China Black Tea Export and Production By The Belts
While China may be recognized as the world's leader in green tea, it is no slouch in the black tea department. Chinese black teas are widely used in a range of products, from premium and specialty teas and tea blends to more familiar foodservice iced teas. Compared to black teas from other major origins, Chinese black teas are used to impart sweeter, smoother, and more fragrant characteristics. Leveraging trends in China black tea provides opportunities to deliver great quality at significant value.
Let's take a look at some developments in China black teas:
As covered in a previous look at China tea origins, green teas make up the lion’s share of China tea production. Black teas usually rank 3rd in volume behind dark teas. However, black teas play a more significant role in terms of export value, representing just under one-fifth of tea exports.
US imports of Chinese black tea have generally declined over the past 5 years. More recently, the US-China trade war and coronavirus pandemic have contributed to this slowdown. However, organic black tea imports from China have been rising, with a 66 percent increase in volume.
China tea production has traditionally been divided into zones according to the geographic and climatic conditions. However, these zones can make it difficult to understand production and expansion, especially when data is collected on the provincial level.
Instead of using the traditional zones, major tea producing provinces are divided here into “belts.” These belts provide a clearer picture in terms of measuring production, yields, and new tea field expansion. There are 3 major belts:
The Western Belt is the leader in tea production overall, including black teas. These 3 provinces account for over 40% of China’s total black tea production. This is more than double the better known Eastern Belt provinces, including Anhui’s Keemun black tea and Fujian’s array of lapsang souchong and congou teas. Yunnan Province is the top black tea producing province, and single handedly accounts for approximately 20% of annual black tea production. The province has a long history of dian hong (traditional Yunnan black) teas, including exquisite Golden Monkey with its orange-gold fuzzy needles. Yunnan’s contribution is based more on sheer volume of tea production, and not necessarily a focus on black tea. The province splits its attention across green (45%), dark (35%) and black (20%) teas.
The Western Belt accounts for over 40% of China’s total black tea production.
Central Belt provinces have been contributing around 17% to annual black tea production. Hubei Province is the 4th largest contributor of black teas, in no small part due to its Keemun black teas. Keemun black teas originated in Anhui Province’s Qimen (aka Keemun) area, but production has spilled over into the neighbouring provinces of Hubei and Jiangxi. Anhui alone does not produce enough tea to meet the demand for Keemun black tea, and these nearby provinces can produce quality Keemun that is accepted as legitimate Keemun black tea based on its quality, origin, and processing style.
The Eastern Belt of provinces are probably some of the better known tea provinces, even though they do not produce the highest quantities of tea. Fujian Province has been the Number 2 black tea producing province for some time, while Anhui and Zhejiang rank around Numbers 9 and 10. Fujian alone contributes about 15% of China’s total annual black tea.
The Eastern Belt is best known outside of China because of its extensive history of exports, and these provinces are the top 3 contributors to exports by value. Together they represent nearly 60% of all tea export dollars, and have been the source of most the earliest China black tea exports, including Keemun, Lapsang Souchong (aka Zhengshan Xiaozhong) and other congou (gongfu) teas.
The dominance of the Central and Western Belts of China tea provinces means that the popularity of “classic” teas produced in the Eastern Belt will give way to teas from dominant producing regions. In particular, this shift will mean:
As with green teas, the shift in tea production, planting, and yields is moving to the Central and Western Belts. The “classic” tea areas are giving way for several reasons, but urbanization is a big driver. China’s population is now 60% urban, and most of the large urban areas are situated in the eastern portion of the country. With urbanization comes increased cost of living and labor costs. The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted a drawback in production in many areas, namely the dependence on lower cost laborers brought in from outside provinces. A notable portion of the tea labor force, especially in eastern provinces, could not travel during China’s lockdown from their homes in rural provinces to the fields and factories in the east. Eastern provinces keep their advantages as final processors, packers, and exporters, not as necessarily as growers.
The Central and Western Belts are increasing in planting area and boosting yield (kg per hectare) at a rapid pace, in part due to the use of tea as a driver of economic development. Tea is a relatively high value crop with stable demand that China is using to lift rural areas out of poverty.
New tea areas will likely continue to produce stable, mid-grade teas similar to those originally produced in the Eastern Belt areas and valued by consumers, but some of those familiar teas will give way to quality teas in their own right. Most tea areas have at least one or more styles of teas that have been produced for centuries, and producers will seek to further the reputations of their teas in their own rights. The international tea buyer can look forward to exploring distinctive, new forms of tea from these burgeoning locales.