China's Western Belt of Tea-Producing Provinces
As this series on the origin provinces of Chinese tea continues, focus next turns to the West. Compared to the Eastern and Central Belts examined previously, the Western Belt, including Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, claims more land and more tea production.
The Western Belt claims a total population of approximately 162 million people, comparable to the Eastern Belt’s 158 million and the Central Belt’s 163 million. The land area of the Western Belt far exceeds that of the other areas. With over 400,000 square miles, it is nearly triple the size of the Eastern Belt and almost double that of the Central Belt. This makes its population density significantly lower than the other belts- 413 average people per square mile compared to the Eastern Belt’s 1,140 average people per square mile.
This vast span of rural and agricultural area helps make these combined provinces the largest tea producer of the 3 belt areas, contributing over 35% of China’s tea. This share of tea includes 41.2% of China’s green tea and 41.4% of all black tea produced in the nation.
Just as the Western Belt contains the largest total land area, it also hosts the largest amount of land dedicated to tea growing. It boasts 1.3 million hectares of total tea fields, or 43% of China’s total tea farmland. This represents an increase of over 233,000 hectares from 2013.
Each province within the Western Belt has seen growth and its unique contribution to China’s tea production.
Guizhou Province contributes a little over one tenth of China’s teas, or about 286,000 metric tons in 2019. That total included 14.5% of the nation’s green tea and 13.7% of all black tea. It ranks as one of the top 3 producers of green and black teas in the country. In terms of Guizhou’s production, nearly 81% is green tea, 15% is black, and 3% is dark.
Guizhou is also accelerating in terms of planting area. The province has increased its tea fields by 179% from 2010 numbers, reaching 466,000 hectares in 2019. It ranks 2nd among provinces for the most tea acreage. Additionally, Guizhou’s yields are improving. After weaker performances in 2017 and 2018, yields climbed to a 5-year high of 614 kg per hectare.
Sichuan Province is largely known for its contribution to green teas, including specialty greens from Emei and Mengding Mountains, and contributes 10.8% of China’s total tea production. The province produced over 301,000 metric tons in 2019, an increase of nearly 15% over 2015 volumes.
15.4 percent of China’s total green tea originated in Sichuan, along with 4 percent of black teas. Looking at the province’s teas produced, 84 percent was green, 10.1 percent was dark, 4.4 percent was black, and perhaps surprisingly, 1.4 percent was wulong.
Sichuan is the 3rd largest in terms of tea growing area, with over 383,000 hectares (about 1,480 square miles) of tea fields. This represents a 75 percent gain in planted area compared to 2010. Average yields have remained relatively stable, ranging from about 785 - 815 kg per hectare.
When a Yunnan tea is spotted in the North American market, it is likely to be a black (dian hong) or dark (pu’er) tea. Yunnan is the 2nd largest tea producing province, yielding over 400,000 metric tons in 2019, including 23.7 percent of China’s black teas and 11.3% of all green.
In terms of the province’s production, 45.8 percent was green, 34.6 percent was dark, and 19.3 percent was black. Considering that China produces more dark tea than black, Yunnan’s production by type is a better reflection of China’s overall production.
Yunnan province also has more hectares of tea than any other province. In 2019 a total of 466,000 hectares (1,800 square miles) was planted - an increase of 27 percent over 2010. Yields declined slightly in 2019, but generally hover around 900 kg/hectare.
The Western Belt is on its way to becoming the most important tea producing area in China. It already boasts the highest share of tea fields with 42 percent of China’s total tea gardens. This is more tea land than the Eastern and Central Belts combined. Investments are increasing in the provinces, especially as tea farming is being used as a means of sustainable development and poverty reduction across China. The Western Belt’s impoverished counties are especially being targeted for sustainable tea cultivation.
These provinces’ teas are also the highest contributor of value, providing one third of China’s total tea dollar value compared to the Eastern Belt with 28 percent and the Central Belt with 20%. Combined, the Western Belt is also the largest of the belts in delivering green and black teas. The Western Belt (like the Central Belt) is also relatively untapped in terms of bringing volumes of dark teas, like pu’er, to North American consumers.