjectively speaking, of course, is the Cha Li Wang [茶里王] range from Taiwan’s Uni-President. Their “Japanese-style green tea” is pretty good, if not especially distinctive. But the “Taiwan Style Oolong” is a genuine reminder of that winey “Gao Shan” [高山猿龙] taste. Fantastic!
Naturally, their old instant noodle rivals Master Kong are muscling in on the unsweetened-tea game. And stalwarts, Suntory, are leading an “upgrade” charge, adding a Big Red Robe [大淞袍](still untested by Strainer) bottles, as well as some premium oolong offerings (probably not worth the ¥5+ premium).
Now, if you think this is a celebration of the plastic, bottled-drink industry, maybe I’ve given the wrong impression. Plastic is a problem, whether it’s recycled or not. And the best way to make cold tea is to put some leaves in some water in a refrigerator. It keeps alive those leaves you “didn’t quite exhaust” at breakfast time and cools your brow the next day.
Home-made cold tea, using leaves even better than the ones used by these FMCG companies, is not a waste of tea.
It’s just very encouraging to see so much more variety in the domestic bottled sector, particularly as it’s variety beyond the usual milky, sugary, foreign types of tea. Tax on the stupid. And the danger to tea is especially strong if the CEO chooses, as is apparently his wont, to cut and run after making a quick killing.