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The tea industry

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The tea industry in the global economy

Tea is not only a drink, but in many countries also an important economic crop. In 2002, 3.02 million tons of tea were produced, while the figure the previous year stood at just under 3 m tons. Indeed, it’s the most popular drink in the world, second only to water. Moreover, tea consumption’s continued to rise in the developed world and developing nations.

Where it’s grown, cultivating and processing the leaves usually constitute key sectors of the economy. One example is Sri Lanka, where the tea industry is the largest employer, accounting for approximately 800,000 people out of a total number of 19,000,000.

Tea production’s also important for India, which annually produces 830,000 tons of the stuff, making it the world’s leading cultivator. In all, the tea plant is grown in 30 countries in Asia, Africa and South America, but the levels of domestic consumption and export differ widely between them.

Returning to Sri Lanka as an example, it exports around 90% of its production, whereas the corresponding figures for India and China are 22% and 35%, respectively, as the remainder is consumed domestically. However, before any type of tea reaches the shops it undergoes a long and complicated journey.

From tea plant to consumer

Tea that’s been harvested and processed tends to be sold in weekly batches. Most is initially offered at auction at a local level. This doesn’t only apply to exported tea, but also to that intended for consumption in the country of origin. Only occasionally is tea directly exported (via contracts with a specific plantation), and it’s normally just high-quality tea that’s available in limited quantity.

When sold at auction, the tea arrives from the plantation to a broker, who processes it based on contracts with the relevant government or tea office. These brokers assemble the tea for auction into individual lots, which are always denoted as possessing a certain leaf size and quantity.

A typical lot comprises 20 or 40 units of 50 kg or 60 kg. The brokers assess the quality of each and make a valuation of it. Prior to auction, they send out samples of every tea to companies that are registered as buyers at the auction. The brokers participate in the auction themselves as auctioneers. In return for this service they receive a 0.5-1% commission. Just six weeks passes between actual production and the eventual sale.

A tea-taster has a truly crucial role in all of this, as it’s they who ultimately decide which tea is to be purchased. The individual samples are compared by tipping a certain quantity of the tea into special testing cups (usually around 2.8 g); 150ml of boiling water is then poured onto the leaves and the brew is left to steep for five minutes (this is the procedure for black tea). The tea-taster then rates the individual qualities of the prepared tea: primarily aroma, colour and taste. Using their refined sense of smell and taste, they choose the batches that have the required qualities for their employer.

The procedure is similar for the creation of new blends. It is necessary to choose teas for a blend that, in the final product, provide the expected result. Samples of teas are selected and then mixed, a task that involves using very sensitive scales. The end result is registered as a finished recipe and referred to as a standard, and usually designated with a certain reference number. The given teas are bought in a ratio so that, as far as possible, the same quality is maintained in the resultant blend. If a certain part of a blend isn’t available or is too expensive, the tea-taster tries to recreate the blend to a similar or very close quality.

If there’s a great demand for a particular blend, multiple suppliers will make a joint offer of it, dividing up the quantity between them. Finally, further blending, adding aroma and packaging the end product are actions normally performed in the countries where’s it’s intended for consumption.

The social situation on plantations

Taking India as an example, which is the largest producer of tea in the world, out of India’s population of 960m, a full 2m are employed in the tea industry. Tea’s an important economic commodity for India. In 1951, a few years after the declaration of Indian independence, the Plantations Labour Act set out the basic rights of tea-pickers.

Since then their working conditions have continued to improve, so today the tea industry is, in social terms, doing relatively well in the Indian economy. Pickers get a fixed salary for a pre-set harvested quantity. In addition, each kilogram’s rewarded in the form of a bonus, there’s a 100% bonus for overtime and pickers are entitled to maternity leave.

Large plantation companies even offer workers medical care, subsidised food and fuel for heating or subsidised housing. Employees on thousands of smaller plantations can only dream of this.

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