Tanzania. Guatemala. Vietnam. Malaysia. Costa Rica. Thailand. These are not countries one would immediately associate with specialty tea production, yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they all substantially increased exports of loose tea to the United States between 2007 and 2008. Now, mainstream specialty tea companies like Adagio and Teavana offer Nepalese tea, and the availability of specialty teas from unusual origins such as Malawi, England and Georgia is on the rise. Some industry observers say shifts in agricultural production are inevitable byproducts of economic and climate change. Regardless of why they emerge, unusual origins offer value buys in tough times and new flavor profiles to delight a growing audience of tea connoisseurs.
According to tea consultant Jane Pettigrew, the major reason tea production is shifting to new locales is money. For example, land prices are rising in Taiwan, so some Taiwanese oolong producers are relocating to Vietnam and Thailand to decrease their overhead.
Charles Cain, director of operations for TeaGschwendner U.S., said these shifts in production sometimes result in exceptional values for quality teas. Tea importerand consultantNigel Melican added, “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have touched Vietnam as a tea origin,” but now some producers have “upped the game” with quality teas worth carrying.
Terroir, the concept of distinct flavor imbued by region-specific factors such as climate, soil and varietal, originated with French winemaking, but it also applies to tea. Pettigrew said today’s tea consumers want to treat tea like wine and are taking a new interest in origin.
“You don’t excite people with just average tea; you need the unusual experiences (such as new origins) to make it more exciting,” she said.
Cain said this newfound connoisseurship does not mean tea businesses should forego old favorites – then, he went on to passionately describe his current favorite tea, a “fruity and full” first flush Nepalese black tea with “fascinating” peaks and levels in flavor.
This kind of excitement about new discoveries – and the work of people like Melican, who has traveled to 26 tea-producing countries on six continents – is encouraging the expansion of specialty production techniques into a multitude of new and unexpected places.
Some traditional origins are also producing orthodox teas and using foreign processing methods in response to customer connoisseurship, Cain and Pettigrew added.
Origins to watch
According to the USDA, between 2007 and 2008, U.S. imports of Kenyan loose black tea rose 31 percent. Imports of Costa Rican loose green tea jumped 357 percent. As impressive as these figures are, they do not reflect quality levels, and with so many unusual origins vying for specialty tea dollars, it can be difficult to know which ones to consider for your inventory. Here are sources’ recommendations for origins to watch:
Bolivia – Sustainably produced black and green teas stimulate the local economy and connoisseurs’ taste buds. The black tea is “warm, fruity … not too rich, but with a nice rounded flavor,” Pettigrew said.
England – Although production is small-scale, teas Pettigrew described as “extraordinary,” like a spring-plucked, bud-only green, are now emerging.
Guatemala – “Very nice, standard, balanced” black tea is sustainably produced on a nature preserve that benefits 50 local families, according to Pettigrew.
Kenya – Orthodox tea is less than one percent of total production here, Melican said, but now there are some “really lovely” orthodox teas, including greens and whites.
Malawi – “They can make really delicate, floral white teas from the same varietals that are normally to produce gutsy, thick, juicy black teas,” Pettigrew said.
Nepal – Cain said some Nepalese teas are “on par with the finest stuff in Darjeeling,” but often less expensive.
Rwanda – A top-selling CTC factory was recently purchased for orthodox production, placing Rwanda on the specialty tea horizon.
South Korea – Quality first-flush, pan-fried greens are backed by serious intentions to expand the industry, making South Korea “one of the most important” to watch now, Pettigrew said.
Southern India – Look out for Chinese-style teas, such as oolongs, greens and whites.
Sumatra – Watch for value oolongs, according to Cain: “There are pouchongs that are better quality, but the price point is really aggressive.”
Thailand – Tea has been produced in Thailand for a long time, but thanks to the relocation of some Taiwanese oolong producers, oolong quality is on the rise.
Vietnam – Quality varies, but now there are great teas to be had.
To follow further developments in unusual origins, Pettigrew advised reading tea articles and blogs, and talking with the growing numbers of tea producers at the World Tea Expo. You can also read about America-grown teaand watch video interviews on unusual origins with Pettigrewand Melican on World Tea News.