Jason Walker of Firsd Tea North America
As was seen in previous coverage of China’s green tea and black tea production trends, China is experiencing shifts in the areas where tea is grown and processed. These shifts, in turn, can affect the quantities and characteristics of the teas produced. It also opens the door to new developments in tea styles. These factors will influence the volumes and pricing of Chinese teas exported, and ultimately shape consumer preferences for Chinese teas.
China has nine provinces, each producing over 100,000 metric tons of tea, and another four provinces approaching that mark with over 70,000 metric tons. Dividing the top provinces into three “belts” illustrates the 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
A closer inspection of the Eastern Belt will reveal the shifts taking place in its position as a significant tea provider.
EASTERN BELT BACKGROUND
The three provinces in the Eastern Belt comprise over 140,000 total square miles and 158 million people, making the Eastern Belt the smallest of the belts in terms of land area as well as the most densely populated. The eastern and coastal provinces are also the most urbanized areas of China, with higher living standards and labor costs than other regions.
By the more traditional classification of tea growing regions, the Eastern Belt provinces span across the Jiangbei (Anhui), Jiangnan (Anhui and Zhejiang), and Southern (Fujian) regions. These provinces contribute about one-quarter of all of China’s tea production, including 25% of all green tea and one-fifth of all black tea.
The Eastern Belt produces its teas using about 2,351 square miles of total tea gardens. In 2019 they produced over $9.3 billion worth of finished tea, about 28% of all tea by value.
They did this using just less than 20% of China’s total tea land, and mainly due to urbanization, and the expansion of tea fields in the Western and Central belts, they are doing this on a diminishing share of land.
Anhui Province, home of several celebrated and historied teas, holds a smaller share of tea production compared to the other major 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 ranked 9th in terms of value contribution.
In terms of the breakdown of the province’s teas, about:
- 89% was green
- 6.5% was black
- 4.4% was yellow
Anhui is best known for green teas, including classics like liuan guapian, taiping houkui, and huangshan maofeng. Qimen (keemun) black tea also originated in Anhui province, and the province can use these specialty teas to command higher prices per pound despite having one of the lowest yields of any of the more developed tea-producing provinces.
Anhui Province is also a top-ranking exporting province, accounting for 12 percent of the export dollars and 16 percent of volume (60 million kg).
Zhejiang Province is the 2nd most populous province but the most densely populated in the Eastern Belt. It is also the smallest of the three in terms of land area. It produces about 6.5% of all China’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 terms of dollar value contribution, with over $3.1 billion in tea produced. The province produces about 10% of all green tea and approximately 2% of the country’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 than gold. Anji bai cha is another popular green tea hailing from Zhejiang, and Jingshan Temple outside of Hangzhou is where some of the earliest Japanese monks learned about tea and matcha-making. As with Anhui, these high-priced specialty teas can raise the province’s dollar-per-hectare with less need for higher kg-per-hectare. Some longjing and other specialty growers may only harvest the spring crop and not pluck again until the next year.
Zhejiang ranks highly in terms of both export volume and value. In 2019, Zhejiang Province contributed 24% of all China tea export dollars and 43% of all volume. These figures include Firsd Tea’s parent company, China’s largest tea exporting company.
Fujian Province is the least densely populated of 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 province contributes about 15% of all Chinese tea production, and in 2019 produced 412,000 metric tons of tea.
A breakdown of Fujian’s tea production shows the majority of tea coming out of Fujian is wulong, including famous wulongs like Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) and the various forms of green and darker Tie Guan Yin. About 80% of all China’s wulongs come out of Fujian province, and the country usually produces slightly more wulong teas than black. About one-third of Fujian’s teas produced are green, along with about 12% black. These black teas include some of the more familiar lapsang souchong and gongful (congou) black teas of Fujian. Fujian Province’s white tea production is also worth noting. While only about 5% of the province’s production is white tea, its production represents approximately 84% of the country’s total output.
The vast mountainous areas of Fujian make it better suited for tea than for other agricultural options, and the province’s southerly position makes it a significant producer. In terms of tea acreage, it ranks 5th with over 208,000 hectares. It is also one of the highest yielding provinces, capable of generating an average 1,900 kg per hectare.
WHAT IT MEANS
In general terms, the Eastern Belt is maintaining, or in some instances, even reducing its production capacities. It does, however, play a dominant role in processing and export, and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. These shifts in Eastern Belt value contribution can be connected to:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 teas to passing through the Eastern Belt but will have to dig deeper to understand the lands that nourished the teas they admire.