Tea - production & trade

Asia is by far the biggest producer supplying 80-90% of all tea, mainly from India, China, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. India is the largest individual tea-producing country, growing nearly 30% of the world's tea. Tea was introduced to East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. It has become an important crop there, particularly in the highlands of Kenya.

Cultivation

A photograph of a tin of Darjeeling tea from Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: This tin of flowery orange pekoe is a high grade tea made from the buds and leaves of the plant.

Tea is grown on hillsides. The bushes are severely pruned and plucked to keep them at the correct density, and to encourage the formation of new leaf-bearing shoots which are produced every 7-21 days. These shoots are 'plucked' and put into baskets carried on pickers' backs. Experienced pickers can gather up to 35 kg of leaves each day. It's very arduous work and most employees are still very poorly paid.

The best-tasting teas are considered to be 'loose leaf' and are produced on a single estate without blending. The most popular brands use blended teas from many different tea cultivars for use as loose tea or tea bags. Blends are mixed by experts who grade the tea according to its strength, flavour and colour to produce a consistent taste. Some brands may include around 20 different teas in one blend. Plant variety, the size, age and part of the leaf picked, region of origin and processing method all determine the final appearance and flavour of the tea we drink. Good teas tend to have a bright appearance, while the cheaper the tea the muddier the colour.

The major distinction that is made between the teas we buy refers to their processing method giving us either 'black' or 'green' teas.

Tea is grown on plantations, usually as a single crop. As the plants are perennial, they can remain in production for more than 50 years. The cost of establishing a new tea field is high and it doesn't come into production for several years. Thus replanting is often delayed and fields of 70 to 100 years old are not uncommon.

The modern tea industry only started in India in the second half of the nineteenth century and has been growing slowly since then. Most of it was planted with seed which was virtually unselected, and basic tea practices have not changed significantly over this period.