While China may be recognized as the world's leader in green tea, it is no slouch in the black tea department. Chinese black teas are widely used in a range of products, from premium and specialty teas and tea blends to more familiar foodservice iced teas. Compared to black teas from other major origins, Chinese black teas impart sweeter, smoother, and more fragrant characteristics. Leveraging trends in China black tea provides opportunities to deliver excellent quality at a significant value.
Let's take a look at somedevelopments in China black teas:
CHINA BLACK TEA PRODUCTION & EXPORT
As covered in a previous look at China tea origins, green teasmake up the lion's share of China tea production. Black teas usually rank 3rdin volume behind dark teas. However, black teas play a more significant role interms of export value, representing just under one-fifth of tea exports.
US BLACK TEA IMPORTS FROM CHINA
US imports of Chinese black teahave generally declined over the past five years. More recently, the US-Chinatrade war and coronavirus pandemic have contributed to this slowdown. However,organic black tea imports from China have been rising, with a 66 percentincrease in volume.
BLACK TEAS BY PROVINCE BELTS
China tea production hastraditionally been divided into zones according to the geographic and climaticconditions. However, these zones can make it difficult to understand productionand expansion, especially when data is collected on the provincial level.
Instead of using the traditionalzones, major tea-producing provinces are divided here into "belts."These belts provide a clearer picture in terms of measuring production, yields,and new tea field expansion. There are 3 major belts:
- The Eastern Belt: including Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian provinces
- The Central Belt: made up of Shaanxi, Hubei, and Hunan provinces
- The Western Belt: composed of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnanprovinces
WESTERN BELT BLACK TEA
The Western Belt is the leader intea production overall, including black teas. These three provinces account forover 40% of China's total black tea production. This level of production ismore than double the better known Eastern Belt provinces, including Anhui'sKeemun black tea and Fujian's array of lapsang souchong and congou teas. YunnanProvince is the top black tea producing province, and single-handedly accountsfor approximately 20% of annual black tea production. The province has a longhistory of Dian hong (traditionalYunnan black) teas, including exquisite Golden Monkey with its orange-goldfuzzy needles. Yunnan's contribution is based more on the sheer volume of teaproduction, and not necessarily a focus on black tea. The province splits itsattention across green (45%), dark (35%), and black (20%) teas.
CENTRAL BELT BLACK TEA
Central Belt provinces have beencontributing around 17% to annual black tea production. Hubei Province is the4th largest contributor of black teas, in no small part due to its Keemun blackteas. Keemun black teas originated in Anhui Province's Qimen (aka Keemun) area,but production has spilled over into the neighboring provinces of Hubei andJiangxi. Anhui alone does not produce enough tea to meet the demand for Keemunblack tea, and these nearby provinces can produce quality Keemun that isaccepted as legitimate Keemun black tea based on its quality, origin, andprocessing style.
EASTERN BELT BLACK TEA
The provinces of the Eastern Belt areprobably some of the better-known tea provinces, even though they do notproduce the highest quantities of tea. Fujian Province has been the Number 2black tea producing province for some time, while Anhui and Zhejiang rankaround Numbers 9 and 10. Fujian alone contributes about 15% of China's totalannual black tea.
The Eastern Belt is best knownoutside of China because of its extensive history of exports, and theseprovinces are the top 3 contributors to exports by value. Together theyrepresent nearly 60% of all tea export dollars and have been the source of mostthe earliest China black tea exports, including Keemun, Lapsang Souchong (akaZhengshan Xiaozhong) and other congou (gongfu) teas.
WHAT IT MEANS
The dominance of the Central and Western Belts of China tea provinces means that the popularity of "classic" teas produced in the Eastern Belt will give way to teas from dominant producing regions. In particular, this shift will mean
- Reliance on the Eastern Belt will mean smaller volumes and higher prices. As with green teas, the shift in tea production, planting, and yields are moving to the Central and Western Belts. The "classic" tea areas are giving way for several reasons, but urbanization is a significant driver. China's population is now 60% urban, and most of the large urban areas are situated in the eastern portion of the country. With urbanization comes increased cost of living and labor costs. The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted a drawback in production in many areas, namely the dependence on lower-cost laborers brought in from outside provinces. A notable portion of the tea labor force, especially in eastern provinces, could not travel during China's lockdown from their homes in rural provinces to the fields and factories in the east. Eastern provinces keep their advantages as final processors, packers, and exporters, not as necessarily as growers.
- Quality teas from new lands. The Central and Western Belts are increasing in planting area and boosting yield (kg per hectare) at a rapid pace, in part due to the use of tea as a driver of economic development. Tea is a relatively high-value crop with a stable demand that China is using to lift rural areas out of poverty.
- Imitation will give way to a new character. New tea areas will likely continue to produce stable, mid-grade teas similar to those produced initially in the Eastern Belt areas and valued by consumers. Still, some of those familiar teas will give way to quality teas in their own right. Most tea areas have at least one or more styles of teas that have been produced for centuries, and producers will seek to further the reputations of their teas in their own rights. The international tea buyer can look forward to exploring distinctive, new forms of tea from these burgeoning locales.
Additional Research Provided by Author (May 13, 2020)
For Keemun- the Wikipedia article does reference the fact that there is a Hubei Keemun that is marketed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keemun
The Dictionary of Chinese Tea by Chen Zongmao, Page 276 (2015), confirms that Fuliang in Jiangxi Province is a recognized producer of Keemun black teas. - I have attached a photo of the text in the original Chinese (line 3 in the Qimen black tea section)
The Chinese version of Wikipedia also confirms Fuliang, Jiangxi Province as a source of Keemun black teas (Source Link).
Jason Walker is the marketing director for Firsd Tea North America. Prior to his work with Firsd Tea, Walker served in a variety of roles in tea and beverage business services. His 10 years of tea and beverage business experience includes business services for small tea companies, a top-ranked online destination for tea consumer education, and co-founding a coffee company. Additionally, Walker served in various roles in both public and private education, including college and private education. His insights draw upon his diverse range of experience in sales, operations and management. They’ve enabled him to bring a broader range of solutions and learning to the tea world. To learn more about Firsd Tea, visit FirsdTea.com.