The year is 1825 on the British colony of Ceylon, now modern-day Sri Lanka.
The British have just gotten their hands on Arabica coffee, a variety with a smooth, tasty character. They get to work planting Arabica coffee trees all over Ceylon, hoping to satisfy Europe’s insatiable appetite for coffee. Soon, vast plantations of coffee are thriving throughout Sri Lanka, and by 1870, Ceylon is the biggest producer of coffee in the world.
With one small problem: Hemileia vastatrix.
In 1875, Hemileia vastatrix, or “the coffee rust”, invades Sri Lanka. This parasitic fungus lives primarily on coffee trees, and infests the leaves until it eventually kills the entire tree. As it turns out, Arabica coffee trees are particularly weak to the coffee rust, and with Ceylon planted mostly with Arabica, the disease is unstoppable.
In just 20 years, Hemileia vastatrix completely decimates the coffee industry in Ceylon, destroying most of the plantations on the island. Where Ceylon was producing 100 million pounds a year in 1870, just 5 million pounds were produced in 1889, a 95% loss.
In a weird twist of fate, the destruction of Ceylon coffee gives rise to Ceylon tea. Where their prized, healthy coffee trees once stood, the British plant tea bushes, and soon Ceylon becomes world-famous for tea. Today, the tiny island of Sri Lanka is the 4th largest producer of tea in the world, and Ceylon’s iconic, bright and citrusy tea is available almost anywhere.
And it always will be… right?
Well, I’d really like to think so. But I’m sure all the Ceylon coffee fans back then assumed it’d be around forever, too.
What about tea?
It’s a bummer to think about, but the truth is, tea isn’t immune to the problems that wiped out Sri Lankan coffee. You know, sustainability problems. Sure, 1870 sounds like a long time ago. The farms that produce our coffee, tea, and other crops seem so far away, too. But the fact is, things are happening to our favorite foods and drinks, and that’s affecting how we enjoy them today and in the future.
You guys have seen the headlines. We might lose 50% of our coffee by 2050. By 2050, we might be seeing a lot less chocolate, too. And for you fellow sushi lovers out there, seafood might not even make it that far. Scientists predict that, at the rate we’re going, our oceans will be empty by 2048.
Now, where does tea stand on that timeline? Will we still have good tea to drink in the next 20 years? And what might tea look like for the next generation of tea drinkers? Will the next generation even know what good tea is?
These are big, heavy questions to talk about, but I think we deserve to be able to have this discussion as a community. I mean, we’re tea drinkers. From what I’ve seen, we’re a mindful, ever-curious bunch, and we don’t like being left in the dark about things. tea community. Do we really want to end up like those coffee people in the 1800s? They stood by, clueless, as one of their favorite coffees was destroyed. I bet those folks were pissed in 1889.
I bet many of us would be pissed too, if we never knew what was happening to our favorite teas until it was too late.
So, then, what’s in store for the future of tea? And is there anything we can do to support a brighter tomorrow for it?
The Future of Tea: What Are The Experts Talking About?
Okay, hold up. So, what’s gotten me into talking about this “future of tea” stuff all of a sudden? While I’ve been thinking about tea sustainability ever since my time in the tea biz, I just got a recent wakeup call to revisit the topic again, thanks to the UC Davis Global Tea Initiative.
In February, I made the 9 hour drive up to Northern California to attend the Global Tea Initiative’s 3rd Annual Symposium. Each year, they host this symposium to cover a really important topic in tea.
As you may have guessed, the theme this year was “The Future of Tea: Issues in Sustainability and Preservation”
To handle such a heavyweight topic, the GTI crew brought in some super qualified experts to lead the discussion. We’re talking about tea researchers, tea scientists, and tea farmers from all over the world. Basically, the people who really see what’s happening everyday on the tea fields. We also heard from students who are researching tea at UC Davis. (Um, can I go back to college to study tea, please?)
As you can imagine, it was tea knowledge galore. There were talks about growing tea in California. Talks about women running tea businesses in Darjeeling. Talks about the big discounts you can get on master-level Japanese teaware these days (more on that later).
It was a ton of information, and I couldn’t possibly fit in EVERYTHING in this post. But I’ve done my best to pick out some of the most timely and interesting points for us to discuss, so we can at least get the conversation started.
Without further ado, here are 4 takeaways from the experts, on the future of tea.
Takeaway #1: Climate change is affecting tea quality
As it turns out, climate change is messing up more than just the polar bears. It’s also messing up tea.
According to multiple experts at the conference, climate change is causing trouble on the tea farms. It’s threatening the quality, production, and even existence of certain teas.
In China, tea scientists like Dr. Wenyan Han are already conducting studies to understand exactly how climate change is affecting the tea gardens. Dr. Han, Professor of Tea Science and the Chief Scientist of Tea Cultivation at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science, is based in Zhejiang Province. It’s an important tea growing region, and is also home to Dragonwell, China’s most famous green tea.
According to Dr. Han’s data, China’s traditional tea regions, like Zhejiang Province, are suffering more climate change than the global average. Basically, things are getting hotter and drier, with temperatures up by 1°C – 1.6°C, and humidity down by 5.4%. The rainy season is getting later, too. Nowadays, the monsoon rains are delayed by a full 22 days compared to 1980.
So, how are those changes actually affecting the tea plants?
- Lower nutrient content: In laboratory studies, Dr. Han found that tea plants exposed to higher levels of CO2 had lower levels of nutrients. While higher isn’t necessarily better in terms of nutrients, good tea does need the right balance of nutrients. According to Dr. Han, the higher CO2 might disrupt that balance, which would mean less flavorful teas.
- More pests: Dr. Han says that tea farmers are dealing with pests that they’ve never seen before. Places that were once too cold for the pests, like the Dragonwell tea gardens, are now attracting pests from warmer areas. When tea leaves are damaged by pests, there’s less tea to harvest, and the tea plants are less healthy. Farmers are forced to use more damaging pesticides, too.
- Lower caffeine: Remember how CO2 reduces the nutrients in tea? Apparently, it can reduce caffeine in particular. That’s bad news because caffeine is a natural pesticide. If tea plants lose too much of their caffeine, that’ll make the pest problem even worse.
- More late spring frosts: It’s in the late spring that tea plants have their delicious, tender young buds and leaves. That stuff is prime material for good tea. Unfortunately, the tea farms have been seeing late spring frosts lately, and frostbitten leaves means a smaller, lower quality harvest. Dr. Han says that the problem is so bad that the the government offers an insurance policy for frost damage!
Because of all these problems, Dr. Han says that China’s current tea regions will see lower production, and a decline in quality. That means that growing regions will probably move to colder areas, either further North or to higher elevations in the mountains. That also means that some cooler regions will see a longer harvest season because of the warmer weather, though! All this reminds me of the situation in the wine world, where wine regions are getting shifted around, too.
What does this mean for us? Does that mean we should write off old classics like Dragonwell?
Not so fast. It’s important to consider that while a whole region might be affected, certain gardens might be doing just fine. Also, some gardens might get affected but still adapt really well to the changing conditions, especially if they have the support of tea scientists like Dr. Han. If you buy Dragonwell this year (like I will!), just make sure to ask your vendor about the quality of the harvest. A good vendor should be able to give you the information you need, especially with important issues like these.
However, if it’s true that the good tea regions will shift, maybe we can also look at some of China’s less popular teas. What about Xinyang Maojian from Henan Province, one of the most northern tea regions in China? Will completely new regions show up on the map? I’ll have to do more research, but it’s a start. If you guys find out something in your own research, let me know too!
Meanwhile, in India…
In the keynote speech for the event, “The Future of Tea: A Bumpy Ride?”, research scientist and tea consultant Nigel Melican covered a ton of information, but he had some bad news in particular about Assam, in India. (Side note: I’ll be linking the video to this keynote speech when UC Davis makes it available.)
Now, Assam is a big deal in the tea world. Even if you’ve never had a pure, unblended Assam, you’ve probably had it somewhere before. You may have had it in a breakfast blend, a flavored tea, or even in a chai latte. That’s because Assam is unmatched in its big, bold, malty flavor. The region also produces more than half of India’s tea!
Nigel had some bad news about Assam, though. Unfortunately, Assam is also being battered by high temperatures, extreme weather, and unstable rainfall. According to Nigel, the temperature has risen by whopping 3°C / 5.4°F. The cycles of floods and droughts are putting the soils in bad shape, too. Tea is very picky about good soil and proper watering, so Assam’s vast plantations are suffering.
Nigel says that the conditions are so bad that the old, classic taste of Assam has already been lost. He also predicts that the region risks losing its tea in the next 10-15 years, if conditions continue. Yikes. It’s a bold claim, but Nigel pointed out that some major corporations are even pulling their tea operations from Assam.
It’s really hard to believe such bad news. I mean, how can we possibly lose Assam tea?
But that’s probably what the people in Sri Lanka felt about Ceylon coffee in the 1800s, too. Also, Nigel has been working on Assam’s tea farms for longer than I’ve been alive, so we should probably take him seriously. It’s scary news, but instead of being scared, why not use this as a wake-up call? I’m no expert, but maybe there’s something we can do to support Assam’s future…
From my own short visits to Assam, I noticed that while it’s mostly made up of huge plantations, there are small, family-run gardens, too. These small farms seem much more manageable. You’re more likely to spot problems on the farm before they get out of control. Also, the families who run these farms often use sustainable practices. This allows them to better maintain the health of their tea plants.
These farms often avoid herbicides, and allow groundcover plants to grow with the tea. This helps the soil retain more moisture and resist erosion. Also, some small gardens plant tea bushes from seed, instead of from cuttings. Cuttings are the fastest, most popular way to grow tea, but they’re really just clones of the mother plant. They end up weaker in the long term, with shallow roots and no genetic diversity. They’re easy victims for soil erosion, droughts, and pests (remember Arabica coffee and Hemileia vastatrix?).
On the other hand, plants grown from seed take longer, but they’re better plants overall. Their strong, deep roots are awesome against drought and erosion. Also, a garden planted from seed has genetic diversity, so it can better fight off pests and diseases. As a bonus, these plants live much longer, making them a resource for generations to come.
For Assam’s future, these small, family farms are kind of the Obi-Wan to my Princess Leia. I’ve seen their happy, healthy tea plants, and the pure passion that drives them to keep their gardens alive. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I really have a lot of hope for these farms, and for Assam.
To support these farms, look for Assam tea that’s been grown with sustainable practices. Fair Trade and Organic labels aren’t good enough, either, as many small farms can’t afford these certifications. Ask your vendor what their favorite farm is doing for sustainability in Assam! If you’d rather skip the search, you can also email me for some recommendations. I can connect you to nearby vendors who carry awesome, sustainable Assam tea, most likely from farms that I’ve visited myself.
Full disclosure: I don’t earn referrals or commissions for the promotion or sale of any teas. Any suggestions I make are my honest opinion. Look, I just want to share good tea and maybe help save the tea world at the same time, y’know?
Takeaway #2: Tea farms need technology upgrades, too
It’s romantic to imagine a secret, 1,000 year-old tea garden nestled deep in the mountains, unspoiled by machines or modern technology. God, they don’t even have 4G service up there, it’s THAT remote!
It’s a nice thought, but let’s be real. Even ancient tea farms have to get with the times. Actually, awesome teas tend to come from farms with a mix of old-school heart (to keep it real) and 21st century tools (to pursue perfection).
So, what’s new and trending on the tea farms?
Matcha, powered by the sun
Looks like the green stuff is getting greener, with the help of solar energy.
Matcha is a big thing in today’s tea market, but it requires a pretty specific setup… To make matcha, you need to install shade covers for your tea plant. Shaded tea plants will have the rich, umami flavors that you need for good matcha. Usually, the shade cover is just layers of dark cloth draped above the tea bushes for weeks at a time. Or just laid out across the tea bushes, if you’re feeling a little lazy.
For matcha producer Kunikazu Mochitani, that’s not good enough. Why use plain old cloth when you can use solar panels? In his presentation, Kunikazu-san showed off the awesome solar panel structures he’s installed as a shade structure for tea farms. These solar panels provide:
- Permanent, moderate shade for the tea plants
- Enough energy to power 10 homes (around 40 people!)
- Protection against frost
- Protection against drought by reducing evaporation from the soil
- Serious bragging rights
I mean, that’s a pretty sweet upgrade from the cloth covers. And as for the bragging rights? According to Kunikazu-san, the solar panels are a big inspiration for young tea farmers, who are drawn to these new developments in an old, out-of-fashion industry. The solar panels also make small farms more economically viable. So, these installations may also support the rise of small-batch, ultra high quality matcha.
Because seriously, the matcha is really, really good. Creamy, rich, and sweet: it’s what matcha should taste like when you don’t cut any corners. Why not give it a try, and also help support the future of tea in Japan?
For more info on this matcha, just email me, and I can send you to a local tea vendor who carries the matcha. Again, I don’t earn any commissions or referrals for my recommendations. 🙂
This matcha is so solar-riffic, it causes spontaneous sunshine and overexposure on photos.
Tracking tea farms by satellite
In Taiwan, soil health is a big issue for tea. A lot of tea plantations are perched on steep, uneven slopes in the mountains. Because of that, tea farms are threatened by landslides, erosion, and chemical run-off from nearby farms. Sometimes, a farmer might have no idea that his tea plants are getting exposed to these problems.
Luckily, Taiwan is always coming up with new tricks for tea farms to use. Now, according to Dr. Yuan Shen, Professor of Soil and Environmental Sciences from the National Chung Hsing University, they can use satellite imaging to track the health of tea farms!
With the new, birds-eye view, scientists can easily spot problem areas on the farm. They can see the water activity on the farm, and also areas where the soil is suffering due to misuse of pesticides and herbicides. They can even tell you exactly what nutrients the soil is missing, just based on the color of the tea leaves!
Tea business through Bitcoin & the blockchain
The truth is, it’s hard to do international tea business. If you’re a small, independent farm on the other side of the world, how do you get a thousand pounds of tea safely from your farm in Thyolo, Malawi to St. Louis, Missouri? How can you make sure your buyer has all the information they need? And how can you make sure you get paid?
Elyse Petersen, tea wholesaler and a friend of mine from Las Vegas, tackles global tea biz headaches on the daily. She says that there’s a surprising solution for tea farmers: through Bitcoin, and its blockchain technology.
In a nutshell, the blockchain is just a new way to process transactions. It’s all done through the Internet, by random computers around the world. Because it’s random, the processed data can’t be easily cheated or forged. It’s a cheap, fast, and effective way to do business.
Bitcoin is basically just money transferred through the blockchain.
Now, how does that relate to tea?
As Elyse explains, tea farmers love receiving money as Bitcoin when they can. Farmers don’t pay any foreign exchange fees, and they don’t have to deal with bank holds or delays, either. It’s super fast and secure.
You know what else could be transferred in a fast and secure way, too? Information about the tea.
In the future, Elyse suggests that the blockchain could serve as a way to protect authentic teas, like West Lake Dragonwell. These high value teas could be sold with a blockchain record. That record would store the exact harvest date, farm location, and other details about the tea. It could even track shipping history, as companies like UPS get in on blockchain, too!
Then, as a buyer, you can check that blockchain record for your tea. A dishonest tea vendor can’t just fake that information, so it’ll be a lot harder to pass off fake teas and information. Big score for transparency in tea.
Yeah, tea might be thousands of years old, but you can definitely teach an old dog new tricks.
Takeaway #3: Certain tea traditions are fading away
When we talk about sustainability, the first thing that comes to mind is the environment, right? But as it turns out, culture has to be sustainable, too. To survive, a tea culture has to be compatible with the social and economic factors of its time.
In Japan, some tea traditions aren’t looking too sustainable, unfortunately. We heard about this from Dr. Paul Berry, curator of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and a research fellow of the Japanese government. According to Dr. Berry, chanoyu, or what we know as the Japanese tea ceremony, is vanishing.
In simple terms, chanoyu is the art of preparing and serving matcha. In truth, it is an incredibly complex art, involving a lot of discipline, skill, and specialized knowledge. More than just tea, chanoyu practitioners have to know about kimono, flower arrangement, calligraphy, ceramics, and many other Japanese arts that contribute to the tea ceremony.
Chanoyu is so complex that there are even different schools that teach it. You can just barely distinguish the different schools by tiny details in their tea service, like the color of their whisk, or the way they fold their tea cloths. You may have heard of some of the famous chanoyu schools before: the Urasenke and Omotesenke schools. Here is a list of implements used in chanoyu by the Omotosenke school.
As Dr. Berry explains in his presentation, chanoyu tea schools were in high demand before the 1960s. That was when arranged marriages were common in Japan. Back then, young women would study tea ceremony as a form of etiquette training. On paper, a woman who practiced chanoyu was considered more sophisticated and attractive, as a potential spouse.
(Which makes me wonder, have I ever landed a date just because of my tea brewing skills…?)
Anyway, arranged marriages went out of style in the 1970s and 1970s… and so did chanoyu, I guess. Ever since then, young folks haven’t really had a reason to study tea ceremony. In fact, there are so few students at the tea schools that some are closing down altogether. There’s just no one left to take over as the old masters retire. The new generation is more interested in matcha tiramisu than in matcha itself, Dr. Berry says.
As chanoyu fades, the demand for teaware and tea ceremony items is fading, too. Dr. Berry uses price . Back in the day, a matcha bowl from a well-known, master artist would cost up to $100,000! Nowadays, though, you can get your hands on such a bowl for just $1,000 – $2,000 USD. There are huge discounts on standard handmade bowls, too. What used to cost up to $5,000 is now just a few hundred bucks now, which is a crazy difference for the artists who’ve seen this happen in their own lifetimes.
It’s really sad to see, but according to Dr. Berry, the problem might be with the some of the tea schools themselves. They teach chanoyu with a strict respect for the old rules and procedures. While it’s good to respect traditions, at what point do you start discouraging the new generation from learning them at all? For example, even if you got your hands on that $1,000 master-level matcha bowl, it’s actually improper to use it unless all your other items are master-level too… Seems like a bummer.
I hope that Japan finds a way to revive its beautiful tradition of chanoyu. But in a way, it does make me appreciate our crazy, undeveloped young tea culture here in America, too. We may not have much, and what we do have is a crazy mix-and-match of different tea cultures… but it’s totally open-minded, and there’s so much to look forward to. In American tea culture, we make our own rules, and maybe that’s what will keep it sustainable for a long time.
Oh, so you want to brew Indian chai with a $250 handmade teapot from Japan, and use some cheap cups you found from the dollar store? In the middle of a music festival in Florida, during a dance party at 4 AM? Sure, go ahead. It’s a free country.
In some cases, it can actually be a good thing that old tea traditions are on their way out…
Back in India…
In places like Darjeeling, India, men traditionally run the business affairs of tea, while women are secondary players. The women pick tea, help with the paperwork, and then are expected to sit quietly at home. Women don’t have much of a say in business affairs, or in the community.
According to Dr. Debarati Sen, Professor of Anthropology and International Conflict Management, that’s starting to change. In Darjeeling, we’re now seeing women with their own tea businesses and cooperatives! They’re out to prove that they have the talent and skill to run the show, too.
Besides the obvious win for gender equality, I think that’s good news for tea in general. Why waste 50% of our talent, skill, and ideas, when we can be putting 100% into good tea? I’m super excited for the new teas that are coming out of Darjeeling these days, and in the future I hope to cover some of them on the blog.
But what about some home team pride?
Takeaway #4: We may be able to visit California tea farms someday
Exciting news! For those of us in the US, we may someday see tea in our own backyard, too.
Actually, you might already be able to visit a tea farm near you. (Just check out World of Tea’s database of US tea farms). At the conference, we heard from tea farmer MJ Greenberg, who is starting a network of tea farms in Northern California based on permaculture techniques. We also heard about Golden Feather Tea, literally a backyard farm that is probably the most advanced tea farm in California at the moment.
It’s all still a little early, though.
According to several of the University of California researchers at the conference (full list of presenters here), California tea is a good 10-15 years out. Tea farming is no joke – you have to figure out the right cultivars, the right processing techniques, the conditions of your soil, and all sorts of things.
But we’re at the stage where California wine, blueberries, and olive oil once were, and look at those industries now! It’s just a matter of time until this tea thing gets figured out, too.
California tea farms won’t be able to survive just by growing tea, though. The cost of production is too expensive in California for a simple farm to be sustainable. According to Dr. Mark Gaskell, Small Farms Advisor for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, California’s tea farms will probably offer tea tours, too! You’ll get to pick and process your own tea, then taste it in a tea flight right on the farm.
It’ll be like Napa Valley for wine geeks, but for tea!
American tea is a big win for sustainability, too. As traditional tea regions are threatened, new regions like North America offer an important backup plan for the future of tea. You know, just in case something goes wrong.
That also means America becomes a player in the tea research community, especially if the UC Davis Global Tea Initiative goes according to plan. Someday, it might become the Global Tea Institute for the Study of Tea Culture and Science… so if you’re ever interested in picking up that degree in Tea Sciences, that might be in our future, too.
Yeah, there’s some bad news we had to talk about, but it looks like there’s some good things in store for tea, too!
So… now what?
Oh man, what a lot to talk about. To wrap up, I just wanted to say thank YOU for reading, and deciding to get informed on what’s at stake for tea. It’s a lot to think about, but it’s important for us to be aware of this stuff. Because while we might not be Chief Tea Scientists (yet!), we’re tea drinkers. We’re the people who drive the market, guys! No tea drinkers, no tea.
What YOU decide to do is important!
So, let’s keep the conversation going. Do you know what’s at stake for your favorite tea? Is it being affected by climate change? Labor issues? Another Hemileia vastatrix? Find out, and then let me know, too. Email me at rie@teacurious, or tag me on Instagram at @teacurious.
Let’s always be mindful about our tea, together.
A big thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and presenters at the UC Davis Global Tea Institute’s 3rd Annual Symposium. You guys rock!