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The tenacity of tea tastings

Bring up the topic of TEA at a cocktail or dinner party – and you can almost be certain the conversation will quickly draw to a close.

Bring up the topic of TEA at a cocktail or dinner party – and you can almost be certain the conversation will quickly draw to a close. Guests will anxiously try to find something else to talk about -even the weather will seem to be a better choice than tea.

Tea is Tenacious

What is the purpose of tea? We do not need it – there are many other beverages to drink…and yet, after water, it is the most popular beverage in the world. Today, more than three billion cups of tea are consumed every day, in all types of varieties – from Earl Grey, Iced Tea and Assam, to Lapsang, and now ready-to-drink tea.

It is popular. The International Tea Committee found that the global consumption of tea increased 60 percent from 1993-2010. Americans consume up to 80 billion cups of tea a year and the Canadian drink almost 10 billion cups a year. It is grown in 35 countries and is a vital source of employment and export earnings (in some of the poorest countries on the planet).

The tea supply chain is vast – thanks to consumers there are growers, pickers, suppliers, traders and sellers – and tea impacts millions of lives – globally. However, there is an uncertain future for tea and challenges include: shifts in consumer demand and habits, climate change, resource constraints, mechanization of farming and sustainability. In addition, the marketing of tea leads us to believe that it is a healthy beverage and promotes a hale and hearty lifestyle; however, the teas come complete with pesticides, toxins, artificial ingredients, added flavors and GMOs.

Ethics and the Industry

A recent study done by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) found that 1 in 4 teas contained pesticide residue far above the safety limit set by Health Canada. Both the dry leaves and steeped tea contained trace elements of pesticides. The Canadian Broadcasting Company hired an accredited lab to retest some of Canada’s most popular brands and found that Twinings Earl Grey, and Tetley’s Green Tea were the two top offenders. Red Rose was the only brand that contained zero pesticides.

Bottom of the Pay Scale

On the consumer side, tea prices are high; however, the money paid to producers is very low (even lower than they were 30 years ago). In the supply chain, the most vulnerable are the tea farmers and the tea workers as they have very little bargaining power in a world dominated by a few very large companies.

Tea Life Cycle

• Stage 1. Picking, drying and bulk packaging

• Stage 2/3/4. Blending, final packaging and marketing (the most lucrative stages in the process, carried out in the tea brands buyer countries)

The tea buying companies are very concentrated and they have power over the prices paid to producers. Four corporations dominate the global tea trade: Unilever (Lipton and PG Tips), Tata Tea (Tetley), Van Rees (tea trading company) and James Finlay (tea packing). In the UK, the retail market is also concentrated and they control 74 percent of the retail market by value: Tetley (Tata), PG Tips (Unilever), Twinings (Associated British Foods) and Yorkshire Tea (Taylors of Harrogate).

• Stages 5 /6. As tea passes through the tea brands and retailers they capture a massive 86 percent of the value added, compared to the 7 percent for the producing country.

Very little of the profits included in the retail price goes to the tea producing country. The multinationals become very rich and the tea workers live a life of poverty. A tea picker earns pennies for each 1.60 Euro box of tea bags sold in a British supermarket.

As Old as Time

Tea has an ancient heritage, dating back 5,000 years, revealing a rich cultural history. In China, hosts drink tea to honor guests or celebrate significant life events. In Japan, the tea ceremony – or Chado – is revered for its connection with Zen Buddhism. The preparation and serving of matcha tea is elevated to performance art with an emphasis on aesthetics and harmony. In Russia, it’s about drinking strong, black tea from a Samovar. In Morocco, drinking mint tea is a national pastime. In England, taking ‘afternoon’ or ‘high’ tea is still a celebrated occasion.

A Long Tea Story

A large part of the world is familiar with Twinings Tea as this enduring brand has been around since the beginning of the 18th century. Based in Andover, Hampshire, England, the company is owned by Associated British Foods and Twinings holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest continually used company logo (designed in 1787).

Although Thomas Twining was born in Painswick, Gloucestershire, England, his family left the area because of a recession and headed for London. Thomas was only 9 years old at the time, however, he was expected to learn a trade in order to become a Freeman of the City of London and, following in his father’s footsteps, he became a weaver.

At the age of 26 he became a Freeman (1701), left weaving behind and began to work for a successful East India Company merchant handling shipments of tea. In 1706 he started his own business by buying Tom’s Coffee House on London’s No 216 Strand. At the time, coffee was popular and men (never women) would meet to drink, gossip and do business. The coffee shops specialized in products and customers with common interests. Poets, for example, would frequent one coffee house and army officers would frequent another. At this time the most popular drinks were gins, ales and coffee – because water was contaminated.

Although tea was heavily taxed it became a fashionable beverage during the 18th century, especially among the upper classes as only the wealthy could afford the beverage. Since women were discouraged from entering the masculine world of the coffee house Twining sold dry tea to the “ladies” who waited in their carriages while their footmen went into the shop to buy the sought-after tea.

In 1837, Queen Victoria awarded Twinings its first Royal Warrant for tea and appointed the company as supplier of teas to her household – and the rest is history; Twinings has been supplying tea to the Monarchy ever since. The company also supplied tea for Red Cross prisoner of war parcels, the Women’s Voluntary Service and YMCA wartime canteens during World War II.

Twinings was acquired by Associated British Foods in 1964 and now sells regional and flavored teas that include smoked Lapsang Souchong, Lady Grey, and Benagli Darjeeling. Production is located in China and Poland since 2011; however, the vast majority of UK consumed tea is still produced in the Twinings factory in Andover, Hampshire.

The organization is a founding member of the Ethical Tea Partnership, a not -for -profit membership association of tea packing companies that monitor and improve ethical conditions on tea estates in all major tea growing regions. The company has a personal Code of Conduct and works with all its packaging and raw material suppliers to ensure decent working conditions in the supply chain.

Even with all this good news, the company received the worst ECRA (Ethical Consumer Research Association) rating for environmental reporting and palm oil use. In the Ethical Consumer magazine on a scale of 0-20, where 0-4 is ranked as “very poor,” Twinings received a score of 2 (2013).

On the plus side, the company supports a UNICEF initiative that addresses the inter-generational cycle of poor nutrition for girls and young women in the tea community. The goal is to reduce the prevalence of anemia in adolescent girls and women by addressing the underlying causes of their poor nutrition and also provides them with improved life skills education.


Tetley Tea also has an English pedigree. The company started in the 19th century when brothers Joseph and Edward founded Joseph Tetley & Co. (1837). Originally the tea was sold off the back of their pack horse but, in 1856 the company moved to London which was the center of the world’s tea trade. In 1871 Joseph Tetley, Jr. entered the business and the company expanded to include blending and packaging and by 1888 they developed an agreement with American agents to distribute the teas throughout the US. The Tetley’s were smart marketers and in 1992 they introduced the first-round tea bag and in 1997 the first drawstring tea bag.

Currently Tetley USA is owned by the Tetley Group, a subsidiary of Tata Tea and is the second largest teabag brand in the world. Headquartered in Greenford, West London, the tea buying takes place in Kenya and Malawi, with joint ventures in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The World Bank has been investigating APPL, a company that supplies tea to Tetley and other brands. APPL controls 24 tea plantations and is 41 percent owned by Tetley parent Tata Global Beverages, with the World Bank’s main lending body and other shareholders holding a large number of shares.

The Human Rights Institute of Columbia Law School visited plantations and found that the poor conditions for APPL workers was consistent with conditions in the entire sector. Rooted in the colonial origins of plantation life which sustains hierarchical social structure, an oppressive compensation program and excessive management power. The tea workers of Assam and adjacent area of West Bengal remain trapped in the lowest employment positions on the plantation and treated as social inferiors. The workers live in cramped rooms with cracked walls and broken roofs. Latrines are not maintained, turning some living areas into a network of cesspools. The limited medical staff is poorly trained and frequently unavailable.

There is some good news, however, according to, Tetley’s new Black & Green (a blend of both varieties) uses Perflo paper bags, which are free of epichlorohydrin. The tea is also free of pesticides. The other Tetley products have not moved in this direction.

Tea Tastings

Similar to grapes and wine, the taste of tea depends on where and how it is grown. With wine, it is the terroir, altitude and climate that impacts on the wine – so it is with tea. Varieties grown at high altitudes mature more slowly, have a lower yield and produce a higher quality product.

Most tea is produced in China, India and Japan; however, Kenya (especially in the Great Rift Valley) is noted for its black with a brisk flavor.

The process of harvesting, drying and processing of the tea leaves will affect the flavor of the brew. Tea varieties include:

1. Chinese Green. Mild with a fruity flavor

2. Gunpowder Green. Classic brew uses tightly rolled, unfermented leaves. Drink is very pale with a light flavor

3. Chinese Oolong. Stronger than green but milder than black
4. Taiwan (Formosa) Oolong. Considered an excellent tea with a fruity flavor that is not too strong

5. Formosa Oolong Peach Blossom. Does NOT contain peach blossoms – but has a peachy flavor found in best-quality teas

6. Chinese Black. Range from mild to smoked to strong

7. Keemum. Delicate and aromatic tea from Northern China. Low tannins with a deep rich flavor

8. Lapsang Souchong. Large leaf tea rich and full-bodied with a distinctive but delicate smoky flavor

9. Yunnan Western. High proportion of the youngest leaves with a sweet taste and light golden color

Indian Teas. All varieties from India are black

10. Assam. Grown in the Brahmaputra Valley in northeast India. Taste is strong and malty. Best quality Assam contains the tips or unopened buds from bushes that are known as Tippy Assam

11. Darjeeling. From Northern India – it is noted for its distinctive and delicate flavor. The small broken leaves produce a light, golden drink with a subtle flavor. Bushes from the highest gardens in the foothills of the Himalayas have large leaves that produce teas with the unique “muscatel” flavor of perfumed grapes. The “champagne of teas” is the Darjeeling Broken Orange Pekoe

• Blended Teas. Most commercial teas are blended from 15 or more leaves from different areas

12. English Breakfast tea. Blend of strong Indian teas with a full bodied and fragrant drink

13. Earl Grey. Blend of Keemun and Darjeeling flavored with oil of bee balm. The recipe was given to the diplomat Earl Grey by a Chinese mandarin and the earl took the recipe back to England

14. Russian Caravan Tea. Blend of fine teas from China, Taiwan and India. Originally transported to Russia from India by camel caravan – thus its name

Caveat Emptor. Buyer Beware

Like other products on the market, consumers can no longer “assume” that the product they are eating and/or drinking is actually good for their health. Government protections and marketing honesty is not on the menu for the foreseeable future. It is up to the tea drinker to research their beverage of choice to make sure that it is free of pesticides and other harmful cancer causing agents. The responsibility for good health has been tossed back to the consumer.

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