There’s a hoary adage that money doesn’t grow on trees. With tea, it really does, on just a single type of plant, the Camellia sinensis. Left in its natural state, it will flower, just like decorative camellias, and can grow as high as 100 feet and live for well over 100 years. Tea farms keep it at just over a meter and shape it into a round table form, to make it easy to pluck. It has a productive life of, typically, 60 years.

In the past, this unprepossessing shrub has played a pervasive and often surprisingly dramatic role, not just in the social patterns of everyday life but in geopolitics, war, global finances, crime, tax policy, and labor markets.

For the future, the health of tea farming and selling across the world will increasingly be determined by the life-stage and health of the bushes. This includes the average age and replenishment cycle, the yield and quality of the leaf, how well they are likely to adapt to environmental and climate change, and how science, biodynamic farming and sound financial management come together to protect the heritage of fine tea, maintain its quality today and protect its future.

Here’s a brief biography of the typical tea bush and a profile of its vital statistics, genealogy and work record. The reason for presenting it in this form is to get across that it is not a static, substitutable and simple “plant” but a dynamic, long-lived and biochemically complex active organism, with many issues, opportunities, demands, challenges and threats that vary according to its life-stage.

The vital statistics of the bush

The tea bush is an evergreen. It grows in subtropical climates that have acidic soil and are mineral-rich. It needs plenty of rain, at least 60 inches a year, with good drainage; the plants die if waterlogged. It must have an average of 5 hours of sunshine a day to unfold its leaves after the dormant winter. This is one of the main reasons tea farming evolved on the highland slopes of mountains.

Its deep tap roots draw on nutrients in the soil to build what is in essence a chemistry lab in the leaf. What makes the tea bush unique is that the leaf contains at least six hundred different chemical molecules and compounds. The colors of tea – black, green, etc. – come from how managing how these interact through heat, oxidation – exposure to air – and light breaking up of their cells. So, too, do the flavors, aromas, likely though unproven health benefits

The bush has many predators. The feature that defines it as “tea”, caffeine, seems to have evolved as a natural pesticide. One of the reasons tea quality has declined in many regions is the loss of biodiversity in large lowland farms that has fueled the use of more and more pesticides. There are hundreds of localized diseases, pathogens and pests that result in an average loss of 15-30% for unprotected plants. Similarly, they are weakened by soil contamination and loss of nutrients, making expensive fertilizers a growing cost burden.

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The genealogy of the bush

Tea farming began in China, though there may have been fragmented harvesting of the wild plant in India. The official date in Chinese history is 2732 BCE (probably a Thursday. Maybe, a better dating is Star War’s vague opening of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”, except in this instance, it’s a mountain.

Regardless, Camellia sinensis has been crafted for at least 3,000 continuous years. Through all these past stages and for the coming era, the bush remains the same. There’s no different one for black teas, greens, oolongs, puehrs or whites. Tea bags, blends, iced tea, whole leaf, Imperial Grade plucking and CTC – Cut, Tear and Curl machine-mulch – are different in how the leaf that gets to your cup is harvested, processed and packaged, but it’s all from the same Camellia sinensis var. sinsensis and var. assamica.

This is not at all obvious and if you didn’t know it, it’s not a surprise. It took European botanists, entrepreneurs, chemists, traders and physicians a full two hundred and fifty years of serious investigation to find out just what tea was made from. They saw only the tea that China sold them and the few seeds and seedlings that could be smuggled out, virtually all of which died on the sea journey from China. (China protected its trade secrets aggressively, by isolating Europeans on a tiny Thirteen Factories area of Canton and the use of execution and hand removal instead of patent protection.)

The Latin can be summarized as, “We botanists finally realized this was a plant in the camellia family that was only found in China and a few other Asian countries where we know it was introduced by Buddhist monks. So we called it the Chinese camellia. Then, we found another variety that was the same species, with some different characteristics that evolved in adapting to their environment. So we now distinguish the Chinese Chinese camellia from the Assam Chinese one.”

Assamica was discovered in India’s jungle lowlands in the early 19th century. This broke wide open the tightly protected Chinese monopoly. It is larger in leaf and less hardy. Sinensis is predominantly used to produce the green and oolong teas of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam and Assamica the black teas of India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Africa and Indonesia.

Through the era of ecological challenge

The bush is core to tea growing. Its evolution is critical to tea’s future. The agenda is (1) respond to climate change and environmental degradation and (2) achieve sustainable profitability by either increasing productivity and yield when competing in the mainstream commodity market of tea bags and iced tea or increasing quality and “premiumization” that will command higher prices.

It seems likely that mediocre tea will get worse over the coming years. Many undercapitalized large farms and inefficient small growers will fail in both of these two imperatives. The bushes and their soil have been neglected past the age of easy repair. The lead times from inception – seedlings or clonal cuttings – to productive harvest are at least ten years and once in place, the growers must live season to season. The consensual annual rate of bush replacement needed to maintain health and productivity is 2%. It has been around 0.7% globally for many decades.

picking the tea leaves

Fine tea is likely to get better. Tea growing as a localized craft has seen many climate shifts over its two to three thousand years. It is highly adaptive and flexible – its Artisan methods adjust on a daily basis to weather in harvesting and processing. Its most highly valued names reflect microclimates where there is opportunity as well as challenge.

The innovators are investing in their bushes by adopting clonal plants that have been selected and nurtured for characteristics that help in response to climate threats and impacts: water use, flavor, hardiness, resistance to the flying zoo of tea leaf munching insects, and molecular chemical interactions. Most of all, the elite growers are harvesting clonal teas that create new elements of quality.

Polar bears have a somewhat different perspective on climate change than policy makers and anti-science deniers. For them, it’s real, cruel and so, so painful. Across all the regions where millions of people rely on tea for their livelihood and families’ future, it’s real, too. Global weirding is here. Now. The monsoons get later and more intense in India, waterlogging the plants and killing them off with root rot. Japanese smallholders are sensitive to the increasing unpredictabilities of rain patterns. Yunnan growers are seeing shifts in quality and yield in their high end Artisan-crafted green teas, where as one expert comments, flavors can change from morning to afternoon because of shifts in the concentration of amino acids.

The consensus is that production in East Africa is on track to drop by half by 2050. The bushes just can’t deal with the climate. In Sri Lanka, there is a sense of crisis. The country is a tea economy. It produces much of the leaf for heavy English-style black teas. Its climate and geography are the most varied in terms of highland and lowland terrains suited to tea production.

Books and articles published twenty years ago uniformly praise its organization, productivity, quality and variety of tea production. Today’s headlines are concerns for its lagging productivity, financial losses on export sales, and eroding position in the global market.

Here’s the problem. The bushes have passed their age limit. They are mostly 80 years old, with many over 100 years. They were grown from seedlings and are low-yielding hybrids of Sinensis and Assamica. Growers have not kept up with the evolution from seed stock to clonal cuttings.

But…

While the ecological challenge is immense, the solutions are well understood. In Sri Lanka, all the substantial productivity and quality gains have come from the smallholders that have applied them, while the politics-entangled large RPCs – Regional Plantation Companies – are flailing.

Similarly, one of the most prestigious names in the world, Darjeeling, fell into disrepute through a comparable post-independence transfer of ownership, overproduction, reliance on chemicals, and an aggressive pursuit of volume at the expense of quality to meet the demands of the Russian demand for Indian black teas but at only low prices. That market collapsed. So, did much of the landscape. Soil erosion brought landslides and many deaths, Entire estates were abandoned, leaving workers without jobs and the food and housing that had compensated for low wages.

Now, the magic is back. It’s still a long battle but the distinction “organic” is no longer a mark of “different.” The mainstream is now biodynamic (organic is just an expensive certification that takes three years to go through the process). Innovation is centered on new clonal bushes. Pollution and soil contamination remains a growing problem, mainly from cars in the now crowded town. Water management is in the hands of the weather gods. But all in all, good teas are getting better even as the ones destined for low-end iced tea and sawdust in bags slide towards mediocrity.

The strategic agenda for success in producing really fine tea and making an operating profit (Sri Lanka’s RPC average price is $3 a kilo and production costs $3.50.) is:

  1. Restore soil fertility levels through manure, mulch, straw, grading.
  2. Obtain new clonal cultivars through research labs, government services that meet specific needs (e.g., water, nitrogen use).
  3. Set up nurseries for clonal bushes to develop (1-4 years); plant fields with a mix of plants to ensure genetic variety (vital given the nature of tea bush seed production).
  4. Take unproductive land out of production and restore soil depth; plant new bushes.
  5. Implement eco-friendly management, not elimination, of widely and wildly prevalent pests, through natural pesticides, shade-trees and mixing in of flowers and shrubs.
  6. Manage the bushes through 1-2 year pruning, spacing, infilling.
  7. Implement appropriate technology: production, logistics, monitoring.

Alas, this is very expensive and cuts short-term productivity and income. Most estimates are that the transition to organic teas reduces yield by 40% for at least two years. The investment funds are not available for many growers and the cash flow drain unsupportable. As a result, the most common strategy is not 1-7 on the list but 7 – introduce “appropriate” technology.

When appropriate means “cost-saving”, forget fine tea. It means machines for harvesting. The savings are huge. Two-leaves-and-a-bud hand-plucking Artisan and labor-intensive processing add up to around 60% of production costs. In Kenya, studies report that two machines can do the work of about fifty people. Skilled labor is becoming harder to retain, and daily quotas for pickers are becoming unjustifiable. Machines cuts costs by about half. But quality drops. More of the bush is harvested, losing selectivity and adding in twigs, damaged leaf, and less tender ones from lower down the bush. The harvested leaf is pummeled into bland submission instead of being carefully withered, rolled and heated. There is less and less incentive to focus on fine whole leaf than pellets, prices and dust for tea bags.

Step 7 in essence gives up on the bush. It’s a get by, good enough, reactive surrender to the inevitability of commoditization. It is in this sense that it seems likely that mass market tea will get worse in coming years.

Sorting tea

As Sri Lanka’s small farmers and the Darjeeling revival show, it doesn’t have to be that way. Japan, Taiwan, the best China regions and the Assam and Nilgiri estates that are standouts on clonal teas are leveraging the bush and its bio-environment to produce a premium tea that more and more tea drinkers are ready to become aware of, informed about and willing to pay the relatively small higher price for.

When you buy tea, you see nothing direct that tells you about the bush. So, perhaps you don’t need to know all this. That said, it really is worth getting a sense of where it’s grown and how, not just what the tea itself is. You have no way of knowing anything about this from a blend. But you can for an estate or pedigree local region. Check out a few and you’ll get a sense of where it stands in terms of its bushes:

Puttabong: A top Darjeeling estate, with Chinese and clonal bushes that are bred to exploit its climatic conditions of high altitude and water flows.
Namring: Also Darjeeling; a combination of bushes aimed at creating teas with a mellow muscatel flavor: 1/10th Assam hybrid, 3/10th clonals and 6/10th Chinese.
Soom: Another Darjeeling, unusual in that its bushes are up to 130 years old, producing a very early spring harvest rather akin to a Beoujolais nouveau.
Mangalam: Their clonal teas are much lighter than typical Assams and they continue to adopt new cuttings from research labs.

These are just examples. The broader issue is that great teas are defined by the leaf. The leaf requires skilled harvesting and processing from a healthy bush. Maintaining greatness with all the environmental and economic challenges and threats means keeping the bush healthy.

Photographs from Darjeeling’s tea estates, by Gautam Virprashad.

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3 Comments

  1. Christine Bullen Reply

    Loved your article – AGAIN! This is all fascinating and for me new info. Glad to hear you are enjoying the writing. Although let’s not put down your brilliant IT research?

    I am still hoping you will discuss sources for the best tea. I am interested in both off and on line options

    • Thanks so much, Chris. It means a lot coming from you. I will be launching the. Where, what and how to buy advice very soon.

  2. Pingback: Madam Superintendent and Durga Puja in a Tea Garden - Tea Stories | Best Tea Blog | Still Steeping - The Teabox Blog

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