Brewing a New American Tea Industry

By Walcott, Susan M. | The Geographical Review, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Brewing a New American Tea Industry


Walcott, Susan M., The Geographical Review


The things that people cannot do without every day are firewood, rice, oil, salt, soybean sauce, vinegar and tea.

--Sung Dynasty edict, quoted in Freeman, 1977

Since its mythical discovery by Emperor Shen Nung as he sat meditating under the Camellia sinensis tree in 2737 B.C.E., tea currently ranks as the second most commonly consumed beverage after water (Van der Wal 2008). Tea's biological heartland lies in the upland region spanning Assam (India), Yunnan (China), and Myanmar (Burma). The first shipment of tea to Great Britain arrived in 1657 from Assam, but consumers considered it inferior to the Chinese varietal (Rose 2010). The problem lay with growers' lack of knowledge concerning processing steps, rather than the quality of the plant itself, for India now furnishes most of the black tea consumed globally. Employment of Chinese laborers familiar with that critical artesanal part of the industry eventually occurred despite the penalty of death for divulging state secrets (Pratt 1999). Names for "tea" reflect the dialect of Chinese spoken in the location of export: cha (Indian and Russian chai) comes from northern China; to from southern China went to England and Western Europe. Tea's popularity spurred England to gain territory in India and China and lose colonies in America, where attempts to cultivate and market the plant are now undergoing a resurgence.

The objective of this research is to explain the rejuvenation of the American tea industry as part of agriculture's transformation into a competitive, multifunctional market orientation and to place it within an enlarged transition theory (Bailey and Wilson 2009). Generally, transition theory applied to agriculture links changes in production methods to shifts in market demand for environmentally sustainable, health-promoting, ethically sensitive methods, and policy proscriptives that promote these considerations. Interconnected elements include shared consumer-producer interest in high-quality, fresh, local products ("neolocalism"), geographically identified products reflecting unique terroir characteristics of their place of origin, a normative concern with promoting personal health and environmental sustainability, and pluriactivities, such as agritourism and craft items, that provide additional income to offset the small scale of production (McCarthy 2005; Wilson 2007). An example in contemporary agriculture includes the emerging "alternative food" movement, which advocates a change from high chemical usage to meet corporate demands for high-volume, standardized yields to supporting small-producer operations that respond to market and new certification demands for healthier food processes and outcomes (Holloway and Kneafsey 2004; Raftery 2011). This trend fits neatly with the image of tea and production methods tailored to a high-quality, local commodity produced with care (Goodman 2003).

All tea comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis [L.] 0. Kuntze), but the degree of oxidation the leaves experience early in the preparation process differentiates them into three main types. Black (also "red" or "English") tea leaves dry ("wither") for eighteen hours over a perforated surface to promote air circulation. The leaves then undergo shredding ("maceration") to draw out the juices. Exposure next oxidizes the leaves, resulting in a coppery tone. Oolong tea leaves oxidize for a shorter time than do black tea leaves, resulting in fermentation of only half of the tannin. Green tea leaves experience steaming before drying and grinding in order to prevent them from turning a darker color, resulting in an "unoxidized" product. Of the three main varieties of tea bushes--Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (small or large leaf; China), var. assarnica (long, slender leaf; India), and var. irrawadiensis or parvifolia (Cambodia)--only the first two are cultivated for consumption (Eden 1976; Pratt 2010). Hundreds of subvarietals exist to match particular terroir factors of climate and soil, as well as combinations and admixtures for varieties of taste. …

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