How many more teabags can storm young people’s cups?

Brought to China by Lipton in the 1990s, teabags are opening a whole new chapter in China tea’s story. Stuffy old names are creating bright new products to attract bright young thing.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By MA Yue


All the tea in China is a proverbial big market and has been for thousands of years – big, if not proverbially so until quite recent times. Teabags, however, have a slightly less glorious backstory. Teabags were brought to China by British brand Lipton in the 1990s, opening a whole new chapter in China tea’s story. And we now have cold-brew tea, trending tea bags, and landfills with unnecessary packaging.

Marketing campaigns tell young people that thousands of years may have passed without any complaint about the tea on offer, but that it isn’t good enough for them. Young people need – deserve! – something new, just for them! All that matters is the marketing hook. Traditional tea is no longer everyone’s cup of tea.

Importantly addictive

Office workers, convinced that a new shade of tea will bring some color to their humdrum lives, suckers for anything with a string attached, are busy brewing at their desks.

Since 2020, teabags, like everything else, have moved online. In 2020, the online market for tea bags increased by 156 percent to 13 billion yuan (US$1.9 billion), but there is still plenty of room for growth. Teabags account for 5 percent of all the tea in China, far behind the world average of 23.5 percent.

Teabags come in four varieties: traditional foreign brands such as Lipton and Twinings; emerging direct-to-consumer brands, such as “ONCHA start drinking tea” which just completed pre-A financing round for over 10 million yuan, and “Teakoo” (100 million yuan in June 2021); traditional Chinese tea brands, including Dayi, Bama, and Pu’er, who feel they have to do something attract younger customers; and lastly freshly made tea including Nayuki, Heytea and Sexy Tea which are pure marketing constructions – any old tea in any new box, glass or plastic bag.

“Tea has cultural and social attributes, so this type of product is easy to spread. Profit is high, so it is good for brand and industry establishment.” WANG Xinyi, vice president of Kuanzhai Venture Capital, said. “Tea can be classified, so it allows consumers to continue to pursue the upgrading of subdivided categories. Most importantly, it is addictive, with a need to repurchase.”

Old books with new covers

All teabags are more or less the same – a porous bag of leaves.  Almost all brands think tea itself is not good enough and focus on adding something extraneous – “peach oolong,” because ordinary oolong just isn’t enough for your delicate young tastes.

Where traditional tea competes with trending tea, it remains to be seen whether the new generation of upstarts will make it through their first thousand years.