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If money was no object, which of the following would you choose: premium Chinese tea or premium French wine?
I ask this question to an avid French wine drinker and two avid Chinese tea drinkers, each of them Chinese-Indonesians, to find out whether premium Indonesian teas, most of which are Chinese-styled oolong, white, and green teas or Japanese-styled green tea, would find a good market at home.
Their answers predictably reflected the degree of their familiarity with and exposure to the two beverages.
Ronny Wongkar said he would definitely opt for wine. The chairman of the Indonesian chapter of the International Wine and Food Society told me that there were many Indonesians who were willing to buy wine costing Rp 100 million (US$10,526) a bottle.
“Is there a tea that costs that much? I have never heard of a purchase of tea for that amount,” he said, thus suggesting that wine was more prestigious than tea.
In Western-style fine-dining events I have attended, tea is always served at the end of the meal as an alternative to coffee, but people normally choose coffee instead of tea. Even at Chinese fine-dining events, tea does not occupy an important position. Although they drink Chinese tea throughout the meal, their preferred beverage on such occasions is Chinese and/or French spirits, such as Cognac, and also wine.
Thus, wine is special. It is a beverage of festivities and celebrations, while tea belongs to the ordinary and the every day. And this seems to be the reason why wine and tea drinker Anton Wijaya prefers tea.
“I recently hosted a party for 12 guests and all the wine was drunk; there was none left. If we wanted more, we had to open another bottle, which would cost us more money. Tea is not like that. For less money, I can go out and have a great tea tasting with 12 friends who will surely be all satisfied, as tea can be steeped several times until its flavor fades, while I still have the rest of the tea with me, which I can enjoy again at home.”
Of course, tea is more economical than wine in this regard. Apparently, he is drinking wine with tea in mind, which I find rather strange. I believe that wine should be drunk with wine in mind, and the same should also be true for tea.
However, “if money is no object”, said the collector of top, expensive Chinese pu-erh, oolong and green teas, “I will surely buy the world’s greatest wines and also the world’s greatest teas.”
Unlike wine, which in this country is normally associated with a top-end, modern lifestyle, high society, fine dining, exclusive clubs, power and gorgeous women, tea is associated with none of these.
Originally a beverage enjoyed by Buddhist monks, tea paints a picture of meditative, contemplative serenity, simplicity, sobriety, modesty and purity — an antithesis to luxury and an extravagant lifestyle, no matter how expensive it can be.
And this might be the reason why tea is seen as “the drink of aged men” as Ronny puts it, conjuring up images of old, unassumingly clothed Chinese men leisurely discussing business and other matters over tea at a local food stall, as opposed to images of formally dressed younger men and sexily dressed pretty women chatting over wine in a fine restaurant.
Ronny added that only people who really loved and appreciated tea would spend a fortune to own it. And they are not many, even among the Chinese, who are more interested in top French wines, given the prestige and investment value associated with such wines.
On the other hand, there is only one type of tea that can be kept as an investment: Pu-erh. China Daily reported that in 2007, 100 grams of a 60-year-old Pu-erh were sold for $38,400 at an auction in Guangzhou, China.
But at least for now, this appears to be a game among certain Chinese, unlike en primeur purchase of top Bordeaux wines, which have become a long-established international favorite.
In spite of wine’s supremacy and popularity, however, there was one interviewee, Benny Jan, who said he would rather drink the best Chinese tea with the best Chinese food than have dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant with top French wines.
Benny operates a beer garden in Kemang, drinks wine (his favorite is Mt. Buninyong from Australia) and beer (Chimay from Belgium), and is no stranger to Western food.
However, he told me he felt a greater affinity toward Chinese tea and food with which he grew up and, thus, found them easier to connect with simply because “I am Chinese”.
Like Anton, Benny also spends a lot of money on buying premium Chinese and Chinese-styled Indonesian teas which, according to Anton, is a true indicator to measure “how deeply you love tea”.
If more and more people are like them, premium Indonesian teas will eventually find a good market at home.
— JP/Arif Suryobuwono