The Chinese Tea Industry

The Chinese Tea Industry

In China, annual tea production now exceeds a million tons (according to 2008 data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), and government initiatives designed to promote trade are beginning to have a significant impact on this industrial sector. Annual tea exports from China are close to 330,700 tons (300,000 t), and most of this is green tea, which represents more than 75 percent of the total product exported. The industry is extremely diverse and includes numerous small traditional harvests from artisans alongside huge industrial corporations producing vast quantities of tea.


Tea growing in China is predominantly the domain of peasants who cultivate small-scale plantations. This explains, in part, the low yield of tea per acre compared to India, for example. In all tea-growing regions we find independent producers who grow and process tea according to traditional, ancestral methods. Manual picking and processing is still common practice among artisans. In addition, a very large part of the tea produced by these traditional methods is distributed for local consumption. Except in large towns, it is rare to see certain types of teas outside the region in which they are produced.

Industrial growing on the other hand, is a relatively recent development in the history of tea in China, even more recent than industrial growing in India or Japan. Although large-scale tea production first appeared in the 1950s, it was not until the 1980s that the industry began to organize and diversify. To satisfy the needs of this industry, and in spite of the fact that cheap labor is still frequently employed, harvesting and processing methods have become increasingly mechanized. Unfortunately, this massive industrialization has created many undesirable side effects, and today it is not unusual to find industrial copies of famous independently grown teas.


The tea market in China has changed considerably in recent years. Whereas production was originally destined for local consumption only, today it responds to an increasingly diversified market, one in which the quest for quality is the principal challenge. While quality tea is still a luxury product beyond the reach of Chinese lower classes, demand has increased substantially since the end of the 1990s, with the rise in average incomes.

The demand for rare and unique products has put pressure on the artisans, leading them to specialize in certain types of cultivation and the production of several types of tea that only China can boast of offering. That is the case with the oldest known family of teas: Pu er teas have been captivating the attention and the taste of a large number of tea collectors. The same is true of the famous green teas - such as Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and Anji Bai Cha, which are now available in most large Chinese cities - whose first harvests are fought over by enthusiasts.


Like the history of Chinese tea, the trading of tea in China has a rich tradition. Once used as a form of currency, tea remains vital to the economy of many regions throughout the country.

As far as exports are concerned, China is an exception: it is one of the few tea-producing countries that does not sell its product under the auction system. Until very recently the export system was managed by government agencies grouped by province, which handled most of the teas on the market. Any tea destined for export had to go through the regional offices under government control, which proposed a standardized product typical of each region. To purchase tea, a foreign importer had no alternative but to deal with the representative responsible for the region in which he or she was interested. This representative exercised tight control over what product could be exported. For example, a buyer could not obtain a tea from any estate that did not fall under the jurisdiction of the government specialists.

Today, in spite of a certain liberalization of the market system, large-scale exportation is still mostly organized through regional wholesalers. There are a number of wholesalers and exporters in the capital cities of every tea-producing region, and they offer different harvests according to the growing region to both Chinese and foreign buyers.


In China, many elements are involved in the choice of a name for a tea. Some are named for the cultivars from which they were derived or for the region in which they are grown. In a more poetic vein, the name is sometimes inspired by a legend (for example, Tie Guan Yin and Long Jing). In some cases, the tea was named by an "interested" emperor, as is the case with Bi Luo Chun.

Unfortunately, in the absence of a functioning system of controlled appellation, disreputable growers can usurp the name of a celebrated tea and use it to designate products from another terroir or made using a different method. One of the best examples of this is the case of Long jing, the most famous green tea in China.

Long Jing is the name of a little village dose to the town of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. The region has been famous for the tea it produces for many centuries. Picked by hand, it is processed almost exclusively in the traditional way, thanks to the expertise of the local growers. As the tea trade has grown in China and the world, certain producers have tried to copy this type of tea in order to increase their sales based on their competitor's famous name.

Today, most Long Jing teas sold exclusively for expert on the international market are in fact teas that come from Sichuan, Taiwan on in the case of organic teas, Jiangxi Province. Some traders will even buy tea sets or tea leaves from the south of Zhejiang and sell them to producers who live close to Long Jing so they can be processed there. They then sell the teas produced as genuine Long Jing teas. It must be said, however; that this type of deception does not only happen in China. This problem is also a challenge for some of the other major tea-producing countries, such as Japan, India and Taiwan.


Total annual production: about 1,257,000 tons (1, 140,000 t)
Percentage of production by type of tea: green tea, 73.7%; black tea, 5.6%; wulong: 10.5%; other, 11.2%
Average production yield: about 665 pounds per acre (745 kg/ha)
Annual exports: about 315,000 tons (286,000 t); Zhejiang Province exports the most
Principal purchasing countries: Morocco, 62,600 tons (56,800 t); Japan, 30,500 tons (27,700 t); Uzbekistan,
21,000 tons (19,000 t); United States, 20,700 tons (18,800 t); Russian Federation, 18,300 tons (16,600 t)
Source: 2008 data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
(Values in imperial units of measure supplied by publisher.)


Over the past several years, a new aspect of tea appreciation has appeared in China: visual appreciation. Strangely, many new tea enthusiasts are more interested in the aesthetic appearance of a tea chan in its taste. And so, some teas are analyzed in relation to the beauty of their leaves and the way they move in a glass. If the leaves have an attractive shape and color and remain parallel to the sides of a glass during infusion, they will be considered highly valuable, regardless of their taste. The reverse is also often true. As such, if a tea does not look attractive, it will be sold for a cheaper price even if it tastes very good. In conjunction with this fashion for beautiful teas, tea producers have also made great strides with their packaging in the past few years. Utilitarian bags have been replaced with more luxurious containers, such as metal boxes and cardboard packaging.


The world market for tea is enormous: 3.5 million tons (3.2 million t) of tea are produced every year. As a rule, distribution is handled by major import-export companies that buy from and sell to wholesalers. These wholesalers then resell the merchandise to other distributors, who are responsible for practically all the tea in circulation on the international market These corporations are, of course, looking for cheap tea to sell to a mass market rather than high-end teas. The taster-importer, who is looking for a better-quality tea, tries first and foremost to establish contacts with independent traditional growers in order to build a trusting relationship. That is why he or she travels every year to tea-growing countries, visiting plantations and the people who work on them. Once a feeling of trust is established, taster-importers are sometimes invited to taste small, experimental batches of tea that would never find their way to the wholesalers. This is how they make valuable finds. And so, by dealing directly with the growers and avoiding the middlemen, taster-importers can choose teas on the basis of their complexity of taste or their unique characteristics. They can then purchase them for a fair price and import them by air to preserve their freshness.