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Tea types and their processing in China.

Tea types and their processing in China

China, unlike other major tea-producing countries such as India, Sri Lanka or Kenya, produces an extensive range of teas. Tee in China may be classified by the shape of the leaf, initial method of manufacture (withering or fixation), extent of processing (crude, refined or reprocessed), the time of plucking (spring, summer or autumn), the region of production, scale of production (state farm, agricultural collective, or smallholder), final market (domestic or foreign, counter-trade or cash) and color, aroma and taste.

The connoisseur has, therefore, ample scope to judge varieties and quality, much in the same way the Western connoisseur has with wine. For example, crude green consumed by peasant househols is quite a different beverage to the refined gunpowder green exported to Morocco or the reprocessed jasmine scented tea which uses green tea as its base.

The division of processing into two distinct stages of crude and refined processing is a function of China's backward transport system and the miniature scale of the industry. Apart from the state farms run by the government, tea gardens in the country are small, dispersed and subject to vastly different levels of management expertise. Crude processing is carried out by individual tea farmers in their homes, or in factories which are very small by international standards.

Unrefined or crude teas are subject to refining before being exported. Some domestically-consumed tea is also refined. Tea refineries are usually large state-run factories in provincial cities and towns. In recent years smaller factories, many of them contracted to individuals and using old and inferior equipment and backward technology, have mushroomed in tea-producing areas, outbidding the state sector for raw material.

The object of refining is to improve the product's external appearance, grade it, eliminate foreign bodies and raise its purity. The tea is also further dried to lower its moisture content, increase its aroma and then prepare it for shortage and transportation. Final blending, quality adjustment and unification of standards then takes place.

Two standards of tea are now ready for the market. The first is called "trade standard." Large state refineries at major ports of export, such as Shangai or Canton (Guangzhou), are authorized to designate export code numbers to their teas and to stipulate variety and grade. If, on the other hand, the tea is processed, packed, inspected and exported directly by a local factory, its water and dust content must be 0.5 percent below the criteria set for the above refineries. The second standard is called "processing standard" in which water content must be one percent below the standard set for export quality and where the dust content is subject to inspection at the port of export after blending is completed.

In relation to method of manufacture, teas pass through the initial process of withering--including Wulong (Oolong), black (Chinese red) and white tea--in increasing intensity of withering so that the processed leaf for white tea bears least resemblance to the freshly-plucked buds and tips. Other teas pass through an initial stage of fixation to prevent fermentation, including green, yellow and dark-green (Chinese black), in increasing degree of oxidation so that dark-green tea least resembles the fresh leaf.

Chinese teas may also be grouped into six major categories: green, black, yellow, white, dark green and grey. It should be noted that the Chinese name their teas according to the color of the liquid whereas in English the color is given to the dried leaf. Hence, the Chinses word for what in the English-speaking world is called black tea, is red.

Six Tea Categories

Green and black tea are familiar to most tea consumers and in China they make up the bulk of national output. In 1987, green tea comprised 60 percent of China's output of 508,000 tons, black tea 25 percent, grey 5.6 percent, compressed (essentially dark-green) 3.9 percent, with unspecified "other" teas making up the total. In 1988, green tea made up 65 percent of total production of 540,000 tons, a significant increase due to the higher prices it could fetch on the domestic market. By volume, China exports more black tea than green, but because it is generally of a low grade black tea brings in less revenue than green. For example, in 1988 just over 50 percent of China's tea exports of 198,000 tons were black with green making up 38 percent. However, black tea comprised only 40 percent of tea export earnings.

Green tea, the most popular hot beverage in China, passes through three stages in processing: fixation either by steam (preferred by the Japanese), or roasted (favored by the Chinese). Implements used for fixation include copper bowls, troughs or rollers. The next processing stage is kneading and twisting followed by drying--in copper woks, by curing or sun-drying.

The most common green tea in China is called chaoqing (roasted green) and is differential from hongqing (cured green) by two factors. First, in the kneading and twisting stage the process is lighter for the latter because as most of this tea is sold on the domestic market, it must be able to wihtstand water of a high temperature and retain its orriginal shape. Additionally, in the kneading and rolling stage, hongqing green is sifted and twisted a second time. Second, in the drying stage, hongqing green passes through a two-stage curing process of high-temperature curing as well as low-temperature drying. Hongqing is the base green for jasmine and other scented teas.

Chaoqing green is in turn divided into two principal types according to the shape of the leaf--oval, known as mei, and pearl-shaped, known as gunpowder. There are also needle shaped and flat-leaf chaoqing greens. The famous Longjing (dragon well) green tea from Hangzhou is a well-known example of a flat leaf. Complications arise from the fact that because mei has traditionally been dried in a wok and because of its shape it is commonly called chaoqing or long chaoqing and thus confused with the generic term.

Black (Chinese red) passes through the four stages of withering, kneading and twisting, fermentaion and drying. Black tea is divided into three principal varieties: small-leaf black, gongfu (congou) or traditional Chinese black and broken black (CTC), the tea most widely consumed in the West.

Small-leaf black is a traditional tea produced in very small quantities in Fujian province in southeast China. The leaves are plucked relatively late in spring. After fermentation the leaf is wok-fired at 200 degrees centigrade to halt fermentation by destroying the active enzymes and to increase its aroma. It is then rolled a second time for 8 to 10 minutes and smoke-cured. The finished product carries a faint pine aroma which is its mark of identification.

The most famous of all gonfu tea is produced in Qimen county, Anhue province. One bud and two or three leaves are plucked to produce this tea. After refining the tea is divided into graded tea, ungraded tea and leftovers.

China began producing broken black in the 50's for the Eastern European market. Most broken black is produced on state farms in the southern province of Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou and Jiangxi. Because a large-leaf bush is more suitable for the processing of this variety, in recent years production has been concentrated in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Since 1964 production has increased rapidly to the point where, today, 80 percent pf China's black tea exports are of broken black. However, only one-third is processed from the large-leaf bush. Sales are directed almost entirely toward the international market as very little of this is consumed domestically.

The remaining four categories of yellow, white, grey and dark-green, because of their unfamiliarity to Western consumers, merit more detailed discussion. Yellow and white teas are traditional products which command a specialized and shrinking market. Very little is produced and even then output is intermittent. In fact Chinese statistics group both under the category of "other teas."

In 1973, Huoshan county in Anhiu province, with an output of 700 tons, was the highest producer of yellow tea in the country. Yellow tea in the cup is characterized by its color, clear and pleasant fragrance and rich flavor. Processing is similar to that for green tea except that after three processing stages a process of covering is added to impart extra color to the tea.

White tea is a specialty product from Fujian province in east China and a small amount is also produced

in Taiwan. It was discovered in 1885 in Fujian's Fuding county. Production is miniscule and in 1976 only 500 tons were produced, equal to four percent of tea output in the province. Most of the tea is exported to Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Macau. In 1987 China exported 344 tons of this tea. White tea passes through two stages of withering and drying with the withering being of two kinds, complete withering or partial withering.

Dark green tea (Chinese black) goes through four processing stages: fixation, kneading and twisting, stacking and moistening, and drying. The stacking and moistening, performed in order to promote fermentation, is carried out in three ways: when the semi-finished product is wet, when it is dry, or to the finished product as repeated fermentation. This tea is normally reprocessed into compressed tea which is consumed in large quantities by China's minority nationalities, the Tibetans, Mongolians, and Uighurs of Xinjiang in particular.

Grey or Wulong (black dragon) tea is the most difficult of all teas to process. It is a semi-fermented tea combining the rich and sweet flavor of black and the freshness and fragrance of green. Wulong tea is an acquired taste, but one well worth acquiring. Its production is confined to the southeastern coastal province of Fujian and Guangdong and the island of Taiwan.

Processing skills are jealously guarded and it is difficult to inspect a factory producing Wulong. There are five processing stages: withering, semi-fermentation (according to the degree of which and the area grown the tea is known as north Fujian grey, south Fujian grey, Guangdong grey or Taiwan grey), roasting, kneading and twisting, and drying.

The consumption of Wulong tea is highest in the three producing provinces of Fujian, Guandong and Taiwan. It also finds appeal in Hong Kong and Macau. In recent years, Chinese Wulong has found a niche in Japan where it commands good prices. This is a good example of how new markets can be sought out and consumers, who have traditionally favored steamed green, can be attracted to a different product if the quality is consistently high.

Two other types of tea do not belong to separate categories, but, because they are made with different base teas, belong to one of the six categories above. The first is scented tea and the second compressed. Both are teas which are reprocessed from either crude or refined tea.

Fragrances have been added to tea in China since the Song dynasty (960 AD). In the late 19th century production of scented tea was centered in Fujian province. Processing of the tea is now concentrated in two large factories in Suzhou (Jiangsu province) and Fuzhou (Fujian province). In the processing of scented tea, fragrant flowers are added to the semi-finished tea-base. The resultant tea retains the characteristics of the base tea whether it be cured green (hongqing) with jasmine flowers (jasmine tea), grey tea with osmanthus (osmanthus tea) or black tea with roses (rose tea).

The main difficulty in producing scented tea is to synchronize the flowering of the jasmines or roses with the plucking of the leaf. Good-quality scented tea contains no flowers, only the fragrance resulting from the pressing of flowers between layers of tea. The northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin, Shandong province, and Guangdong and Fujian province in the south of China are the leading domestic consumers. When tea is served in Chinese restaurants in the West it is most likely to be jasmine tea, and not always of a very good quality.

Compressed tea in the form of bricks or cakes is so made for the convenience of shipment to outlying areas and, depending on the base tea used, it comes under the category of black tea (millet brick) or dark-green tea, (Sichuan fu brick, Hubei green brick, Sichuan gold tip and west Sichuan brick), which are all steamed, or Anhua fu brick and Sichuan fangbao tea, which are roasted, and scented brick. If the tea-base is green and it is then stream compressed and piled up to ferment, it comes under the category of dark-green and not green tea (for further details about compressed tea, see my article on this subject in the February 1989 edition of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.

Finally there are instant teas, most of which are made from black tea and some from green tea. China first produced experimental batches of instant tea in 1972 and since 1974 has sold the tea at the Canton Trade Fair. Instant tea in teabags now commands a growing share of the tea market. Soft drinks, such as tea cola made with black tea and tea orangeade made with green tea, are now available in limited supplies in China. Canned lemon tea manufactured in Hong King is sold in joint-venture hotels. While it appeals to younger Chinese, traditional tea drinkers of an older generation find it too sweet.

Future of China's Tea Industry

The tea industry in China must continue to attract domestic consumers against increasing competition from imported drinks such as coffee and Coca Cola, which have become very fashionable in recent years despite their high prices. In 1988, a new teahouse was opened in Hangzhou. It was elaborately decorated in the traditional style of the Song dynasty (960-1127 AD), and situated in a street specializing in restaurants and designated a tourist attraction by the city government. It failed to attract customers and closed its doors within six months--a warning sign that the local consumer cannot be taken for granted even in a city where the citizens are as addicted to green as Hangzhou.

On the international market there is untapped potential for China's great variety of exotic teas. Over the past few years there has been a lot of writing in the Chinese press on the subject but apparently little action to match the rhetoric. Penetration of the Western market will require levels of skill, determination and flair which to date have been noticeably absent from Chinese marketing techniques.

With clever marketing green tea could become a trendy drink in the high-income countries of the West. It has an appealing appearance and a refreshing taste. Chinese writers on the subject argue that the tea suffers from the disadvantage of the size of the leaf, which swells and returns to its original shape when hot water is added. They believe that a way must be found to process it into the dessicated size and shape of dried black tea.

However, the fact that Chinese green has not yet established a strong presence in the West is due more to poor promotion by the Chinese than to the product itself. If, for example, a decent grade of green tea was placed in Chinese hotel rooms for foreign tourists, satisfied consumers might take their discovery back home and create a strong demand for what is both a satisfying and safe drink in this age of obsession for healthy foodstuffs.

In this respect China has gone backwards over the last decade. In 1977 the Longjing (green) tea supplied to guests of the Hangzhou Hotel was excellent quality. The fact that my wife and I drink green tea regularly today is a result of living in that hotel for three years and being supplied with good quality tea. Sadly, the same cannot be said today for the tea in that hotel. This issue was raised with various people connected with the tea industry in Hangzhou but no positive response was forthcoming.

The Chinese tea industry suffers from a low profile which is surprising considering its cultural significance and the contribution that it makes to the earning of foreign currency. Perhaps its inferior status to other agricultural crops is due partly to the fact that within most parts of the country tea is regarded as a luxury consumer item for which demand is highly price inelastic.

Another important factor is the absence of a powerful and influential national body to oversee the industry. As recent articles in China have pointed out, there is no Tea Board, such as exists in India, to represent growers, producers and exporters. On the contrary, the industry is subject to the competing and conflicting bureaucratic interests of the Departments of Agriculture (production), Commerce (marketing) and Foreign External Relations and Trade (exports), as well as involving the Ministry of State Farms (amalgamated with the Ministry of Agriculture in 1982), the Ministry of Public Security (which runs tea farms for offenders) and the Ministry of Agricultural Machinery (1979-82).

Regular reading of the Chinese press confirms the view that each department holds its own view of how the industry should develop. For example, ideas differ as to whether China should increase its export of black teas or concentrate on green tea. This has resulted in the constant switching of production from one variety to another, especially during the past decade. In 1984, a rise in the international price of black tea induced Chinese producers to process this tea. In 1985 Wulong tea attracted producers and in 1987-88 green tea became the rage. At present, the emphasis is on reducing production of green tea and switching over to black.

The thorny and politically-sensitive question as to how far China should go in price reform and allow the market to determine prices has obvious and pressing relevance for the tea industry. The state-fixed export price is well below the domestic market price, resulting in shortages of supplies for export. Even the favorable exchange rate granted to exporters does not compensate for the losses incurred in placing the commodity on the international market.

At present it appears likely that China may back away from the limited deregulation of marketing and prices instituted in 1984 and return to mandatory procurements and state-fixed prices. The calls from various commentators to establish domestic auctions are unlikely to be heeded in the present political climate.

Overall, there appears to be no stated and agreed strategy to take China's tea-industry into the 20th century. If the growth rates of the past 30 years are to be maintained, it is essential that a feasible plan be mapped out and put into place. Only in this way will China have any hope of overtaking India and resume its position as the world's number one producer of tea--a product identified so closely with Chinese culture and most synonomous with the name China itself.

Note: In this article I have drawn extensively on the succinct article entitled "An Outline of the Classification of Made Tea," written by Professor Zhang Tangheng of Zhejian Agricultural University, and the very informative Chinese-language secondary school experimental textbook "Tea Processing" compiled by the Tunxi Tea School in Anhui province and published by Agriculture Press in 1980.
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Author:Forster, Keith
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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