Cheap tea will not become a thing of the past in China. However, there is a rising desire for better quality tea that is beginning to drive the market trends. This demand change will make cheap, lower-quality tea harder to find, with quality decreasing in tandem with price. This trend can be seen happening with gunpowder green tea.
Gunpowder green tea has been one of the staples of Chinese exports, and 5 or 10 years ago it was possible to get some pretty good quality gunpowder with the bulk of it available with international organic certifications. Try finding the equivalent now. Good luck. Pesticide use goes hand in hand with cheap tea because lower altitude summer leaves, which are plagued by pest problems, are sure to be used.
Probably the biggest buyer of gunpowder is Morocco, and when I talked to the head of the Moroccan Tea Council at a conference in China earlier this year, he asked me why it was so hard to get gunpowder. Not just good gunpowder, but simply enough gunpowder to meet the needs of the Moroccan market. This scarcity of product is because the biggest gunpowder producer in 2006 in Zhejiang no longer makes very much, and what they do isn’t profitable. Instead, they are making organically certified higher quality Longjing, and it is excellent.
At some point, Chinese tea producers started asking themselves, “Why make tea that wholesales for a couple of dollars when I can make tea that sells for a couple of hundred?” The Chinese domestic market supports the option of higher quality at a higher price as the middle class grows and is looking for a better quality of life. That wish goes hand in hand with being able to buy tea that had always been reserved for the nobility. This is a trend that will not change. Once you have tasted the good stuff, for most people there is no going back. It has become a matter of exposure and education, and a willingness to pay more for tea. Still, at today’s prices, even the most expensive tea is a bargain compared to fine wine.
This question is not only being asked in China, but it is also already being asked in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, where the majority of growers are small holders who can pivot easier than large plantations. It is wrong to think that the world’s tea drinkers will not follow that trend. There are producers who are trying white tea, and wulongs, as well as green tea. There is no reason that I can see that tea which requires greater skill and cultivars focused on quality rather that quantity, will not spread everywhere as it has with fine wine.
Tongmu Village invented black tea that became so popular, in its many forms, in the rest of the world to the degree tea is now the most consumed beverage after water. Tongmu hasn’t grown though, nor will it. Their village economy has prospered through innovation and applying their knowledge to produce incredible quality tea. They did that in a market place that had never existed before, and not once but twice. First by making the best out of a bad situation and inventing black tea, and then by taking things to a new standard of excellence with Jin Jun Mei to elevate their invention to the highest level ever reached by a black tea.
Photo courtesy of the author. Image 1: Lainge Junde, inventor of Jin Jun Mei.
Austin Hodge is the founder of sevencups.com.