As we noted in an earlier blog about where tea is grown, tea comes from a large number of countries around the world, though only a relatively small number including China, India, Japan, and Kenya produce it in large scale. But we were curious, how does the tea actually get into our hands for consumption?
Tea, of course, starts with the plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea plants begin life as cuttings in a nursery before being planted in fields for commercial growing. These fields may be corporately owned or those of smallholders which makeup a substantial, if not the majority of growers around the world. (United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012). After a flush of new growth appears, pluckers will pick leaves ranging from a bud only to a bud and two or three leaves, collecting the leaves in a basket or other container. While manual labor is used for most plucking, some tea is harvested by mechanical means.
After plucking, tea immediately begins to loose moisture and begin oxidation and must quickly get to a manufacturing plant. So the farm and the manufacturing plant must be close enough to allow raw leaves to be delivered immediately. Farmers rarely own manufacturing facilities themselves, so after tea is picked in the field it is carried to a factory on foot, car, truck, bicycle, or motorcycle depending on what happens to be at hand. This may be done by the farmer or by middlemen who purchase the raw tea leaves and transport it to the factory for processing.
Once at a factory the tea leaves are processed and turned into one of the major types of teas. This may be done using CTC or Orthodox methods, ultimately resulting in a finished tea product that is ready for packaging and sale. At this stage tea is packaged in large containers made of a variety of types including polypropylene, jute (vegetable fiber spun into threads), or paper sacks or in tea chests. Tea chests are made of plywood lined with aluminum foil and parchment paper to ensure they resist absorption of other aromas and, when full, may weigh 75-160 lbs while foil lined tea sacks may weigh 55-130 lbs. (TIS-GDV, 2013)
Depending on country and local arrangement, tea may be sold directly to distributors and wholesalers or may go through auction. There are well established auction houses in Colombo, Mombasa, Calcutta, and cities in other major tea producing countries of the world. In some cases the tea is actually packaged and leaving port before money has traded hands!
Packaged tea is shipped in a variety of methods although excessive handling is not desired as sacks and chests are easily damaged resulting in loss of the tea within. It is normally placed on pallets and then moved by forklift into a shipping container to be shipped around the world. When it gets to the destination port this container may be emptied and the contents re-shipped, or the container itself may be forwarded on to the end buyer.
Upon reaching the distributor or wholesaler the shipment of tea is then split up, sold in existing packaging, or repackaged into smaller sizes for purchase by retailers and in some cases direct to consumer. At this point some tea may become the base of a blended tea or may remain as is. Finally, the retailer will repackage the finished product into sizes that are manageable for consumers and sold directly or sold to other retailers, tea houses, or hospitality establishments.
Since tea does have a shelf life it is important to get the tea to retailers and consumers quickly. Some aspects of shipping can be done faster, especially with air shipping and consumer purchase direct from the grower. However, these are generally niche solutions with low volume, appropriate for specialty teas and buyers who really know what they want and are willing to deal with some added risk of placing orders with a company overseas.
So where do you buy your tea? Physical tea store, on-line retailer, farmers market, other?
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TIS-GDV. (2013). Tea. Retrieved from Transport Information Services – GDV: http://www.tis-gdv.de/tis_e/ware/genuss/tee/tee.htm
United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization. (2012). Contribution of Smallholders to the tea sub-sector and policies required to enhance their livelihood. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Intergovernmental Group on Tea.