China is the origin of tea and after thousands years of development, it becomes what we see now, six tea types inculding Black tea, Green tea, White tea, Oolong tea, Yellow tea, Dark tea and almost all 34 provinces produce tea. Open Anhui Tea Map and click any flag on the map you will get detailed introduction of a famous tea in Anhui province, you might get shocked how could it be possible that so many teas available there, and that’s just in one province, but definitely yes that’s true. So why so many teas?
The answer to above question could be complex and also could be simple, the simple answer is China people want it, this is connected to Chinese history, we will talk about it later.
Let’s take a look at India tea industry, it’s started by the demand of British, there was no tea industry in India. From 18th century, the British no matter high class or low class people all like drink tea and at that time China is the only country can produce tea, in modern society that’s no big deal, international trading can bennefit each other but China was ruled by the Qing Dynasty, this government has no interest of buying anything from others as they think they have everything they want already, so this is a clear trade deficit to the British. In 1835 George James Gordon came to the south of China and brought back three lots of tea seeds and then in 1848 Robert Fortune this plant hunter and traveller didn’t just brought tea seeds but also tea plants but also tea workers back to India.
Also in the beginning of 19th century, Bruce Brothers found Assam tea plant but didn’t gain further notice until 1834 Lord William Bentinck, the British government official decided to form a tea committee to advise on feasibility of commercial tea cultivation in India and yes the final report said it could lead a big commercial success. Five years later, a group of London merchants formally created the private Assam company, two-thirds of the government’s garden were given to the company free of rent for ten years.
As you can see from above statements, the Indian tea industry was born and moved by the British interest and the commercial concern, still right now the most or common organization of India tea is tea garden, many many big tea gardens, in another word, tea in India belong to capital company.
On the contrary, tea in China mostly belong to small farmers. So in China if you want to buy tea you can contact tea farmer, in India you can contact tea manager.
Why tea in China belongs to farmers? In the beginning, tea was not commercial commodity but just a medical drink, after thousand years a man named Lu Yu wrote the book Tea Classic which finally formalized the tea art, tea is not just a drink but also the good fellow of human spirit. What China tea we see today is the result of thousand years natural evolution, it still roots back to personality, not big volume manufacturing.
Tea is not just part of culture in China, it is the presentation of Chinese culture and different region in China has different culture, that’s the motivation to emerge so many teas. For example given same varietal Shui Xian, in the north of Fujian it’s made into heavy texture rock tea and made into relatively light texture in South of Fujian.
Vast territory is another important cause, environment has huge differences so as the tea varietal available, after thousands years evolution, the Chinese has agreed one principle for tea making, that’s good variety paired with corresponding best craft, hence make it unique.
From 1940s China tea industry started the journey of scientific production and more and more machines arise, as China has over 1.3 billion population, also the labor cost is quite high right now, for example it’s about 30USD for a tea picker for one day, given the picking standard is one bud two leaves, he can harvest 15kg fresh leaves and 1kg dried tea needs 5kg, so it’s 3kg dried tea get finally. A good tea maker costs about 80-100USD per day, fresh leaves is about 15-20USD/kg, plus other costs, one kilo gram good tea could cost around 120-150USD, and that’s good tea not top tea yet.
In 2020 the national average annual income is 5000USD, that’s not much but according to report Where billionaires live China has the highest number ever for the Asian nation, this explains top grade luxury tea also sales so well and drives more production of high class hand made tea.
But for the most population in China, 150USD/KG is too expensive, to decrease the cost, machine is a must to increase the effiency, also more and more labor shortage becomes serious, very few young generations want to do tea picking job and all people has other options if he can earn more.
So now a lot of machines appear to take charge of tea planting, picking, making, especially for Green tea and Black tea, Oolong is too complex that can not use fully automatic machine. For the whole industry, semi-automatic is the trend, this can combine the strength of human and machine, only very very top artistic tea has made fully by hands. The machine era has come.
About 50% of 30-40 years old tea farmers are well educated according to my experience, if it’s younger then the ratio is higher. Education is an important impetus for change. In the past, most farmers make tea based on their experience and now the young generation has deeper understanding of the ins and outs, also they are closer to the consumers, thus to create something new to fulfill the market or change the craft, for example Black tea production historically go through Tea Picking, Withering, Rolling, Fermenting and Drying and now Shaking is added after Withering to create more powerful aroma Black tea.
In the consumer end, people born after 1970, 1980 and 1990 has become the main power of society, they are new generations that share the same characters: well educated, familiar with internet/mobile, no more material deprivation, they need safer cleaner and faster drink to be easily enjoyed, this is the most power to move the whole industry forward.
Also Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on experiment stage, the young generation is familiar with internet, they know the power of computer and thanks to the explosive growth of computing power as well as Open Sourced platform for machine learning like Tensorflow from Google, PyTorch from Facebook, these software makes small companies has possibility to play AI, now China has Applications that can diagnose a disease upon the plants picture uploaded. Machine learning needs big data and these data are limited available and isolated, so it’s just on the beginning.
Your eyes are right, the hottest tea in China now is White tea, not Green tea or Black tea or Puer or Wuyi Rock tea, we didn’t expect this too. Sure there are lots of work done to make this happen, also it’s a sign of China tea future. Many consumers response as “more natural” when asking why drink White tea, as we already knew White tea has no need of Killing Green or Rolling, the processing is simpler and promoted as more natural drink, also over 50% White tea is organic certified, the Chinese has more care of health and the nature.
No pesticide and chemical fertilizer free is not just the trend, it is what is happening now. In 2019 Fujian province government proposed an Organic tea plan that to achieve tea being organic in whole province in 2022, four main measures used to help the dream come true:
Ecological control: plant shelterbelts and roadside trees like osmanthus, cherry blossom, podocarpus etc and plant astragalus sinicus, soybean and other leguminous plants to create a good environment for spider, birds etc.
Agronomic improvement: Popularization and application of pest resistant tea varieties, improving soil structure of tea garden, promoting the use of tea garden pruning to improve ventilation and light transmission conditions.
Physical prevention and control: make use of insect pests were controlled by light, color and sex thus apply LED insecticidal lamp, digital armyworm color board and sex pheromone trap.
Biological control: promoting the use of microbial, plant and mineral pesticide, no chemical pesticide.
This will be a big change and make tea production to be more earth friendly, but the global warming is a big and serious threat to tea industry, more and more climate anomalies, there is a town Roc Habitat used to be the perfect area for Tieguanyin planting but because of the global warming, the “perfect area” moves to higher mountain in other towns.
It’s a process of respecting, learning and adjusting, more good China teas is not a dream.