| Geography of Tea
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Bridgewater State University Geography
Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies
UPDATED July 22, 2010
It was bound to happen: My obsession with the geography of coffee has inevitably led to the geography of tea. For several years, people would ask me why I do not teach about tea, and my answer would be quite simple: I did not know anything about it. I did know, however, that the two beverages have a lot in common, and that some in the fair-trade movement were beginning to develop relationships with tea growers. It was not until I was approached about a book project, however, that I began to take the matter of tea seriously enough to begin my own explorations.
Enjoying that other beverage in Brazil
(until I get a better photo for this page)
I would love to speak about coffee or tea to your school or civic organization!
|Coffee and tea are not botanically
close relatives and they do not grow in the same environments, but
locations are similar enough in very broad terms that some countries
are significant producers of both.
Generally, both are found in highland areas in tropical latitudes -- the former colonies of the Global South. The top twenty producers of tea are listed to the right, with recent production in metric tons. Those countries listed in bold are also major producers of coffee.
Patterns of consumption offer some interesting comparisons. The former colonial and post-colonial powers of the Global North are major consumers of both beverages. A key difference, though, is that whereas most major producers of coffee are not major consumers (Brazil being the most notable exception), most of the major tea producers are also major consumers. It is for this reason that trade in coffee is greater than it is for tea, even though the latter has much more production.
Coffee and tea have far more in common than coincident locations. What makes the two beverages intersting for a geographer is a common set of other features. For example, patterns of vertical integration in the commerce -- including the unequal distribution of benefits between producers and intermediaries -- are quite similar. It is for this reason that some fair-trade companies and organizations -- such as Equal Exchange -- have begun to add tea to their offerings.
As with cocoa, coffee, and perhaps some other beverages, moving tea from the field to the cup requires some processing that must occur almost immediately after harvesting, so that a variety of factories or mills must be operated in the producing countries. An important components of the fair-trade movement in each case, therefore, is finding ways to give producers some control over these processes.
Both coffee and tea are generally sold as blends that are uniform over time and that might include a mix of product from several, different countries. In both cases, however, markets are emerging for beverages with distinctive tastes profiles associated with specific geographic regions. Because connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for such distinctive coffees and teas, specialty marketing has emerged as a potentially important economic factor for some producers of both beverages.
The Tea Map page from the Republic of Tea describes some of the differences among teas in the historically most important areas of Asia. The World Tea Tour from Coffee Tea Warehouse is another good overview, with this attractive map and some interesting regional distinctions within the larger countries.
book about both tea and coffee, I decided that I would need
to travel to a tea-producing area, to see the cultivation and
processing for myself. Looking at the list of top producers, I quickly
decided to try to go to Kenya, because it would also be a place where I
could learn some new things about coffee at the same time. At the time
I made that decision, I could not have imagined my great good fortune.
I mentioned my interest to a colleague who teaches geography of Africa,
and he referred me to a student of his, who is actually from Kenya. It
turns out, in fact, that she is from a coffee estate in Thika, and that
tea gardens are located nearby. It was from her, in fact, that I first
learned that tea tends to be found at higher elevations and on steeper
slopes (if this is even possible) than high-grown coffee. Having these
connections established, I believe, was instrumental in my securing
funding to go to Kenya in July 2010, with a grant from BSC's Center for
the Advancement of Research and Teaching (CART). The student -- who is
now taking my coffee class -- has even arranged for her family to help
show me around the tea and coffee farms and facilities!
UPDATE: This trip was canceled, but I do find Thika fascinating and hope to make renewed plans to visit.