China Tea Origins: Eastern Belt

Credit: Yangna Souce: Getty Images

As was seen in previous coverage of China’s green tea and black tea production trends, China is experiencing shifts in theareas where tea is grown and processed. These shifts, in turn, can affect thequantities and characteristics of the teas produced. It also opens the door tonew developments in tea styles. These factors will influence the volumes andpricing of Chinese teas exported, and ultimately shape consumer preferences forChinese teas.

China has nine provinces, each producing over100,000 metric tons of tea, and another four provinces approaching that markwith over 70,000 metric tons. Dividing the top provinces into three “belts” illustratesthe developments taking place across the tea-producing regions.

  • The Eastern Belt - Anhui, Fujian,and Zhejiang Provinces
  • The Central Belt - Hubei, Hunan,and Shaanxi Provinces
  • The Western Belt - Guizhou,Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces
Source: Jason Walker

A closer inspection of the Eastern Belt willreveal the shifts taking place in its position as a significant tea provider.

EASTERN BELT BACKGROUND

The three provinces in the Eastern Beltcomprise over 140,000 total square miles and 158 million people, making theEastern Belt the smallest of the belts in terms of land area as well as themost densely populated. The eastern and coastal provinces are also the mosturbanized areas of China, with higher living standards and labor costs thanother regions.

By the more traditional classification of teagrowing regions, the Eastern Belt provinces span across the Jiangbei (Anhui),Jiangnan (Anhui and Zhejiang), and Southern (Fujian) regions. These provincescontribute about one-quarter of all of China’s tea production, including 25% ofall green tea and one-fifth of all black tea.

The Eastern Belt produces its teas using about2,351 square miles of total tea gardens. In 2019 they produced over $9.3billion worth of finished tea, about 28% of all tea by value.

They did this using just less than 20% ofChina’s total tea land, and mainly due to urbanization, and the expansion oftea fields in the Western and Central belts, they are doing this on adiminishing share of land.

ANHUI PROVINCE

Source: Jason Walker

Anhui Province, home of several celebrated andhistoried teas, holds a smaller share of tea production compared to the othermajor producers. Anhui contributes 4.9 percent of total China production,including 7 percent of all green tea and 2.5% of all black tea, and was ranked9th in terms of value contribution.

In terms of the breakdown of the province’steas, about:

  • 89% was green
  • 6.5% was black
  • 4.4% was yellow

Anhui is best known for green teas, includingclassics like liuan guapian, taiping houkui, and huangshan maofeng. Qimen(keemun) black tea also originated in Anhui province, and the province can usethese specialty teas to command higher prices per pound despite having one ofthe lowest yields of any of the more developed tea-producing provinces.

Anhui Province is also a top-ranking exportingprovince, accounting for 12 percent of the export dollars and 16 percent ofvolume (60 million kg).

ZHEJIANG PROVINCE

Zhejiang Province is the 2nd most populousprovince but the most densely populated in the Eastern Belt. It is also thesmallest of the three in terms of land area. It produces about 6.5% of allChina’s teas or over 181,000 metric tons. Compared to 2015 production levels,this represents a very modest gain of about 3%. Zhejiang ranks fourth in termsof dollar value contribution, with over $3.1 billion in tea produced. Theprovince produces about 10% of all green tea and approximately 2% of thecountry’s black tea.

Of Zhejiang Province’s total production,

  • 92% is green tea
  • 4% is black
  • 3.4% is dark tea

These teas include longjing (dragonwell) tea,with the very finest of this tea sold at past auctions for prices higher thangold. Anji bai cha is another popular green tea hailing from Zhejiang, andJingshan Temple outside of Hangzhou is where some of the earliest Japanesemonks learned about tea and matcha-making. As with Anhui, these high-pricedspecialty teas can raise the province’s dollar-per-hectare with less need forhigher kg-per-hectare. Some longjing and other specialty growers may onlyharvest the spring crop and not pluck again until the next year.

Zhejiang ranks highly in terms of both exportvolume and value. In 2019, Zhejiang Province contributed 24% of all China teaexport dollars and 43% of all volume. These figures include Firsd Tea’s parentcompany, China’s largest tea exporting company.

FUJIAN PROVINCE

Fujian Province is the least densely populatedof the Eastern Belt provinces and is well known for its vast mountainous areas.The Wuyi Mountains are home to many popular wulong (oolong) teas. The provincecontributes about 15% of all Chinese tea production, and in 2019 produced412,000 metric tons of tea.

A breakdown of Fujian’s tea production showsthe majority of tea coming out of Fujian is wulong, including famous wulongslike Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) and the various forms of green and darker TieGuan Yin. About 80% of all China’s wulongs come out of Fujian province, and thecountry usually produces slightly more wulong teas than black. About one-thirdof Fujian’s teas produced are green, along with about 12% black. These blackteas include some of the more familiar lapsang souchong and gongful (congou)black teas of Fujian. Fujian Province’s white tea production is also worthnoting. While only about 5% of the province’s production is white tea, itsproduction represents approximately 84% of the country’s total output.

The vast mountainous areas of Fujian make itbetter suited for tea than for other agricultural options, and the province’ssoutherly position makes it a significant producer. In terms of tea acreage, itranks 5th with over 208,000 hectares. It is also one of the highest yieldingprovinces, capable of generating an average 1,900 kg per hectare.

WHAT IT MEANS

In general terms, the Eastern Belt ismaintaining, or in some instances, even reducing its production capacities. Itdoes, however, play a dominant role in processing and export, and will likelycontinue to do so in the foreseeable future. These shifts in Eastern Belt valuecontribution can be connected to:

  1. Urbanization. The Eastern Belt plays a more significant role in China’s economic output. The area is home to more megacities than other regions and therefore has higher costs of living and labor.
  2. High-Value Tea. The long-term recognition of the area’s more famous teas allows the Eastern Belt to command higher prices on these teas with less emphasis on increasing quantity.
  3. Processing and Export. The area’s history of production and export gives it the efficiencies and experience to maintain their place in value-added facilities and services for processing, blending, packing, and exporting tea.

As a result, consumers can expect their teasto passing through the Eastern Belt but will have to dig deeper to understandthe lands that nourished the teas they admire.

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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.