Tea manufacture in China
Oct 20, 2013 | Written by Anupa Mueller
The tea bushes looked familiar but the process differed in many respects, big and small - here are observations: We visited mid-September and yet wherever we went, they advised us that plucking was over for the year. This was against a backdrop of bushes that still had leaf on them, (enlarge the picture!) something unthinkable in India where plucking continues until the weather no longer permits it. We learned that pluckers work for about half the year in China and go on to other jobs for the remainder of the time. This may be different in some areas, e.g., in Hangzhou there is no plucking but further south in Zhejiang province, they are still manufacturing tea via hand plucking and machine processing. The business model is completely different and is driven by economics. Which brings me to the next point - number of workers. Over and over, we were surprised at how few people were actually employed at the processing factories. Contrast this with India where a company can have thousands of workers. Makaibari - a very small single-property holding - employs over 600 workers. Any given day, you can see hundreds of workers in the fields. In China, we saw 10 - 20 people in various processing factories with no pluckers in the fields. Statutory obligations in India differ markedly from those in place in China. India requires employers to provide housing, schooling, pensions, medical health and has an entrenched bonus structure which can add significant pressure to profitability. Since Green Tea processing is more common than Black Tea processing in China, factories are divided into Primary Processing and Final Processing and Packaging facilities. In order to arrest the activation of the enzymes to allow for Green Tea processing, heat must be applied as close to plucking as possible. This is accomplished in the primary processing areas. De-enzyming is commonly called 'killing the green' or 'fixing'. In Black Tea processing which requires that natural oxidation occur, activation of the enzymes is of course the critical component and processing facilities are usually combined and factories hold withering troughs, rollers, dryers and sorters. As our visit unfolded, we got better educated and were no longer surprised when they asked us if we wanted to see their Primary Processing or Final Processing facility. 'Tea Estates' or 'plantations' are commonly used in India. in China, the typical terminology is "Tea Farm" and sometimes each origin location is called 'tea base'. It is not uncommon for a manufacturing facility to process leaf from several tea bases. Equipment size was also very different. Although we did see some very large pieces of equipment, we found that most factories had row after row of smaller rollers, dryers, sorters and all kinds of specialty machines that were critical in imparting the special leaf characteristic of some of the teas we have grown to enjoy - Pi Luo Chun, Ti Kwan Yin, Longjing. We were able to closely monitor and participate in the actual manufacture at various facilities in Fuzhou, Hunan and Jiangxi. Every facility had Cold Storage. This was a real eye-opener! We were completely unfamiliar with cold storage of teas, partially or completely processed. Temperatures are typically 8 - 11 degrees C. Since electricity is readily available everywhere (and not even supported by back-up generators!), all companies took advantage of this. All in all, an extremely rewarding visit.