Friday, March 11, 2011

Threats to Tea


Americans of the late 20th century, of the middle and upper classes at least, became pervasively accustomed to peace and plenty. They came to see this way of life almost as a birthright, perhaps, or at least as the reward for the hard work entailed in climbing out of the Great Depression, and also the massive investment in World War II. But panta rhei (or something like that) said Heraclitus: everything flows, nothing stays the same. The wheel of fortune turns; the vagaries of world culture shift and shift again.

Nature, too, is of course at least as complicit in this constant upheaval. There is no escaping such changes; the question is whether, or at least to what extent, Americans (or for that matter any other people) can hope to have continued easy access to the teas we love that come to us from far-off lands.

In the estimation of many people, some of the most extraordinary teas come from Yunnan province in southwest China. If you are a pu'er drinker or a lover of dian hong -- to name only two -- Yunnan is a special place for you. But Yunnan's teas in particular have been subjected to a number of stressors -- some natural, some cultural -- that could seriously threaten their production and availability. Three in particular are worth considering here:

* The 2009-2010 drought in Yunnan has been described as the 'worst in a century'; at least 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of tea plantations, and 3,300 hectares (over 8,000 acres) of tea trees, were destroyed by this drought. My fear is that at least some of those tea trees were old-growth trees used for pu'er; some of them were literally several hundred years old.

* As if the drought were not natural catastrophe enough, there was also a 5.8 earthquake in Yunnan's tea-growing region yesterday. It would be interesting to know what direct tectonic connection, if any, this disturbance had with the terrible 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, or with today's even more cataclysmic earthquake in Japan -- the worst in that country's recorded history, and accompanied by a massive tsunami (which, ironically, has caused widespread fires to devastate urban areas as well). But this Yunnan earthquake is at least the third major quake to afflict the province since 2007, when a 6.4 quake destroyed almost 100,000 homes in the tea-growing area of Yunnan.

* In addition to these natural disasters, there is a growing cultural trend that could well prove to have an even longer-lasting effect on the growing of tea in Yunnan: the increasing popularity of coffee in the province. An ominous citation from the article to which that link connects: '"Coffee now brings in more foreign currency for Yunnan than tea," says Li Gui Ping of the Baoshan Agriculture Center. "Last year it generated around US$47 million, compared to only US$18 million in 2004."' When profit differentials of this magnitude are involved -- and given the labor-intensive and often tedious aspects of tea production -- who could blame farmers who are tired of living from hand to mouth, and undertaking back-breaking labor every day (when the elements do not actually prevent their crops from growing)? Too, the younger generation sometimes sees tea-farming as embarrassingly old-fashioned and rusticated; and though their elders drank (and still drink) tea daily, they themselves are eager to become part of the global 'Starbucks' culture. I have had many young Chinese tell me, 'my parents and grandparents drink tea; I drink coffee.' To an extent, at least, the coffee/tea distinction is a zero-sum game: you cannot raise both coffee and tea bushes in the same square yard of soil. Will the lure of greater income woo tea farmers over to the cultivation of coffee instead?

These are just some of the threats to a constant and comfortable supply of tea in the West. We have not even considered natural pests or diseases that might threaten the health of the tea crops, or the political and economic tensions that could sour occidental relations with the mainland or with Taiwan. I do not mean to sound completely pessimistic; but I do think we should never take our favorite cup of tea for granted. Each sip is a blessing to be cherished.


Gingko said...

"we should never take our favorite cup of tea for granted. Each sip is a blessing to be cherished."


Matt said...


In Southern Laos, the coffee and tea trees grow right next to each other and it profoundly influences the flavour of the tea.

Is this what we have to look forward to in Yunnan few years down the road? Coffee nuances in our puerh?

See here:

and here are two tastings of tea grown next to coffee:


corax said...

hi matt -- thanks so much for this important and startling information. it will be interesting to see whether the laotian model transplants to china ...

Matt said...


However, the Northern tea producing area of Laos that shares a border (and wild arbour tea) with Yunnan is still almost exclusively invested in tea. In fact the tea production there has expanded exponentially over the last few years. Coffee doesn't seem to be part of the equation there, although modest amounts are produced.

See here:


Frank Hadley Murphy said...

The crop to watch out for in Yunnan is not coffee but tobacco and an extraordinarily good tasting one at that. Traveling through Yunnan a couple of years ago I saw it growing everywhere and was informed that it surpassed both tea and coffee as one of Yunnan's biggest yields.

Frank Hadley Murphy

Author: "The Spirit of Tea"

Unknown said...

As you so eloquently stated throughout and particularly at the very end of your post, we must never take our treasured Camellia sinensis for granted. We are indeed fortunate to have such wide and varied access to wonderful teas here in the United States, and I do think that it is important to pay attention to the origins and producers of those teas and to do what we can to help bolster the strength of the industry in those regions. I think that if we genuinely care, our concern needs to extend beyond simple consumption. That won't be enough to sustain.

corax said...

update [11 dec 2011] on the burgeoning coffee culture of china:

corax said...

also this: