Although COVID-19 restrictions implemented in Japan have been relatively relaxed compared to many other countries in Europe and the US, its adverse impact on the economy has been severe. Many consumers are working from home and are reducing non-essential outdoor activities, which has led to a decline in non-alcoholic beverage sales via convenience stores and vending machines. However, one of the emerging RTD green tea drink categories, hojicha, has been showing strength amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Hojicha is roasted green tea, which has a high roasting aroma yet subtle flavor. Additionally, the caffeine content is very low. These characteristics are appealing to a wide range of consumers, from children to the elderly. Over the last three to four years, hojicha has been a growing tea type in hot tea as well as RTD categories. The tea has also been used in non-beverage products such as confectionery and desserts.

According to Japanese food and beverage trade publication Shokuhin Shimbun, sales of RTD tea have been sluggish and experienced a declining trend between January and July 2020; however RTD hojicha has maintained one-digit growth.1 Interestingly the publication also notes that RTD hojicha is growing, yet sales of hojicha tea leaves remain at the same level as before the pandemic. Evidently, RTD’s convenient format is still in strong demand.

Presently, RTD tea manufacturers are capitalizing on the popularity of hojicha with new autumn and winter season launches. One of the main issues for brands incorporating hojicha is a lack of brand identity. Hojicha has been a popular tea type, but no hojicha tea brands stand out. Determining how to differentiate brands of hojicha products is a key development area.

Japan’s tea giant Ito En offers a variety of PET bottle sizes which are also microwavable, thus allowing consumers to drink products either cold or hot at home. Key RTD green tea brands in Japan, such as Namacha from Kirin Beverage and Iemon from Suntory, are reinforcing their hojicha variants with richer flavors for cold seasons. The quality of RTD Hojicha is likely to be enhanced in Japan as innovation accelerates.

Observing Japan’s hojicha trend, the ingredient has significant potential outside of Japan. Indeed, green tea or matcha have already been recognized by global consumers as a healthy ingredient. According to GlobalData’s 2019 Q3 global consumer survey, 70% of consumers across the world say that green tea/ matcha will have a positive impact on their health. However, green tea, particularly matcha or powdered green tea, may not appeal to everyone. It has a strong grassy flavor, and if not properly brewed has an unpleasant bitter taste. In contrast, hojicha does not have these issues and is highly palatable for consumers who are not familiar with green tea.

Hojicha tea products outside of Japan are still niche, particularly in Western markets. The characteristics of hojicha tea are likely to appeal to new markets and potentially become more popular than matcha. Tapping into the hojicha trend will certainly be an opportunity as health-aligned beverages become more widely valued.

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