Geography of Tea
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Bridgewater State University Geography
Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies

UPDATED July 22, 2010

Fair TradeIt 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.

A geograher and his cafezinho
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!

Common Grounds
(Borrowing an over-worked phrase in the coffee field.)

Coffee and tea are not botanically close relatives and they do not grow in the same environments, but their common 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.

World Tea TourBoth 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.
*Sri Lanka
*Viet Nam
Papua New Guinea


Upon learning of the opportunity to publish a 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.
Image from

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South Carolina

Tea Harvester MachineThat's right: South Carolina. In June 2010, I actually had a chance to visit a tea garden in the United States. South Carolina once had several, but they were not economically viable. An example of domestic agro-tourism, the Charleston Tea Plantation is now operated by Bill Hall under and agreement with Bigelow, and is also known as "Bigelow's Tea Garden." We took a private tour with Mr. Hall and some of our friends from the Charleston area came along. I was able to solve a geographic question I had before the visit: how can good tea (and by all accounts this is good tea, even being served at the White House) can grow at sea level, when most fine teas grow much, much higher? I confirmed that the tea is indeed excellent and learned the answer to that question, which I report on my South Carolina page.

Tea and Conflict

Thanks to my colleagues at the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development, I have become accutely aware of the all-too common problem of landmines that have been deployed in coffee-growing areas. I am not yet aware of any connections between landmines and tea, but I am doing some preliminary research to see whether such connections may exist. As a starting point, I have identified thirteen countries among the top-twenty producers of tea that also have significant landmine problems. These are indicated by astrisks (*) in the list above. I am very interested in hearing from those with more detailed knowledge tea production or landmine problems, to see if tea-producing areas are themselves involved.

See more at my main tea page, and come back often. As of early 2010, I am just beginning my tea research.

Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan
Department of Geography -- Bridgewater State College
Bridgewater, Massachusetts USA / EEUU / EUA

Visits since March 1, 2010