The tea world is looking greener by the day.
Although black tea has had the spotlight for decades, the tea world is looking greener by the day. Just a decade ago, green tea accounted for less than 25% of global tea production. Estimates now put green tea accounting for about one third. While green tea production is expanding in several countries, China will continue to be the dominant force in green tea for years to come.
The global Covid 19 pandemic created noticeable disruptions to tea trade, including green tea. China, for example, saw a 4% decline in total 2020 exports- the first such decline since 2014. Total 2020 China tea exports totaled 349,000 metric tons, of which about 84% was green tea. Green tea exports were impacted, but not to the extent of some other teas. Green saw an annual decline of 3.5%, while black tea exports dropped by about 18%. This variance may be related to the significant drop in demand for foodservice teas (which are largely black teas), and the increased potential for at-home, single serve formats that can incorporate more green teas. Consumer preferences for health were also likely a factor. The 2 types of Chinese teas that best weathered the storm were green tea and dark (pu’er) teas. Pu’er teas, though in much smaller total quantities than green tea, saw an overall 27% increase in exports for the year. China’s green tea exports saw gains in volume in the latter half of 2020, suggesting a potential recovery, or possible future expansion in green tea consumption.
Green tea prices have remained relatively stable and competitive compared to other tea categories as well. Green tea averaged $4.34 per kg in 2019, compared to black tea at $9.92 per kg and an overall average of China teas at $5.51 per kg. These prices reflect a 7% increase above the previous year’s green prices, and a 16% rise for black teas. Average export prices on Chinese tea for 2020 rose 6% versus the previous year to $5.84 per kg.
China drives the lion’s share of green tea production. About two-thirds of the nation’s tea production is green tea. In 2019, China’s total green tea production reached 1.77 million metric tons. All other countries don’t come close to China’s total or green tea production. India is the nearest, with total production close to half the total tea of China. All others fall by the wayside. Even Vietnam, whose green tea production now accounts for over half of the country’s production, produces approximately 95,000 metric tons of green tea.
Looking within China reveals how green tea shapes production across the country. The top 9 tea producing provinces can be roughly divided in 3 regions of East, Central, and West. While Eastern provinces (Anhui, Fujian, and Zhejiang) have their names tied to some historically popular teas, it is the Western Belt (Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces) that makes the biggest contributions to green tea. Each of these provinces delivers between 11% and 15% of the nation's green tea, for a combined total of over 40%. The Eastern Belt is the next closest, contributing 25%, and the Central Belt (Shaanxi, Hubei, Hunan) produces another 18% of the total. To illustrate this scope: over 85% of Anhui Province’s production is green tea, yet 45% of Yunnan Province’s is green and eclipses Anhui greens by about 50,000 metric tons. Production in the Western Belt is prodigious. This means the majority of the world’s green tea comes from China, and it comes from areas that Western consumers are largely unfamiliar with.
As global tea consumers seek more green tea, it will increasingly originate from relatively obscure and developing areas. China continues to expand its tea fields, particularly into new rural areas. Many of these new tea fields are in China’s central and western provinces. Guizhou province, for example, went from ranking 5th in 2010 for total tea field area by province to ranking 2nd in 2019. It now boasts over 465,000 hectares in tea. The Chinese government views the development of the tea industry in these areas as a means of sustainable economic development for many of China’s rural poor. Green and white teas are proving to be the teas of choice in these newly established regions, as processing of green and white teas doesn’t require the technical skills needed for controlled oxidation like black and wulong teas do. New tea areas can turn out green and white teas that require less technique and processing time, and (potentially) expand their offerings as their expertise and capabilities improve.
Indications point to the growing strength of green tea. Production and exports appear relatively stable, with further potential for growth. Green tea continues to hold its position as a health-focused beverage while also becoming more popular as a great tasting drink, It continues to gain market share as a base for successful tea blends, and the diversity of green teas coming out of China and elsewhere allows for a diverse array of green teas with unique flavor characteristics of their own.