Updated on October 22, 2020

Tea is a beloved drink enjoyed by people all over the globe. In fact, after water it is the most popular drink worldwide. But what do you really know about tea and how it’s made? Below we dive into the world of tea. Learn about where it comes from, how it’s produced and the current challenges and opportunities facing the tea sector.

First of all, what is tea?

Tea is made from the processed leaves of the evergreen shrub, camellia sinensis. The plant is native to Asia and has two major varieties; sinensis, originating in China, and assamica, originating in India. From these two varieties, six main types of tea are made: white, yellow, green, oolong, black (red) and Pu-erh. The different types are a result of the region in which they are grown and how the green leaves are processed after they’re picked. Other popular “teas” such as chamomile, mint, hibiscus, jasmine are actually not teas at all, but infusions from other natural sources including herbs, flowers, fruits and more.

Where is it grown?

While tea is native to Asia, it is currently grown in subtropical and tropical regions in over 50 countries worldwide. In total 5.3 million tons of tea were produced in 2015, with almost 80% of the world’s tea coming from four countries; China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka.

China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka, the top 4 tea producing countries in the worldSmallholder plantations make up to 60% of global tea production, especially throughout China, Kenya, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

Tea processing from leaf to cup

Tea plants require a lot of space and care to grow. Tea plants produce their first harvest after five to seven years. The leaves are harvested mainly by hand as machines are usually too rough on the tea plant and end up damaging the leaves. Plucking frequency varies greatly depending on the country, harvesting technique, climate and other factors. In some regions, plucking will occur every two to five days, and in others, it might occur every one to three weeks.

There are two types of plucking: fine plucking and coarse plucking. With fine plucking, only the bud and the first two leaves closest to the bud are plucked to create a more delicate, sweet flavor that is generally considered to be of higher quality. With coarse plucking usually around four leaves will be picked along with the bud. This type of harvest takes less time and results in a stronger tasting tea.

After the tea is plucked, it will undergo a series of steps depending on the desired type. All tea is withered, rolled and dried, but some teas will also be fired, steamed, oxidized and/or aged. The image below shows the different processing steps for each type of tea.

Processing steps for each type of tea

Who are the farmers?

There are an estimated 13 million smallholder farmers and tea plantation workers globally. Many tea farmers work for low wages in unhealthy working and living conditions. Women make up the majority of tea pluckers on most tea plantations yet they are often underrepresented in the workplace and in leadership roles. Smallholder tea farmers are largely dependent on tea for their livelihoods, and with a low level of farmer organization and a lack of land ownership, opportunities for economic advancement are slim.

Industry challenges and opportunities

 In addition to the social concerns of tea farmers, the tea industry faces many economic concerns as well. There is an uneven distribution of profits across the supply chain with many large companies passing pressures to reduce tea prices on to the producers. This means that many farmers struggle to manage low tea prices with high production costs. Meanwhile, environmental issues are growing. Climate change is increasing temperatures and causing more variable precipitation patterns worldwide. These factors decrease yields and tea quality and make tea cultivation more challenging. Other concerns include pesticide usage, deforestation and energy inefficiency.

What we’re doing

The UTZ tea program requires certified farms to create safe and healthy working conditions for workers. Farmers are trained to implement  better farming methods, such as soil management and plucking techniques, that increase efficiency and prevent the contamination of the local environment. In 2019, UTZ certified tea was produced in 14 countries and there were more than 94,000 tea farmers and workers benefiting from the UTZ program. On UTZ certified tea estates in Sri Lanka, for example, female supervisors were appointed for the first time following training, taking on roles which were previously only done by men.

As social, environmental and economic issues in the tea industry persist, we are finding new ways to increase our impact through collaboration. Examples of this are our involvement in the Integrated Pest Management Coalition, The Global Living Wage Coalition and our Sector Partnerships Program. These programs bring together certifications and sustainability organizations to tackle industry wide issues on a larger scale. While there is much work to be done to create an equitable and sustainable tea sector, efforts are being made to move the needle in the right direction.