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Sunday, May 26, 2002

Marketing message in a bottle

Staff writer

Wherever you go, wherever you look, shelves are stacked with it, vending machines are loaded with it and people are toting it in their burando bags and natty knapsacks. And that's not to mention all those billboards, magazine ads and TV spots keeping green tea up close and personal to residents of these isles.

News photo
A waitress at Green Bird in the Yotsuya district of Tokyo looks happy to be riding the new wave of trendy green-tea cafes.

After decades of stewing with a fuddy-duddy image in the shadow of refreshment-drink rivals like oolong tea, Coke and Calpis, a bona fide ryokucha boom has brewed. Since 500 ml-PET-bottle marketing began in line with the move to recycling in 1996, the trend had been slowly simmering. But when green tea's PET-bottle sales almost doubled from 2.8 million yen in April 2000 to 5.1 million yen the following April, the marriage of convenience had clearly borne fruit.

Leading the way are brands like Nama-cha, O-i Ocha, Maro-cha, Uma-cha and Appare Shizuoka-cha. Each offers variations on the same sugarless, health-aware theme in a range of PET-bottle sizes from 2 liters to the 350-ml version launched in 2000 that really sent sales curves skyward.

"The market for ryokucha as a whole has expanded now that people know there are different tastes available," says Makoto Honda, a spokesman for Kirin Beverages Corp., makers of brand leader Nama-cha, launched in 2000. "For example, Nama-cha does not have the bitter taste that green leaf tea has. Instead, the sweet flavor is brought out.

"Nowadays, when people want a sugarless drink, they're including green tea and black tea in their choices," he adds.

Honda attributes green tea's rapidly growing popularity to changing lifestyles and a move away from additives. Many people now opt to pack a bottle with their bento or to down one after taking a bath, he says, adding that it's also becoming more commonplace to take a 2-liter bottle to work and drink it through the day, or for families to keep one in the fridge at home. Indeed, sales of the 2-liter bottles grabbed 26 percent of the entire PET-bottled ryokucha market last year -- up from 19 percent in 2000.

Honda also notes that recent statistics gathered by his firm show more and more teenage boys are drinking bottled green tea today, instead of guzzling supplement/energy drinks as they once did.

Perhaps Kirin's research is paying off, because in last year's rankings of the overall PET-bottled green-tea market, Nama-cha came out on top with a 37.5 percent market share, followed by O-i Ocha from Ito-En, Ltd., with 26 percent.

But as well as swigging green tea from a bottle, it's cool to hang out at green-tea cafes. The first one opened in Tokyo's Yotsuya district in December 2000.

"We wanted to provide customers with a fashionable, new-style ryokucha store/cafe serving good-quality green tea at reasonable prices," says Shin'ichi Horie, planning manager of Surugajaya, the company behind Green Bird. "By doing so, we aim to put the brakes on the decrease in the number of traditional green-tea stores and consumers."

As customers step into Green Bird, they're welcomed by the scent of matcha (powdered green tea). The cafe, which also does takeouts, offers a pot service of three servings of leaf-brewed tea for 200-350 yen from a choice of 15 varieties, including Uji Gyokuro from Kyoto Prefecture and Ureshino from Saga Prefecture. Those opting for the set menu can choose from an onigiri (rice ball), ochazuke (tea on rice), anmitsu (boiled beans topped with bean jam, fruits and agar) or a matcha-chiffon cake to go with their pot service, at prices from 500-600 yen. For those who want more, there's a shelf stacked with packets of tea and related goods for sale.

For Emi Tanabe, a 25-year-old company worker who often goes there to buy onigiri and green tea for lunch, the small packages of tea on sale are a key attraction. "It's convenient for those who live alone like me. I can finish the package while the tea is still fresh," she says.

Open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Green Bird and the many other similar cafes now sprouting up are fast attracting a wide-ranging clientele, from OLs and students to the elderly and women shoppers -- as well as a growing number of salarymen popping in for a quick ochazuke and a cuppa before starting work. Indeed, business is so good, says Horie, that Surugajaya plans to open three more shops in Tokyo by next year, and then to expand further into franchising.

All this is music to the ears of Mitsutoshi Sugimoto, managing director of the Japan Tea Central Association. "Nowadays, overall, ryokucha culture is fading," he says. For, despite good PET-bottle sales, "people don't drink green tea so much at home," he laments.

"I want green tea to permeate once again into Japanese households," he says with feeling. "It plays an important role in Japanese food culture."

Sugimoto is delighted with the growing popularity of green-tea cafes, which allow people to partake "more casually." But in its efforts to promote a more serious appreciation, in 1999 his association also began organizing classes leading to an instructor certificate. To gain a certificate, students must pass a once-a-year test that includes a written exam on the history, cultivation, manufacturing, benefits and valuation of green tea, as well as on how to make a perfect brew. There is also a practical exam to test the candidate's teaching technique.

The association has certified 774 new instructors in the last three years, and many of them are now teaching courses at culture centers and giving classes in elementary schools.

You don't have to be a mystic reading tea leaves in the bottom of a cup to divine that a teapot boom may be about to follow that for green tea in plastic bottles.

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