Tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world, enjoyed by millions of people every day. From its origins in ancient China to its spread throughout the world, tea has a rich and fascinating history.
Tea refers to the Camellia sinensis or Camellia assamica plant, commonly known as Chinese tea and Assam tea. Herbal, fruit, and other beverages commonly referred to as teas are actually infusions and not true tea from a botanical standpoint. However, the term tea is often used to describe all types of infusions.
Green, black, and oolong tea are the three major categories of tea, all produced from the same plants, and the level of fermentation and production process determine whether the result is green, black, or oolong tea.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water. The popularity of tea has increased in the Western world, especially green tea, which has gained fame due to its health benefits. In this paper, we will explore how tea, as we know it today, evolved from its humble beginnings 5000 years ago to the sophisticated tea industry of today. We will examine both the producer and consumer aspects of the tea industry, focusing on tea in its botanical sense of the word (i.e., Camellia sinensis and assamica) when discussing the world tea market.
3. A Brief History of Tea
3.1 Asia’s Role
Tea has its roots in China, where legend has it that Emperor Sheng Nung discovered the beverage in 2737 BCE when some tea leaves blew into his boiling water. From China, the popularity of tea spread throughout Asia thanks to travelling Buddhist monks, with Japan becoming a significant cultivator of tea in the 8th century.
3.2 Britain’s Role
Although the early development of tea was shaped by Asian countries, the Western world’s consumption of tea owes much to British history. The British created the tea market in the 17th century and invented black tea in the 18th century for the purpose of preservation during long journeys. This led to the popularity of black tea in the Western world and the decline of green tea. In the 1840s, the British smuggled tea seedlings to India, breaking China’s monopoly on tea cultivation.
3.3 Tea in the Western World
Tea arrived in Europe in 1610, and the British achieved a monopoly on tea by undercutting Dutch prices by 1669. However, heavy import duties led to widespread smuggling, and by the end of the 17th century, the English mostly consumed smuggled tea. The lowering of duties in 1784 made tea a popular beverage at last. Black tea quickly gained popularity in England in 1839 for being less astringent than green tea.
The Suez Canal’s construction in 1869 boosted tea trade by reducing the distance between Europe and Asia. In 1904, the invention of the tea bag by U.S. tea merchant Thomas Sullivan made tea more convenient to consume, while iced tea became popular in 1904. The ultimate innovation came in 1953 with the invention of instant tea.
4. The World Tea Market
4.1 General Information
In the year 2000, global tea production reached 2.9 million tons, which was a slight increase from 1999 but an overall stagnation compared to peak production in 1998. Of this total production, approximately 56% is consumed in the countries where it is grown, while the remaining 1.1 million tons are available for export. Today, tea is grown in about 36 countries and is classified into three major varieties: green (unfermented), black (fermented), and oolong (partially fermented). There is also a fourth category, white tea, but its volume is too low to be of economic significance.
India, China, Kenya, and Sri Lanka are the most significant tea-producing countries, but tea is also cultivated in smaller quantities in other countries and regions, such as Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Turkey, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, New Guinea, Mexico, the USA, Corsica, the Azores, and Tuscany.
Tea is a natural plant, and its taste and characteristics vary depending on the area where it is grown, the type of soil, and the altitude and climatic conditions. The tea plant is demanding and only thrives under specific natural conditions, including acidic soil, a cool and moist climate with at least 1600 liters of rainfall per year and at least four hours of sun per day, high grounds, and sloping terrain.
4.3 The Supply Side – Major Cultivation Areas
Tea production is an important economic factor in several countries worldwide. India is the largest producer of tea, followed by China. Although Africa and Sri Lanka have the highest export ratios. Tea production has a significant impact on the economy of these countries.
India is the world’s largest tea producer, accounting for 30% of global production in 2001 and producing 870 million kilograms annually. The story of how India became the dominant tea producer is fascinating: in the 1840s, the British realized that much of their money spent on tea went to China and wanted to redirect it to one of their own colonies, India. To achieve this, they hired spies to steal tea plants from China and transport them to Assam, a region in northern India. Over a million plants were transported and used to start the large plantations that exist today.
There are four distinct tea harvests in India based on the time of year, including the First flush (February/March), In Between (April harvest in Darjeeling), Second Flush (May/June), and Autumnals (October). India has three main tea growing regions, including Assam, the world’s largest tea growing area, which produces strong malty teas and accounts for 30% of Indian tea production. Darjeeling, situated south of the Himalayas in Northeast India, produces the world’s most highly prized teas. With 86 gardens across a total area of 19,000 hectares, Darjeeling teas are produced in altitudes ranging from 800 to 2000 meters and are famous for their delicate muscatel flavor. Finally, Nilgiri, located in the South of India, produces teas known for their fragrance and full body.
India’s tea industry is highly mechanized and industrialized due to labor costs that are higher than those of China. The industry produces all categories of tea, but the focus is primarily on black teas. In recent years, there has been a trend towards organic farming.
China is known for its vast variety of tea, with 138 distinct green teas and over 12,500 subgroups listed in the encyclopedia of Chinese teas. The majority of tea cultivation in China takes place in the southern region, up to the 22nd parallel. While black, green, and oolong teas are produced, green tea accounts for more than 80% of tea produced. The top four Chinese teas exported globally are Jasmine Tea, Gunpowder, Lung Ching (Dragonwell), and Chun Mee (Precious Eyebrows).
4.3.3 Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
James Taylor introduced the first tea seedlings in Sri Lanka in 1867, making tea the country’s major economic factor. Over 1,000 estates in Sri Lanka produce approximately 600 million pounds of black tea annually, which accounts for 60% of exports, making it the country’s most important export good. Sri Lanka’s tea is still sold under its former colonial name Ceylon, and the three major cultivation areas are the districts of Uva, Nuwara Eliya, and Dimbula, all of which produce dry, high-quality teas. Tea cultivated in Sri Lanka can be categorized as high-grown, medium-grown, or low-grown, based on the altitude of the area.
Tea is an integral part of Japanese culture and considered an object of art and an element of religion. While Japan is not a major tea producer, it consumes nearly all the tea it produces. Green tea is the only type of tea produced in Japan, with important growing areas in the prefectures of Uji (Kyoto) and Shizuoka (at the foot of the Fujijama). The most common Japanese teas available globally are Bancha, Sencha, Matcha (powdered tea for the tea ceremony), and Gyokuro.
4.3.5 Taiwan (Formosa)
Taiwan has been producing green and black teas since 1870, with its teas sold under the former colonial name of Formosa. The country is famous for its oolong teas, with approximately 100 small tea plantations producing premium quality oolongs and pouchongs, a cross between green tea and oolong. These teas are produced in small quantities and sold worldwide at premium prices.
Indonesia is able to produce tea year-round, giving it a production advantage. Most plantations focus on mass production, and Indonesian tea is mostly used for blends.
Africa is a relatively new tea producer, with Kenya as the most important producer and accounting for approximately 15% of global tea production. African tea is mostly produced through the CTC method (crushing, tearing, curling by machines) and is almost exclusively produced for the British market.
4.4 The Production Process
Green tea is made by steaming fresh-picked leaves and then heat-drying them, while black tea is made by allowing the picked leaves to completely ferment before firing. Oolong tea is partially fermented. Below is a detailed account of the production processes for green and black tea:
4.4.1 Green Tea
- Harvesting: Only the top two leaves and the bud are plucked for their tenderness, flavor, and ability to be rolled or twisted.
- Drying: Necessary to destroy certain enzymes that could otherwise cause chemical reactions that affect color and taste.
- Pan firing: Stabilizes the fragrance and flavor.
- Steaming: Prevents oxidation and prepares the leaves for shaping.
- Shaping: Done by hand or machinery to create a decorative appearance and regulate the release of flavor during steeping.
4.4.2 Black Tea
Black tea is made differently than green tea and involves withering, rolling, fermenting (oxidation), and firing. The oxidation process starts when the tea leaves are spread out in the open for several hours, rolled without breaking, and slightly bruised. The duration of oxidation determines the tea’s color and flavor. Firing stops fermentation, and then the leaves are sorted by size to determine the tea’s grade.
The CTC method, meaning crushing, tearing, and curling through machinery, is a popular and widespread method used for tea consumed in the British market. This method generates a standardized size of tea leaves and produces colorful, tasty infusions. It also reduces production time and eliminates quality fluctuations. The CTC-method is widespread in African countries.
Another common production method for black tea is the LTP method, meaning Lawrie Tea Processor. The Lawrie machine keeps cutting leaves until they have reached fanning or dust grades/levels. This tea is mostly used for tea bags.
4.5 Tea Varieties
Tea comes in over 3,000 varieties, each with its unique character and typically named after the region where it is grown. For instance, Assam tea from Assam in India, Formosa Oolong from Taiwan, Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, Darjeeling tea from Darjeeling, and so on. (42)
4.6 Tea Grades
Most black tea and some green tea varieties (especially those from India and Sri Lanka) follow a grading system, which mainly comprises of two grades: leaf and broken.
4.7 The Tea Purchasing Process
After the harvest, tea samples and a tea catalogue are sent to all bidding firms. The tea catalogue contains information on all relevant characteristics, such as origin, variety, volume, grades, and time of harvest. Professional tea tasters from tea trading houses evaluate the samples and then inform their bidders on location about which offers are to be made in the tea auctions. (44) Teas of mass consumption are usually put on auction in major cities such as Calcutta, Mombasa, Cochin, Djakarta, and Colombo, while high-quality teas are auctioned on the plantations themselves. (45)
The tea is then shipped to its purchaser via ship for average quality teas or airplane for high-quality teas.
4.8 The Demand for Tea
Tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, with India and China being the top producers and consumers of tea. Despite being the third largest consumer, the UK’s total consumption of tea is relatively low compared to the top two. The consumption of tea in India and China has been increasing over the past decade.
However, when considering per capita consumption, the Irish are the world’s strongest tea consumers, followed by the UK and Eastern European countries. In contrast, India and China, despite being strong in total leaf consumption, do not have a significant per capita consumption due to their large populations.
Tea has been recognized for its health benefits for centuries. Green tea, in particular, has gained international attention due to its numerous health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels, reducing the risk of cancer and inhibiting aging, and fighting viral infections. It is also a natural source of fluoride which promotes good dental health.
As society becomes increasingly health-conscious, the findings on the health benefits of tea, especially green tea, are contributing to its rise in popularity. More evidence is expected to further strengthen its position.
The future of the tea market will depend on the balance between supply and demand. In recent years, weak prices were caused by an oversupply. However, the growing populations and consumption in major producing countries such as China, India, and Indonesia will lead to more consumption, reducing internationally available reserves and driving up prices.
In the Western world, there are two trends: convenience and luxury, and wellness. The rise of overall tea consumption and the establishment of specialty tea shops reflect the former, while the latter is driven by stress-plagued societies. Taking a few minutes a day to relax with a cup of tea is increasingly popular, especially among young professionals in their 20s and 30s who switch from coffee for the health benefits and harmonizing effects of tea. Tea stimulates softly, without making one nervous, unlike coffee. Even soft drink makers like Coca Cola have recognized tea as a lifestyle product and have big plans with bottled tea.
Despite concerns over pesticides, the health benefits of tea are the major reason for predicting a bright future for tea in the Western world. In conclusion, tea has all the opportunities to continue thriving worldwide.