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When I makes tea I makes tea as old mother Grogan said and when I makes water I makes water. -James Joyce (1882 – 1941), Ulysses
As the twenty-first century opens, the world’s tea trade faces three new and undeniable facts: 1) World tea production has increased phenomenally to perhaps three million metric tons; 2) Tea consumption in the Western world has stagnated, in competition with coffee and soft drinks; and 3) Tea consumption in producing and developing countries has soared.
Present-day tea exports average roughly 750 thousand metric tons, while much vaster amounts are retained in the producing countries for domestic consumption each year. Outside of China, Japan and Taiwan, this vast tonnage is disposed of through duplicates of the London auction which have sprung up around the world, starting with the first India tea auctions held in Calcutta in 1861. Colombo (Sri Lanka) dates to 1883, followed in 1947 by Cochin (South India), Gauhati/Siliguri (Assam), and Chittagong (Bangladesh), then Mombasa (Kenya) in 1956, Limbe (Malawi) in 1970, Jakarta (Indonesia) in 1972, etc. With the exception of choice lots of Ceylon, Darjeeling, or Assam, most teas sold at auction are ordinary in the extreme. All are black; though demand for green and oolong teas is growing exponentially, they make up well under 10 percent of today’s international trade.
CTC (Cut-Tear-Curl) tea now makes up far the most part of the world’s black tea. Invented in the 1930s, CTC machines have widely replaced the Orthodox manufacture by earlier tea manufacturing equipment that duplicated the ancient by-hand processes.
CTC is not leaf but granulated tea pellets, which make a strong liquor, brisk but harsh. Third World consumers like the fact that CTC yields perhaps a third more cups per pound; tea companies find it ideal for tea bags. CTC teas not only satisfy local demand and the foreign tea bag market but also promise the producer surer returns. The machine greatly improves teas picked in the rains and its reliably second-class product often beats the highly variable Orthodox teas for profit. The problem is that nobody can make fine or great tea by this method. Without growing demand from serious tea lovers, Orthodox teas may pass into history.
Before World War II Great Britain accounted for about half the world’s imports of black tea and prices at the London tea auction were in practice world prices, the yardstick for tea prices everywhere. Over the five decades between 1940 and 1990 as world supplies of black tea tripled at least, Great Britain’s imports dropped to only about 10 percent of the total, so that finally the London tea auctions (first held in 1679) were discontinued in 1998. England is no longer the world’s leading tea consumer (outside of China) – India is. Although the dollar value of the English market remains huge, it is equaled by that of Germany, which consumes only a seventh as much tea by volume. The difference, of course, is quality: Germany’s tea costs seven times what England’s tea does because it is better.