Discovering Tea in Malaysia

According to legend, tea was discovered as far back as 2700 BC, and completely by accident. A few dried leaves from a camellia bush fell into the boiling water that was being prepared for the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong as he was resting on a summer’s day. Intrigued by the aroma that resulted from the infusion, the Emperor sampled the brew and was delighted by the fresh flavor it produced, thus declaring tea to be invigorating to the body. By 300 AD, tea drinking had become common practice. The custom and love of tea soon spread to other cultures across the globe. India, China, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are the leading tea-producing countries, but Malaysia is now trying to stake its claim on the global tea production stage. Although Malaysia produces only 0.45 percent of the world’s total tea production, in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ranked Malaysia as the 18th largest producer of tea in Asia. “Export from Malaysia is minimal as it produces only 3.8 kilograms annually compared to its consumption of 23 kilograms,” said Choon K. Liew, chairman of the Tea Trade Association of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Founded in 1956, it was previously known as the Tea Merchant’s Association Federation of Malaya before changing its name in 1999 to suit the changing national conditions. Located in Southeast Asia, Malaysia, with a population of almost 30 million, has an equatorial climate with temperatures ranging between 22 degrees Celsius and 32 degrees Celsius year-round. Its high humidity levels of about 70 to 90 percent are balanced by an annual rainfall average of approximately 2,500 mm. Malaysia produces mainly black tea. Malaysia is a multi-cultural country that is home to Malay, Chinese and Indian consumers. Trade sources noted that Malays prefer strong teas (80 percent of consumption is black tea), while Chinese consumers tend to prefer light Chinese teas such as tie kuan yin, puer, oolong and green tea. Tea tends to appeal to a small segment of society, especially the Chinese and Malaysian consumers living in urban centers. Euromonitor International, London, reported that retail value sales of tea rose by 4 percent in 2011, while retail volume sales rose by 2 percent. According to Euromonitor, urbanization, combined with rising health awareness, is stimulating consumer interest, which in turn, is altering consumer behavior and tastes. As a result, fruit/herbal tea saw the fastest current value growth in 2011, growing by 8 percent. According to Euromonitor, (over the forecast period) tea is expected to post a CAGR of 1 percent, due to concerted marketing efforts from manufacturers, as well as rising health awareness from Malaysians. Liew agreed with Euromonitor’s growth projections. “The forecasted growth is not only due to the rising health awareness, but the ‘Teh Tarik’ (pulled tea) culture that is becoming popular in Malaysia,” he said. Teh Tarik is prepared using a special technique, where the mixture of tea and condensed milk is pulled back and forth repeatedly between two vessels from a distance of about one meter. “The repeated infusion between the mixture is to blend the two thoroughly, producing an exceptional taste and aroma,” said Liew. Cameron Highlands: Ideal Settings When speaking of tea production in Malaysia, one place frequently comes to mind: Cameron Highlands. The ideal conditions of Cameron Highlands have played a significant role in Malaysia’s production of robust, flavorful and aromatic teas. Cameron Highlands are located 1,500 meters above sea level on the Titiwangsa Mountain Range. This mountain range serves as a natural divide between the east and west of Peninsula Malaysia. The journey to Cameron Highlands from Kuala Lumpur takes approximately three and a half hours by car. Cameron Highlands is dubbed Malaysia’s “Green Bowl.” Most of its 712 square kilometers is dedicated to agricultural farms, vegetable and fruit orchards, and rolling fields of natural greenery, as well as vast tea plantations as far as the eye can see. All of these elements are why Cameron Highlands are considered some of the most fertile agricultural areas in the country. Cameron Highlands is prized for its fresh, highly affordable produce, but more than that, it is also one of the biggest tourist highland resort destinations in Malaysia. Many of the local population visit Cameron Highlands for a short holiday getaways especially to escape the hot equatorial weather of Malaysia. In fact, this was why it was popular when Malaysia was still under British rule. Discovered by a British government surveyor, William Cameron (hence the name) in 1885, Cameron Highlands was initially a retreat destination for colonial officers who wanted to escape the heat of the lowlands. The British influence can still be seen today in the Tudor-styled buildings and country inns with paneled walls, as well as the continuation of quaint English traditions such as offerings of scones and tea in the afternoons. Cameronian tea owes it brisk and full-bodied flavor to the environmental conditions of the highland itself. It has the constant ideal temperature of 15 to 22 degrees Celcius, abundant rainfall, as well as many hours of sunshine, and fertile and acidic soil of about pH 4 to pH 5.5. It was because of these conditions that prompted J. A. Russell to create Malaysia’s first highland tea plantation in 1929. Already an established businessman within the tin and rubber industries during the early 1900s in Malaysia, Russell saw that the demand for tea remained constant even throughout periods of economic malaise. Following that observation, he procured some freehold land on Cameron Highlands in which to plant tea. Together with an expert tea planter from Ceylon, A. B. Milne, he slowly expanded the plantation, converting steep slopes into the country’s first tea garden —BOH Plantations. This was achieved with only a single steamroller and a handful of laborers and mules. Over the years, BOH Plantations grew to become the largest highland tea producer in Malaysia. BOH remains the largest tea producer in Malaysia, with nearly 47 percent of the landmass in the country dedicated to tea production. This translates to approximately 1,200 hectares out of a total 2,533 hectares of land. The second largest tea producer in Malaysia is the Bharat Group. Bharat produces between 800,000 to 900,000 tons of tea from its plantation of 642 hectares, which is also located on Cameron Highlands. The third largest tea producer in Malaysia is Sabah Tea. Grades of Cameronian Tea There are four categories of tea grades for tea that is produced in Cameron Highlands: • Whole/full leaf—is derived without much alteration, or sometimes none at all, to the tea leaf. This is the most valuable grade of tea, especially if it contains the leaf tip as well. • Small leaf/broken leaf—is more commonly sold as medium-grade loose teas. Also, the smaller leaves from this category are sometimes packaged into tea bags. • Fannings—are the small leftover particles after the larger varieties have been produced. At times, they are intentionally processed to be sold in tea bags. • Dusts—are the final leftovers after the previous three grades have been processed, and are usually packaged into tea bags. In terms of flavor and intensity, the two higher grades are usually sweeter and possess a light, honey-golden color. The lower grades, fannings and dusts, have a darker color and result in stronger, more robust infusions. These are often preferred by the locals as they love a strong brew mixed with some milk and sugar. The Shifting Agricultural Focus Tea in Malaysia is produced year-round due to the climate, and is harvested every three to four weeks, when the new shoots flush. BOH alone produces approximately 70 percent of the country’s total tea production—of which 90 percent is reserved for local consumers. The balance is exported internationally to countries such as the United States, United Arab Emirates, Japan, Singapore and Brunei. Malaysia’s tea industry has been facing a number of challenges. Factors such as the current global economic climate, change in weather patterns and critically, a grave shortage of labor, have placed uncertainties on the industry. A labor-intensive industry, tea producers in the country are havinga tough time sourcing for manpower to work on the plantations. “Tea cultivation has [most certainly] declined due to a shortage of labor,” said Liew. But perhaps the most apparent issue at the moment is the shift of Malaysia’s agricultural focus and emphasis towards the expansion and development of oil palm plantations. It requires far less manpower to harvest a single section on an oil palm estate than it does for a section of the same size on a tea plantation. Furthermore, according to the Malaysian Department of Statistics, output of green tea leaves has also fallen slightly to 16,139 metric tons in 2012, compared with 19,872 tons two-years prior. Despite the current outlook, tea production, one of Malaysia’s oldest industries, has yet to realize its full potential. The local demand for tea remains steady, thereby maintaining tea’s availability at affordable prices. The Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) has also recently called for Malaysian tea and coffee exporters to tap into the export trade with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE is the world’s foremost re-exporter and second largest importer of tea. With MATRADE exploring new markets, tea producers and exporters are presented with an ideal opportunity to revive and stimulate Malaysia’s tea industry. In spite of the challenges it faces today, Malaysia’s tea industry still holds a great potential in significantly contributing to not only the nation’s ecam publishing an article about Tea in onomy, but also the lifestyle and enjoyment of its people.

This article was first published in the July 2013 edition of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal and was written by Remco Verwoerd and Vanessa L. Facenda.