Contributed by Jason Walker, Firsd Tea North America
China is a global green tea powerhouse,exporting more of the green leaf than any other country in the world. It isalso a vast country with many tea growing areas producing a wide variety ofteas. New areas of tea production are rising and increasing their yields whilemore established, and familiar tea provinces experience flatter growth ordeclines. These fluctuations have an impact on China’s export of green teas.Changes in points of origin within China for green teas affect the price ofgreen teas, and potentially alters expectations regarding classic specialty teacharacteristics and can give rise to new avenues for premium teas.
GREEN TEA IMPORT & EXPORT
China is the largest source of green tea inthe US, accounting for 43 - 51 percent of annual green tea imports between 2015and 2019. Noticeable gains in packaged green tea and organic green tea importsfrom China coincide with consumer data showing a growing preference for greenteas over black teas.
Within the context of China’s total exports,the country retained 87% of its total tea production. Of the over 2.8 millionmetric tons of tea China produced in 2019,
● 366,600 metric tons (13%) were exported
● 83% of that export volume was green tea
China’s green tea goes across the globe. Awhopping 20%, or about 75 thousand metric tons, of China’s tea exports, go toMorocco. Morocco purchases vast quantities of green tea for both domesticconsumption and re-export and by far the largest single importing country ofChinese green tea. The popularity of Moroccan mint green tea is the dominantcontributing factor. The US takes a much smaller share of export volume,usually around 4% per year. In terms of dollar value, the US ranks number 6 - 8on the list of China tea buying countries. Canada receives less than 0.5% ofChina’s tea exports. It is worth noting, however, that these numbers do notnecessarily reflect the actual amount of Chinese tea in these countries’markets. The US and Canada import packaged, blended, and flavored green teasfrom non-producing countries that can include Chinese green tea.
CHINA GREEN TEA PRODUCTION
The last five years have shown China continuesto increase its production of all teas, including greens. Green tea productiongrew 5% from 2017 to 2019 alone. In 2019, China reported producing 2.8 millionmetric tons of tea, a 19% increase from 2015. Breaking that production down bytea type results in:
● 63.5% green tea
● 13.5% dark tea
● 11.0% black tea
● 9.9% wulong (oolong) tea
● 1.3%white tea
● 0.3% yellow tea
China has about 16 provinces that each produceover ten thousand metric tons of tea. Still, the top 3 provinces (Fujian,Yunnan, and Hubei) contribute a combined total of 41% of the nation’s tea.These provinces provide significant portions of green tea but do so on varyingscales based on the types of tea those provinces produce. For example, YunnanProvince has ranked number 3 on the list of green tea producing provinces, butonly 45.8% of its total annual production is green tea. Zhejiang Province ranksnumber 4 on the list of green tea provinces, but about 92% of its teaproduction is green tea.
As regions go, the Western Belt of provinces(Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan) are the largest producers of green tea, contributingapproximately 40% of China’s total. Guizhou is the single most significantcontributor, delivering nearly 15% of all the nation’s green tea. The EasternBelt of leading tea provinces (Anhui, Fujian, and Zhejiang) supply aboutone-quarter of the total green crop, and these provinces are leaders in termsof tea exports.
It is important to note that being a leadingexporter does not equate with being a leading producer. These Eastern Belt ofexporting provinces often bring in leaf crops from one or more other provincesand can then sift, sort, blend, flavor, and pack these teas for export. Thegreen tea material leaving the province did not necessarily originate in theprovince. The vast majority of the green tea going out of China was grown inprovinces that are virtually unknown to the North American consumer. Thisunawareness is due to the amount of Chinese green tea that stays in China, therole of these Eastern Belt exporting provinces in growing, sourcing andblending, and the larger volumes of lower-cost green teas produced in China’sWestern and Central Belts.
The Central Belt (Hubei, Hunan, and Shaanxi)of provinces currently produce about one-fifth of all Chinese green tea, buttheir combined total share will likely eclipse the Eastern Belt soon. Simplyput, these provinces are putting more new tea plants in the ground than other provincesand have the potential to improve their yields significantly. In the fight forsustainability and economic development in poverty-stricken regions, thecentral provinces have seen the expansion of tea planting. Tea crops canprovide stable economic growth to impoverished counties where land is moreplentiful. The rate of urbanization in China has reached 60%, and much of this isin the eastern, coastal provinces. Land area in the Eastern Belt devoted to teafields appears to be shrinking.
Yields (measured in kg per hectare) furtherreveal the gains being made in the Central Belt. China’s national average yieldis around 900 kgs per hectare. Compare this to India with about 2,000kg/hectare and Vietnam with 1,300, and China’s performance does not look quite sorosy. Here are two details that help clarify. First, China’s more northerlyposition means its plants cannot necessarily produce the volumes found inwarmer climates. Secondly, a growing proportion of China’s fields are new. TheCentral Belt provinces saw a 31% gain in the total tea field area from 2010 -2019. Guizhou in the Western Belt saw a 179% gain in tea fields over theprevious ten years.
But newly planted tea fields can take 2-3years to reach a viable crop. Weather conditions and inefficient farmingpractices can also hinder yields. Hubei Province in the Central Belt increasedits yields from a below-average 616 kg/hectare to a little over 1,000kg/hectare and, in the process, became the third-largest tea-producingprovince. Other Central and Western Belt provinces are dramatically increasingtheir yields and gaining rank in production. These provinces are positioned tobecome the world’s “green tea basket” with affordable, quality teas.
China will continue to lead the world in greentea, but the origin points within China will continue to shift to new areas.Shifts in domestic and global consumer preferences will also help determine thecharacteristics of teas produced, including quality level and flavor profile.