Tea and Geography

Tea and Geography

A view of worldly attitudes towards tea

It’s spring in my English country garden in Ramsbury and I have in full bud a Camellia sinensis (I once went to the trouble of picking and drying my own tea from this little evergreen bush). Home grown tea is quite the novelty but it makes me think about where tea comes from.

Camellia sinensis grows mainly in tropical and sub-tropical climates.  It prefers conditions to be at least “warm temperate”, and up to “tropical moist”, on the standard Holdridge scale of life-zones.  In other words, it likes an annual rainfall of 700-3100 mm (27-120 inches) and a mean annual temperature of 14-27°C.  In addition, the soil should be well-drained (as well it might, with 10 feet of rain each year!), with an acidity between 4.5-7.3 pH.  Tea bushes can, of course, grow outside these ranges but prolonged adverse conditions are not conducive to a thriving plantation – in particular, all teas are intolerant of frost.

Although the mere mention of “tea plantation” may conjure an image of verdant terraces clinging to Himalayan foothills, perhaps with a monsoonal build-up in the offing, this is a somewhat colonial take on the industry.  Not all tea is grown in the Indian subcontinent by any means, and many successful plantations have been established further afield in rather less tropical locales: Washington in the north-western United States, or Pembrokeshire in Wales.

China is unsurprisingly the world’s leading producer of tea.  Sitting just north of the Tropic of Cancer, it encompasses areas with the right climatic conditions to produce world-beating teas and the sheer scale of production means it turns in a total annual harvest of 1.25 million tonnes, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

India is a close second, with just under a million tonnes annual production, sitting astride the Tropic and benefitting from a rich combination of monsoons and mountains to provide an ideal growing environment.  In third and fourth place, roughly neck-and-neck and both well within the tropics, are Kenya and Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as the tea industry nostalgically insists on calling it) with about 300,000 tonnes each.

But the fifth most important tea-growing country in the world isn’t one you’d necessarily associate with your daily cuppa, at least not in Western Europe: Turkey accounts for over 5% of world production, some 200,000 tonnes.  Most of this is grown on the Black Sea coast, which boasts adequately high rainfall and fertile soil but which, at 41°N, is about as mild a climate as tea can stand.

However, it doesn’t stop there – as far north as the UK, tea has been successfully grown in Cornwall and Pembrokeshire.  The UK’s west coast, with its maritime climate governed by the warm North Atlantic Drift from the Caribbean, is well known for being significantly more temperate than other coasts at the same latitude, such as Labrador or Alaska.  And the micro-climate found in some sheltered valleys is surprisingly similar to that of, say, Darjeeling; certainly, average minimum temperatures are a few degrees higher than the minimum experienced in West Bengal.  Even so, snow is not unheard of in the Celtic fringes of Great Britain, and many people’s experience of Welsh weather might suggest a descriptor of “cold and damp” rather than “tropical moist”, but with judicious use of polytunnels and some added heating in winter, it appears that tea is proving a commercially viable, if niche, option.

Africa is also a significant player in the world market, with Kenya, Malawi and Uganda all performing respectably, and newcomers such as Rwanda starting to make themselves known.  A major factor holding back expanded tea production would seem to be the large upfront investment of money, time and land required to start a plantation from scratch.  Added to this, the relatively restricted market for tea, and its narrower margins compared to other crops, are probably further disincentives to upscaling of cultivation.  It is also likely to be significant that infrastructure in many suitable locations is currently insufficient and agricultural activity in these more underdeveloped regions is predominantly concentrated on growing food crops, usually on smallholdings or at a subsistence level.

A quick glance at a globe will reveal that the main parts of the world which have so far largely held out against c.sinensis are the Americas, North and South.  This may be down to cultural concerns: in the north, the US has traditionally viewed tea with antipathy, stemming from British attempts to impose high levels of tax on tea imports to the 13 Colonies.  The Stamp Acts of the late 18th century precipitated outbreaks of civil disorder such as the notorious Boston Tea Party and ultimately led to the War of Independence.  Since then, tea has generally been thought of as a “British” drink, to be shunned in favour of the more patriotic coffee.  Which is not to say that you can’t find a decent brew in the States, but it remains as minority choice.  Even the fact that our American cousins will check whether you prefer “hot tea” (as if the temperature could ever be in question!) emphasises the distinction with the indigenous “iced tea”.

South of Darien, local culture may again be the reason for not embracing c.sinensis more fully.  The climate and ecology are certainly both conducive to tea – indeed Argentina ranks about 10th in the world, with 75,000 tonnes or so grown each year – but local tisanes and herbal infusions may already satisfy much of the demand which tea might otherwise fulfil: maté de coca (brewed from coca leaves) is renowned for easing the symptoms of altitude sickness in the Andes, and yerba mate has a ritual and history all of its own (see later).

Traditional wisdom will tell you that the finest teas are slow grown at high altitude.  Of necessity this requires a tropical or semi-tropical climate and a mountainous geography to ensure the right temperature and rainfall, and the further you depart from this ideal, the less perfect your tea will be.  Of course, there are only so many areas which sit in this geographical “Goldilocks Zone” and many of these are already prestigious centres of tea production, rightly proud of their traditions of excellence.  But elsewhere, away from such a perfect convergence of conditions, tea is also a viable and profitable crop, yielding both quality and quantity.  Exciting new territories are coming onstream all the time, in much the same way as viniculture expanded over the course of the 20th century from its traditional strongholds.  Wherever there is sufficient heat and water, there will be tea.

Hmm, hot water… That gives us an idea – time to put the kettle on!