It often feels that, based on Shanghai at least, China is now a nation of coffee-drinkers. We’ve got the most number of Starbucks in a single city anywhere in the world (631 and counting) and now we have the biggest Starbucks as well. And then there are the independents, which number in the hundreds and are filling in every real estate nook and cranny with a fancy espresso machine. There is a lot of innovation happening.
But what about tea?
The main story in tea in 2017 was a cheese topping, started by ubiquitous chain Heytea with no end in sight. But besides that frothy concoction, there are some cool stories and cool shops springing up, with owners who clearly see tea as the next big market for millennials (we’re not talking grandparents and taxi drivers), and are finding ways to reinvent the traditional tea house. Here then are a few who have quietly set up shop in Shanghai in the last year or two.
Zee Tea was the first shop that really opened my eyes to how tea is becoming cool again. I walked by one autumn day and noticed a line of young, pretty things standing in line – for tea. That’s not supposed to happen. So I went back to visit and talked to their manager, who told me, “The coffee market is saturated. Tea is the next big thing.” They make a compelling case for that. The owner designed the store so every little thing would be Instagrammable (she was also behind "Hey Juice", which you may have seen everywhere), and the menu is full of creative takes on tea: teas mixed with cream and alcohol, cold drip tea made from high-mountain oolong, tea desserts displayed in a glass case like jewels. The design is modern minimalist concrete with tea-related slogans spun in neon and is more to look at than to actually use.
Oritea is a chainlet started by a young woman from Fujian, and she claims it’s her roots in tea country that make the difference in quality for her stores, which tend to be in expensive shopping malls. They do the standard cheese tea and tea lattes, but what really caught my eye was the cold drip system: funnels of loose tea leaves covered in ice cubes, which ever-so-slowly melt, hit the leaves, and then condense again as the lightest of teas. It might be called glacial tea, and it’s supremely cool. She plans a major expansion in 2018, taking Oritea from chainlet to full-on chain.
This is Element Fresh’s foray into the tea world. That really says it all. When a company as large as Element Fresh — and they are LARGE — decides tea is the way forward, it means something. They have ten branches already in Shanghai. The feel is classic Element Fresh, with comfortable lounge chairs and plenty of space, but the menu is nouveau tea, from sparkling iced teas to cheese teas (unavoidable) to more pure blends. The Chinese name translates as something like Element Tea, and it’s clearly geared towards the customer who wants a third space to hang out but is not fussed about coffee drinks.
One of my favorites of the bunch, Teasoon has three stores in Shanghai, and I would describe it as a modern teahouse – a teahouse for a mall. The décor is slick, cool, black, and the menu, in addition to cheese teas, also has things like red grapfeuirt jasmine, lemon white peony, and lemon souchong. I wanted something from the Original category, where they brew the tea traditionally, from loose leaves, and so I went with a Fujianese Da Hong Pao — The Big Red Robe — and it was the perfect mix of mall and tea house. The server took her time pouring and re-pouring hot water over the leaves, washing the cup, and filling up my mug of tea one tiny thimble at a time. By the time it got to me, it was a fruit, warming brew in a very trendy setting, where I got to sit and watch people younger than me do mysterious young people things in a mall, like go to convenience stores where there are no cashiers. The world we live in!
First off, it sounds better in Chinese: a play on the phrase “because of tea”. Beyond that, InWe is perhaps my favorite of all the shops, with a very trendy and minimalist design and a really original menu of drinks, like a Rooibos latte, cold brew oolong and mixed fruit with mate, and a really interesting looking tea made with Chinese olives (which are an ovoid fruit, but nothing like the brined Western olive) and white tea, which has been in vogue for the last couple of years. The person I went to meet was drinking this, and I wished I was too. But what I like most is that this feels thoroughly Chinese and totally modern, confident in its heritage and its place in the world — and rightfully so! — and both creative and innovative. There are 13 in Shanghai so far, and if the owner’s background is anything to go by, there will soon be one in every mall — he’s an ex-executive from McDonald’s China.