Per Capita Tea

teabaguniformityIt used to be that tea was just tea – 2 grams to be precise, neatly packaged in a 100-count box of tea bags on the grocery shelf.

Lipton, Tetley, Red Rose, Twinings, PG Tips, Yorkshire… the brands are too numerous to list but all weighed the same. The 2-gram teabag dictated uniformity. It also made it a lot easier to calculate just how much tea was consumed.

Last week Quartz, a digitally native news outlet that compares global data sets, published a flawed but nonetheless helpful visualization of the world’s tea drinkers by country. The stats on per capita consumption were supplied by Euromonitor International and were calculated as tea imports divided by population.

The world leader is Turkey at 6.96 pounds per person with Ireland (4.83 lbs.) and England (4.28 lbs.) trailing. While India (.72 lbs.) and China (1.25 lbs.) each produce more than a billion metric tons of tea, neither has a high per capita count since rural populations outside the tea growing regions find it expensive. Tea in these countries is mainly sold at market stalls, not grocery aisles.

Dividing population into the annual harvest (minus exports) is a good approximation of consumption in China, for example, where tea is consumed as loose leaf with few added ingredients to distort the weight/volume. It is more difficult to count cups but results in a more accurate measure of tea’s popularity.

The Chinese use six grams of tea per cup, as do the Turks. However the Chinese steep their green tea three to five times for a minute or two yielding at least three cups for two grams. Asians drink six to eight cups a day. The Turks in contrast steep their black tea once. Countries like Ireland and UK average two grams per cup (equivalent to a tea bag). Tea drinkers in these countries typically consume four to six cups a day.

Counting cups also has limitations. In Canada (1.12 lbs. per capita) and in the United States (.503 lbs. per capita) the totals are also distorted due to the large amount of bottled tea. While the majority of tea drinkers in both countries choose traditional tea bags, between a third and one half tea drinkers consume specialty blends including whole leaf tea. Much of this tea is bottled.

The Foreign Agricultural Service keeps tabs on tea imports for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the 12-month span from January to November 2013 (December numbers are not yet available but are likely to be the about the same as the 13 million kilos imported in December 2012) the U.S. imported an estimated 217,221,887 kilograms of tea for domestic consumption which is equivalent to 452 tea bags per person.* If this sounds too high, consider that a great deal of the tea that you drink is brewed in large quantities then powdered or concentrated and bottled.

When you exclude bottled tea, it does not seem unreasonable to assume a household with two tea drinkers buys 9 boxes of 100-ct tea bags a year – averaging about a box a month or enough tea bags for 1.2 cups a day.

Statistics Canada provides a very reliable measure of tea leaf consumed. Their count in 2011 was 2.65 lbs. per person or the equivalent of 600 tea bags a year. This compares favorably with the findings of market research firm Nielsen whose survey of 4,205 Canadians discovered 54% drink at least a cup of tea a week. The national average is 8.3 cups weekly with heavy tea drinkers consuming 16.4 cups a week (2.3 cups per day); moderate drinkers average a cup a day and light tea drinkers 1.5 cups a week. The Tea Association of Canada estimates Canadians drink 9.7 billion cups a year, a number that has climbed by 120 cups per year since 2006.

Since the population of Canada is about one tenth that of the U.S. Consumption is about double the per capita. An estimated 18.9 million Canadians drink tea on any given day. In the U.S. annual consumption was 79 billion cups in 2012. On any given day about 158 million Americans are drinking tea, according to the Tea Association of the USA.

The encouraging image portrayed by Quartz is that all the world drinks tea.

*The total excludes herbals and tea that landed in the U.S. but was exported to another country. The 217,000 metric tonnes is the equivalent of 239,446 short tons or 479 million pounds. Divide that by a population of 240,185,952 over 18 years and the per capita consumed is 1.99 pounds (452 tea bags). This falls to 1.53 pounds if you calculate consumption using the entire population of 314 million (2012 US. Census estimate) conforming to method used by Quartz with Euromonitor International data. Sources: Nielsen 2013 Tea Time Survey (Tea Association of Canada). USDA FAS. Statistics Canada. Tea Association of the USA.

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