With all the tea in China, do the Chinese really want to drink coffee? Coffee companies and the mainland's legions of coffee drinkers say yes. Even though Western companies only began marketing coffee in the 1980s, coffee drinking has become popular in the mainland. It is still an urban trend but is gradually spreading outwards from urban centres, and coffee-selling cafes are now preferred to more traditional tea houses by many young people. At first, some thought that coffee would never be able to win a market in the mainland tea culture. But according to a survey in 12 mainland cities, 32 per cent of urban residents drink coffee. Average coffee consumption is one cup per person a year. The survey also shows urban dwellers prefer to go to Western snack counters and that more than half of them visit a Western fast-food restaurant at least once a year. But it is not surprising that coffee has caught on so quickly. Coffee has actually been produced domestically since 1892, when a French missionary in southwest Yunnan province planted some coffee seeds. It caught on with the locals who have been growing - and drinking - it ever since. A recent China Economic News report said: 'Yunnan's coffee has already established itself in a leading place in China's market.' In 1996, the mainland produced 3,228.6 tonnes of coffee and imported 12,299 tonnes of coffee beans, with mainlanders showing an increasing enthusiasm for drink compared to the previous year. Since the 1980s, when incomes began to increase and more Westerners visited the mainland and mainlanders went abroad, Western coffee culture began to establish itself. Big companies such as Maxwell House and Nestle established factories and markets and other companies followed. Maxwell House and Nestle made their names known with aggressive advertising campaigns, giving their brand names high exposure. But now some mainlanders have become educated consumers of coffee, considering taste and even the surroundings of a coffee shop to be important. It is trendy for urban business people to go out for a cup of coffee and they no longer settle for instant. Now other coffee brands are entering the market, including coffee from Brazil and Colombia. Colombia's National Coffee Federation plans to spend US$1 million to promote its coffee in the mainland in the belief that the potential market is attractive. Coffee is now routinely offered on mainland airline flights and on trains. Even the traditional tea culture cannot disguise the fact that at present the mainland tea industry is not as healthy as it should be, which is contributing to the success of coffee. Tea is increasingly popular elsewhere in the world, but sales at home are dropping off. Production fell from 800,000 tonnes in 1996 to only 400,000 tonnes last year and has not picked up since. Tea exports accounted for 10 per cent of mainland exports in the 1950s but only 0.1 per cent now. An official report said Beijing had recently been forced to reform its tea-export policy, granting the right to export tea to foreign-trade companies, tea manufacturers and foreign-funded companies, beginning today. An inspection by the State Bureau of Technical Supervision at 59 big tea stores in the mainland earlier this year revealed only 35.9 per cent of tea sold met quality standards. Also, mainland teas rarely have brand names, the product being labelled simply with the name of the tea. This can make it very difficult for the government to regulate quality. Coffee always boasts brand names and marketers work hard on creating educated consumers who will recognise their brand names. The 12-city survey also showed 83 per cent of urban residents favour name-brand products, another disadvantage for tea. Although tea is reported to have important health benefits, helping kidney function, removing excess food from the stomach and prolonging life, some mainland women believe that drinking coffee can help them to lose weight - a more attractive proposition to many women than healthy kidneys. The mainland will have to regulate the tea market or lose out to new tea and coffee imports. Coca-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes plan to enter the mainland tea market: Coca-Cola will sell a tea-based soft-drink, Heaven and Earth, and Cadbury Schweppes has launched a line of fruit teas in Guangzhou in a joint venture with Singapore's Yeo Hiap Seng. Tea may always be popular in the mainland, but now that coffee has gained a foothold it is not going to let go soon. Not for all the tea in China.