China's Central Belt of Tea-Producing Provinces
In previous exploration of China’s tea-producing regions, it was revealed that the Eastern Belt, while famous for its high-value and popular teas, is generally stagnating as a volume producer in comparison to the booming Central and Western Belt growers.
A closer inspection of the Central Belt provinces will expand that understanding and reveal the advantages that Hubei, Hunan, and Shaanxi provinces offer.
The Central Belt provinces are home to over 163 million people living within a total of 231,000 square miles. With an average population density of 706 people per square mile, the Central Belt has about the same number of people as the Eastern Belt living across about half the land area of the Western Belt. Geographic position of the provinces also provides several key advantages. The region, especially Hubei province, offers several ports along the Yangtze River, and serves as a hub for rail, road and waterways to Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. This triple threat of river, rail, and road makes the Central Belt critical to transport and distribution of China trade.
Together, the Central Belt provinces contribute about 23 percent of China’s total volume, including 19 percent of green tea volume and 18 percent of black tea. This share of production is expected to increase in the coming years. With over 615,000 hectares of tea garden currently established, the Central Belt has swapped positions with the Eastern Belt in terms of share of total tea fields. Compared with 2015 numbers, the Eastern Belt represented just over 20% of all tea fields, while the Central Belt was just below one-fifth. The Central Belt appears on track to continue gaining share of tea acreage and improved tea yields.
Hubei Province is the shining jewel in the Central Belt crown. The province contributes 12 percent of China’s total tea production. It is the 3rd largest producer by volume and 7th largest by value. The 335,000 metric tons of finished tea it produced in 2019 represents a 70 percent increase over 2015 yields, further strengthening Hubei’s position as a major player in Chinese tea.
Relative to China’s tea volumes by province, Hubei’s production makes it the 3rd largest provider of green tea (8.6%) and the 2nd largest producer of black tea (10%). Breaking down the province’s share by type, about 62 percent of the tea produced by Hubei is green, followed by 21% dark tea and 15% black tea.
And Hubei is on track to further expand its tea growing capacity. It has a little over 330,000 hectares (1,158 square miles) of tea fields compared to 214,600 hectares in 2010. Yields have increased as well. 2019 saw 1,016 kg/hectare- a 65 percent increase over yields from 2015.
Hunan Province also has a long established history of tea production and trade dating back to the later Tang Dynasty (705-907AD) and reaching further heights during the Wanli Tea Road trade route to Russia in the 19th century.
Dark teas like Anhua Heicha have contributed to Hunan’s established reputation. It is worth remembering that China actually produces more dark tea than black (13.5% vs 11% of total volume), and while Hunan contributes about one quarter of China’s dark tea, it also produces about 5% of China’s total green and 7% of China’s total black tea. In total, Hunan’s teas account for 8 percent of all Chinese tea production. Additionally, Hunan is China’s 3rd largest tea exporting province by volume.
In terms of Hunan’s 2019 production breakdown by province:
And the province is positioning itself to make further gains. Hunan has expanded its planting area to 680 square miles (177,000 hectares), an increase of 83% from 2010. The province’s rank in hectares rose from 10th place in 2015 to 8th in 2019. Hunan has also remained a consistently high yield producer, one of only a handful of provinces to maintain in excess of 1,200 kg/hectare for the past 5 years.
The surprising thing about Shaanxi Province is, despite being one of the least-known as a tea producer, it contributed more in terms of value (according to provincial statistics from the China Tea Marketing Association) in 2019 than either Hubei or Hunan province. It contributed 3.3% of China’s total production, including 4.8% of all green tea and only 0.7% of all black.
Shaanxi produced over 92,000 metric tons of tea in 2019, of which:
The province has over 144,000 hectares (556 square miles) dedicated to growing tea- a 33 percent increase from its 2013 acreage. Despite this gain, Shaanxi has only maintained its position as the ninth largest province in tea garden area.
Shaanxi also shows potential in increasing its yields. It produced 639 kilograms per hectare in 2019, a 33 percent increase in the past 5 years. Considering the expansion of tea fields, the addition of new laborers, and the overall economic and infrastructural development taking place in the province, it is reasonable to imagine that improved agricultural management and practices can raise yields to 800 kg/hectare or better.
As a whole, the Central Belt (Hubei, Hunan, and Shaanxi) provinces hold several advantages in current and future competitiveness.
Their geographic location provides them Goldilocks Effects:
The Central Belt’s specialty teas, even those with long histories, are unknown to the vast majority of North American consumers. As major producers looking for export markets, their teas have been positioned as affordable alternatives to more famous teas, but producers will also look to promote their heritage specialty teas and develop new teas. This is especially true in areas within the Central Belt where tea farming is being used for economic development of rural, poor counties.