Summer, 2005 Newsletter - "The Struggle over Camellia Sinensis"
From Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya by Robert Fortune
Part 2: Tea Consumes India
In Part 1 of this series we traced the origins of commercial cultivation of tea (Camellia sinensis) under the control of the British Empire. China's monopoly on commercial tea production had become financially distressing to the British. We noted that the unprincipled trading practices of the British created a serious dilemma for the burgeoning tea trade; the illicit opium trade by the British East India Company had become intolerable for China.
Early attempts at the commercial production of tea outside of China floundered for several reasons. Little was known about the identity and optimum growing conditions of the tea plant; even less was known about the actual processing of the leaves for the final product.
Carolous Linnaeus, Swedish botanist and originator of systematic taxonomic classification, first classified tea in 1737. Yet even two hundred years later there would be no firm agreement on the number of varieties of Camellia sinensis. The fact that certain varieties of C. s. thrive in specific climates and at specific altitudes is well known today, but a considerable number of errors would have to be made before the various trials at tea cultivation would succeed.
One thing was certain: China was not anxious to help the foreign barbarians develop their own tea plantations. A number of tricks were played on the would-be exporter of China tea bushes. It was not uncommon for a batch of "tea" seedlings to be ordinary camellias rather than Camellia sinensis. Tea seeds purchased from China would often fail to sprout when planted in India. It was later suspected that these seeds were boiled to prevent germination.
Failed attempts at cultivating China tea varieties in India were frustrating to those attempting to do so; they were even more frustrating to those who believed that the native Assam varieties held more promise for success and should be cultivated instead. These Assam tea protagonists found few followers. Thus, acres of thriving plants were uprooted and destroyed to provide room for China seedlings.
Success finally came, although the early production was less than inspiring in either quantity or quality. The first commercial batch of India tea, weighing approximately 350 pounds, was shipped to London in May, 1838. Meanwhile, annual English imports of China tea had risen to roughly 32 million pounds!
Oblivious to the magnitude of the challenge ahead, and seeing the potential for huge profits from India tea, thousands of London speculators were eager to invest in the fledgling Indian tea enterprise. Predictably, those expecting a quick fortune from their investment were grossly disappointed. Small increases in production were countered by enormous increases in expenses.
Part of the early difficulty was attributed to the poor yield of the "evil" China plants, which over time became considered the "curse" of India tea. The expectation of huge, quick profits from India tea yielded to reality and impatient investors sold their shares in the venture at considerable loss. Those who truly believed in the future of the India tea venture, and stayed the course against all odds, would ultimately be rewarded.
The turn-around of fortunes began in 1847. With new emphasis on high yielding indigenous tea, and with proper management, a gradual but significant improvement in production rekindled the enthusiasm for the India tea trade. Ultimately. India would become the world's largest producer of tea. Annual production of India tea by the early 1900's would exceed 350 million pounds, over a million times that produced in 1838.
Emphasis on yield was to rule the India tea trade for decades. After all, the objective was to supplant the common China export teas which had become the standard of comparison. The finest handmade teas of China were seldom seen by the Western world, and were certainly not available to the average consumer who was often sold inferior teas, even teas adulterated with used tea leaves and foreign matter. It was such practices which lead to one of the first consumer protection laws in the United States, the Tea Law of 1897. In effect until 1996, this law required that all imported teas be examined by the Tea Examiner of the USFDA before they could be sold. While still subject to FDA regulations for food imports, subjective evaluations on the quality of imported teas are now made solely by the importer. It is worth noting that prior to the dissolution of the Office of the Tea Examiner, Pu-Erh could not be imported into the U.S. legally. Samples of Pu-Erh submitted to the Tea Examiner were automatically rejected due to personal prejudices against this unique tea!
Today there are effectively two distinct tea industries in India, and, for that matter, throughout the tea producing world. The greatest volume of tea is produced for mass consumption. When fresh, it can be quite acceptable, even very good.
Of growing importance, however, is the production of what is called specialty teas, the gourmet segment of the tea market. There are many similarities between this segment of the tea market and that of fine wines, not the least of which is the inverse correlation between crop yield and quality of the finished product.
Auction prices for specialty teas can easily reach ten times (or even a hundred times!) the price of lesser teas. Tea estates capable of competing in this market are quite content to make concessions on crop yield knowing it will translate into higher auction value.
Nowhere has there been greater focus on the specialty tea market than in the Darjeeling district of India. Tea gardens of Darjeeling are usually planted with China varieties of Camellia sinensis, as well as China-Assam hybrids. Such varieties are developed with emphasis on flavor over hardiness and yield. Often the most desired plants are the product of unstable hybrids. Seed propagation from these unstable hybrids will generate regressive strains, lacking the desired character of the parent plant. In this case, clonal stem propagation must be used. Unblended tea from clonal plants has been available, to a limited extent, for about twenty years.
The evolution of the India tea trade is far from over. Those fortunate enough to prefer Assams to Darjeelings will likely find the next decade to be quite exciting as Assam estates compete for the top end of the specialty tea market.
Fortune, Robert. A Journey to the Tea Countries of China. London: John Murray, 1852.
Fortune, Robert. Two Visits to The Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya. London: John Murray, 1853.
Ukers, Wm.H. All About Tea. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1935. volume 1, pp 23-172.
"Upton Tea Imports was founded in 1989 with the objective of providing the North American tea drinker with
the finest teas available. We purchase teas from reputable brokers and estates worldwide, dealing only with
sources who are capable of providing top quality teas. We sell directly to the consumer, thus ensuring the
freshest product and fairest pricing."