Need to Know | Tea Sales Accelerate in Canada | Retailers Cope with COVID

Tea Industry News for the week of September 28, 2020

  • Tea Sales Accelerate in Canada
  • Tea Retailers Cope with COVID
  • Delivery and Takeaway Boost Market Share

Tea Sales Accelerate in Canada

Retailers of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) are still playing catch-up after six months of record sales while foodservice operators struggle following a 27% decline in visits during the past six months. Canada’s economic recovery has begun, but it will be slow, advises Vince Sgabellone, Foodservice Industry Analyst at The NPD Group.

One of the best performers in FMCG is tea, according to Carman Allison, Vice President of Consumer Insights for Nielsen Canada. “Tea has reported an even higher bump in sales in 2020, than FMCG as a category,” he told 60 online attendees.

Year-to-date (Aug. 15) sales are up 19.6% compared to 2019, a full seven points greater than FMCG overall. Tea sales peaked earlier than total FMCG and have been consistently growing faster, he explained. This pace is an unprecedented 5.4 times greater than fiscal 2019, reaching $28.8 million. COVID contributed 80% of the year-to-date increase adding $25.5 million for an 89% increase in growth above expected, according to Allison.

Both Sgabellone and Allison shared valuable insights with tea industry leaders this week during the “The Present: Reimagined”, a two-day virtual gathering hosted by the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada (THAC).

Sgabellone observed that the Canadian restaurant industry was “growing slowly” in late 2019, with restaurant traffic up 1% for the year and restaurant dollars up 3%, citing NPD Group/CREST statistics through August. Within weeks restaurant traffic decline by 27% and revenue dropped 31%. The restaurant industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.

Coffee is flat, carbonated drinks are down as well as beverage alcohol but “hot tea is the category-leading growth on the year” with a 9% growth in spend through August compared to the previous year. Coffee and soft drinks account for a greater share of beverage servings but tea now accounts for a 7% share, according to Sgabellone.

Tea in the Time of COVID

By Jessica Natale Woollard

The Tea Hause, London Ontario, Canada
The Tea Haus, London Ontario, Canada

The reason tea sales should not decline during COVID is that tea is a food product found in virtually every Canadian home, and “food companies should be okay,” says Sameer Pruthee, CEO of wholesale distributor Tea Affair based in Alberta, Canada.

And yet, his business, which distributes around 60 metric tons of tea and blends every year to more than 600 wholesale clients in Canada, the United States, and Asia, has declined approximately 30% every month since the March shutdown. The decline, he noted, is most significant among his retail clients in Canada, where the lockdown was widespread and uniformly enforced from mid-March until the end of May.

Pruthee’s theory for why tea sales are down is that tea is not an “online thing. Tea is social,” he explains.

Customers buy tea after the experience of visiting a tea shop, talking to staff, smelling the varieties, and learning about the leaves and their origins. “If nobody can smell the tea, nobody will buy tea,” he says.

Beginning in March tea retailers supplying local restaurants and cafes watched helplessly as re-orders vanished. Local tea shops with online stores initially reported strong sales, largely to existing customers during lockdowns, but without face-to-face opportunities to introduce new teas, tea retailers must innovate to attract new customers.

DAVIDsTEA provides a vivid example. The Montreal-based firm, the largest tea retail chain in North America, was forced to restructure, closing all but 18 of its 226 stores in the US and Canada due to COVID-19. To survive, the company adopted a “digital first” strategy, investing in its online customer experience by bringing its tea guides online to provide human and personalized interaction. The company also upgraded the capabilities of DAVI, a virtual assistant that helps customers shop, discover new collections, stay in the loop with the latest tea accessories, and more.

“The simplicity and clarity of our brand is resonating online as we successfully bring our tea expertise online, by providing a clear and interactive experience for our customers to continue to explore, discover and taste teas they love,” said Sarah Segal, Chief Brand Officer at DAVIDsTEA. The physical stores that remain open are concentrated in the Ontario and Quebec markets. Following a disastrous first quarter, DAVIDsTEA reported a 190% second-quarter increase in e-commerce and wholesale sales to $23 million with a profit of $8.3 million largely due to a $24.2 million decrease in operating costs. Still, sales overall are down by 41% for the three months ending Aug. 1. Still, when compared to the previous year, profits decreased by 62% with gross profit as a percentage of sales declining to 36% from 56% in 2019. Delivery and distribution costs increased by $3 million, according to the company.

“We expect that the increased cost to deliver online purchases will be less than the selling expenses incurred in a retail environment that have been historically included as part of selling, general and administration expenses,” according to the company.

COVID has changed consumer habits, Pruthee says. COVID first cut off in-person shopping, and then transform the shopping experience due to social distancing. For the tea industry to bounce back, tea companies need to find ways to be part of new customer habits.

Below, Tea Biz looks at how three Canadian tea businesses have adjusted to the new normal of COVID-19.

Enhanced customer service

Free home delivery was Suzanne Tsai’s first response to COVID.

Co-owner of the Tea Centre in Courtenay, B.C., along with her husband, Marny, Tsai sensed at the start of the lockdown in March that it would be important to keep connected with their loyal and local customers. The shop started offering free delivery around the region, even driving to nearby towns to bring people their “creature comforts.”

Delivery was worth the investment in gas and wear and tear on their vehicle, Tsai says. “We were able to maintain our business and our customer base.”

Since March, business has been down approximately 10% to 15%, Tsai says, noting, that their expenses have also been less — the shop had to layoff staff after closing the physical store in March. Since then Tsai and her husband have been working extra hours to fill orders.

Tsai attributes the decreased sales with customers’ inability to visit the store, chat with staff, and smell the teas. “Those days are over,” she says.

The shop reopened with reduced hours on June 1, but the size of their store and social distancing requirements has meant customers can’t go inside the shop; instead, service is offered outside the front door.

People are lined up every day, Tsai says, but they can’t experience the loveliness of the shop and that affects sales, particularly of teawares. “People want to see them, touch them, hold them,” she explains. “And they don’t like the pressure of trying to buy a teapot when there is someone behind them waiting in line to pick up an order.”

But delivery orders and online sales have kept the business afloat. “We did get some new customers because many other tea stores were closed down,” she says, adding that the company nearly reached Christmas-level orders between mid- March and May, when Canada was shut down.

“For a small tea business, we feel like we’ve really held our own.”

Tea Centre retail shop in Courtenay, B.C., Canada

Wellness tea promotions

The tourist town of Banff, Alberta, in the Canadian Rocky Mountains faced 85% unemployment during the lockdown. Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, attracted 4 million visitors last year and has received more than three million visitors annually since 2010/11. The Banff Tea Company, typically attracts tens of thousands of visitors from around the world, shop owner Siona Gatshore says, and those visitors frequently turn into online customers.

When the shop shut its doors in March, Gartshore laid off staff and moved the business fully online. But, online sales soared, so she rehired two employees within a few days. Though the Banff Tea Company doesn’t ship many tea wares — shipping costs are prohibitive when mailing breakables, Gartshore explains — tea sales, like at the Tea Centre in Courtenay, reached Christmas levels.

“It didn’t make up for not having the store open, but it was enough to pull us through and pay the bills and keep us moving,” Gartshore says.

Banff Tea Company also increased its customer engagement activity on social media, posting more regularly, sharing information, and doing prize draws for products, something Gartshore had not done before.

She invited people to vote to name a new tea blend, choosing between Uncertain Tea and San-i-tea, a new herbal wellness tea with anti-viral and immune boosting ingredients.

“We highlighted our wellness teas (in our online marketing) straight off the bat,” Gartshore explains, noting sales of wellness teas increased when COVID hit. For the first time, Banff Tea Company also sold dried elderberries, a natural antiviral, which sold well.

“Everyone’s feeling uncertain and stressed. Our Knock Yourself Out! sleepy tea has been our best-selling tea for nine years, and our second is Anx-i-e-Tea. People were buying them to comfort them through lockdown,” she explains.

Ironically, the vote between Uncertain Tea and San-i-tea came out even. “We ended up going with Uncertain Tea since no one could decide,” Gartshore laughs.

With fall concerts, festivals, events and conferences cancelled, Banff Tea Company is anticipating a quiet fall. Gartshore will be focused on planning holiday promotions to boost online sales.

“Our customers will get us through,” she says. “I’m so grateful for our customers. We wouldn’t be here without people thinking, buy local.”

Banff Tea Company, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Opportunity for innovation

COVID provided the right timing for Tea Haus owners Stefanie Stolzel and her husband to implement new business development strategies.

The London, Ontario, tea shop, has been located in the downtown Covent Garden Market since 2000. Normally the market is busy with office workers, tourists and shoppers, and Stolzel has an established online shop that has been operating since 2003.

Like the Banff Tea Company, Stolzel laid off staff at the start of the lockdown, only to call them back two days later to help with a surge in online sales.

“Without any additional advertising, our customers seemed to go online and order,” says Stolzel, noting that staff include a handwritten thank you note with each order.

In early 2020, Tea Haus won a $2,500 grant from Digital Main Street, a program of the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada that helps small businesses boost their digital presence.

“The timing was perfect,” Stolzel says. “The funding had to be spent by May 31, so we invested that funding and our own capital (during COVID) to expand our (digital marketing) efforts.”

Primarily, Tea Haus invested funds into social media ads.

In addition, Stolzel participated in a program in early 2020 through Riipen, a company that matches post-secondary students with companies to help them solve problems. Three marketing classes tackled business challenges for Tea Haus, offering solutions and providing ideas to implement, for example, a social media strategy.

“COVID allowed me to focus on these ideas and read them properly,” Stolzel explains, adding she hopes to implement more of the students’ recommendations this fall.

Like Tea Centre in Courtenay, Tea Centre is operating a booth in front of their store, setting up displays so people can see products up close rather than just online.

Says Stolzel, “People still have money to spend, and they want something nice to treat themselves.”

A time to learn

Despite differences in approaches to selling tea during COVID, the company owners interviewed agree that the COVID experience is a time of learning and trying new things.

“There’s no clear direction right now,” Tea Affair’s Sameer Pruthee says. “We try to see what’s happening and what direction we have to take our companies in. Nobody has an answer right now.”

As Canada adjusts to the new normal, now is a good time to sit back, relax, and have a cuppa. Perhaps the answer will be revealed in the tea leaves.

Tea in Foodservice

Research and Markets projects a 4% increase in tea sales in foodservice during the next four years, a revision accounting for the impact of COVID-19 on sales.

“The growth of food delivery and the takeaway market is one of the prime reasons driving the foodservice tea market in US growth during the next few years,” according to the report Foodservice Tea Market in the US 2020-24. “The market is driven by rising demand for mobile foodservice and the functional benefits of tea as well,” according to the newly released report.

Research and Markets estimates the market will increase by $2.66 billion during the forecast period.

Favorite US Drinks

Subscribe and receive Tea Biz weekly in your inbox.

Need to Know | CDC: Restaurant Risk | Retail Stirrings

Need to Know | CDC: Restaurant Risk | Retail Stirrings

Tea Industry News for the week of September 9, 2020

  • COVID Study Implicates Restaurants
  • Retail Stirrings Billy Corgan Resurrects Madame ZuZu’s Tea Emporium
  • Unilever Divestiture Worries Plantation Workers
Patients with COVID-19 symptoms in 10 states were twice as likely to have visited restaurants during the 14 days prior to testing positive, according to a new CDC study.

COVID Study Implicates Restaurants

CDC: Dining-in Poses Risk

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that adults with COVID-19 are about “twice as likely” to say they have dined at a restaurant during the 14 days before testing positive for the disease.

The study, which was limited to those experiencing symptoms, examined 314 adults at 11 different health care facilities in 10 states. Half (154) tested positive, and 160 tested negative for COVID-19.

Those who tested positive “were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results,” according to the study. As a result, researchers recommend that “efforts to reduce possible exposures where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, such as when eating and drinking, should be considered to protect customers, employees, and communities.”

“Adults with confirmed COVID-19 (case-patients) were approximately twice as likely as were control-participants to have reported dining at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming ill,” according to the CDC. “In addition to dining at a restaurant, case-patients were more likely to report going to a bar/coffee shop,” according to the report released Sept. 11.

“Reports of exposures in restaurants have been linked to air circulation. Direction, ventilation, and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance. Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” according to the study.

Researchers report that 71% of the COVID-19 positive patients said they work masks in public; 74% of those who tested negative said they always wore face coverings in public.

“In this investigation, participants with and without COVID-19 reported generally similar community exposures, with the exception of going to locations with on-site eating and drinking options,” writes CDC.

Forty-two percent of those who tested positive reported having close contact with at least one person known to have COVID-19, most often family members.

The study mentions five limitations, including small sample size and the fact that participants were aware of their test results. “Of note, the question assessing dining at a restaurant did not distinguish between indoor and outdoor options,” according to researchers, who say additional research is warranted but caution that “eating and drinking on-site at locations might be important risk factors associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

CDC: Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities — United States, July 2020

Billy Corgan Resurrects Madame ZuZu’s Tea Emporium

Madame ZuZu's Tea Emporium
Madame ZuZu’s Tea Emporium

Two years after closing, and in the middle of serious viral spread in Chicago, Billy Corgan is bringing back Madame ZuZu’s Tea Emporium on First Street in Highland Park.

Singer and song writer Corgan, who founded the Grammy-Award winning Smashing Pumpkins, promises “to carry on ZuZu’s tradition of a whimsical atmosphere but in a larger, Art Deco space reminiscent of a 1930’s tea salon.”

Partner Chloe Mendel told Eater Chicago that she and Corgan are sourcing from the Rare Tea Cellar, a local gourmet tea supplier with a global reputation. In addition to superior teas, the cellar offers $195 olive oil and bottled mixes like Umami Shrubbery and Forbidden Forest Lapsang Souchong Syrup.

The avante-garde vegan menu expands on the original, featuring $10.25 salads such as kale power salad, Chinoise crunch and Salad Niçoise. Chloe’s tomato soup is $4.95 a cup and sandwiches sell for $8 to $12. Specialties include grilled vegan cheese and vegan Gado Gado tofu bowl and a miso bowl with pickled veggies and coconut rice.

Madame ZuZu's Grilled Cheese

“I quickly learned that the delicious world of plants is so overlooked,”says Mendel, who crafted several plant-based dishes.s here

Iced tea sells for $3 a glass and a Korean Blue Elektra Matcha is priced at $4.50. There is a Reishi cappuccino and a Lionsmane Mushroom Coffee ($5) on the drink menu. The rare teas are about double these prices.

“Our business model is simple: healthy living combined with an open source venue for the arts, where everyone in our community can gather and share,” writes Corgan, who opened the first location in 2012.

At the time he told Crave Magazine, “I’m a tea guy and living in Highland Park since 2003. I’ve always wanted to open a salon like this for everyone to enjoy,” Corgan told Crave Online. “This is a place with no age boundaries. We hope to attract everyone from young students to seniors. With a blend of music, photo galleries, art displays and speakers, I think Madame ZuZu’s offers something for everyone.”

There will be no impromptu concerts for now. The shop operates under COVID-19 restraints limiting dining-in, so take-out is a good option. Staff are tested for COVID-19 daily, writes Corgan.

Amid hundreds of store closings, a steady trickle of new tea shops and cafes are re-opening. Eater Chicago lists Sawada Coffee, the Living Water Tea House and El (evated) Ideas, a Michelin-starred restaurant. Keep in mind that while tea shops sell a tiny fraction of the total volume on offer, places like Madame ZuZus influence conventional tea drinkers to give specialty teas a try.

Kenyan tea workers concerned about Unilever’s decision to divest its African holdings.

Unilever Divestiture Worries Plantation Workers

The announced divestiture of tea holdings by the world’s largest tea supplier makes uncertain the fate of the company’s wholly owned tea gardens and hundreds of smaller gardens under contract.

In July, following a strategic review begun in January, London-based Unilever said it will break up its tea business, retaining only bottling partnerships while continuing operations in India and Indonesia. The rest of the company’s tea assets, including several tea estates, will be sold at auction.

Click to see and interactive map of Unilever’s suppliers. Download link to suppliers.

Unilever purchases 10% of the world’s tea, employing more than one million workers in 21 countries. Brands currently marketed by the company include Lipton, PG Tips, Brooke Bond, Pure Leaf, TAZO, Bushells, T2 (retail shops), and 21 smaller brands sold in more than 150 countries. Lipton Yellow Label, the world’s best-selling tea brand, accounts for 7% of black tea sales globally. Sales of green tea are insignificant when compared to Asia brands. The tea division is valued at $4-$5 billion, according to financial analysts at Barclays.

Unilever will retain the core brand in high-growth markets and divest in slow-growth regions such as Australia and Europe where the popularity of black tea is in decline, according to Allied Market Research.

In Kenya, 60,000 workers employed by Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd. anticipate a gradual scaling back of operations at the 8,700-hectare Kericho Tea Estate. Staff are uneasy, according to The Nation which reports Unilever “has not yet revealed its plans with its Kenya operations to shareholders, who have endured five years without receiving dividends owing to losses.”

In August Sylvia-ten Den, managing director at Unilever Kenya Tea Ltd. advised the Kenya Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (KPAWU) “that the company is changing its operation model.”

“She writes that Unilever will form a new company to manage its global tea business, and that the form and shape of the new entity will be decided at the end of next year. She assures that until then operations will proceed as normal,” according to The Nation.

Unilever contracts with 30 Kenya tea estates and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) which represents another 69 estates producing black and green tea.

In addition to Kenya, Unilever contracts with tea gardens in Malawi (21), Uganda (13), Tanzania (12), and Zimbabwe (6). It is likely that Unilever will continue to purchase tea grown in Africa but marketed under its India brands. Brooke Bond, which was acquired by Unilever, has a century-old tradition of growing tea in Africa.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing companies to reassess their core divisions and shift focus to higher-growth areas, say bankers and mergers and acquisitions lawyers, according to MarketWatch.

“So far this year, companies globally have sold 8,895 non-core assets worth a total of $391 billion, according to financial data provider Refinitiv. That compares to 11,294 asset sales worth almost $415 billion for the same period in 2019,” writes MarketWatch.


Subscribe and receive Tea Biz weekly in your inbox.

Need to Know | Rising Prices | Drenched

Need to Know | Rising Prices | Drenched

Tea Industry News for the week of August 17

  • Rising Prices
  • Heavy Rainfall Wreaks Havoc
  • AVPA Entry Deadline Nears
Tea prices on the rise due to domestic demand and pandemic-related shortfalls. In India the combination is impacting the availability of tea for export.

A shortfall in domestic production amid rising demand is boosting tea prices to record highs in India.

The Tea Board of India is reporting record prices at tea auctions. In Kolkata and Guwahati (Assam) prices are up INRs100 ($1.33/kg compared to last year. The price for CTC (crush, tear, curl), which is mainly used in making tea bags, recently averaged INRs 313.58 ($4.19/kg), up INRs129.99 per kilo.

Prabhat Bezboruah, the chairman of India’s Tea Board, said that a 12% price increase might compensate for the 10% crop loss. Green leaf prices in Tamil Nadu also rose from INRs14-17 to INRs22 ($0.29) in August.

Last week marked the fourth week of price gains in Mombasa, Kenya where the East African Tea Traders Association (EATTA) reports an average Ksh208 ($1.93) compared to Ksh194 ($1.80/kg) the previous week. Unlike India, where production has declined significantly, tea production is up 41% in Kenya due to good weather but is likely to plateau for the remainder of the year. Exports to primary trading partner Pakistan are up 14% and the UK purchased 66% more Kenyan tea than usual as a result of shortages elsewhere.

In Japan, the newspaper Chunichi Shimbun reported record low prices for Kagoshima Nibancha. Sales by global tea firm Ito En, the largest tea company in Japan, decreased by 8.5% from February through April due to the coronavirus.

“Tea auctions both in Shizuoka and Kagoshima declared that the price for second harvest tea was lower compared to last year. In Shizuoka, it is estimated that the price per kilogram for summer tea went down by 10-15% from JPY609/kg in 2019. In Kagoshima, the decrease is even steeper by 26% to JPY452/kg this year,” according to the Global Japanese Tea Association.

Over the past decade, tea prices have ranged from a low of $2.19/kg in January 2009 to a high of $3.29/kg in September 2017, but the long-run average price has stood at $2.85/kg, according to the Economist Economic Unit (EIU).

“Last year tea prices fell to $2.57/kg globally, due to ample supply, marking the weakest result since 2008. Although production prospects in most major tea producers are disappointing in 2020, weaker demand growth is likely to depress prices further,” according to EIU. Prices fell to $2.33/kg in the first quarter of 2020, which marked the weakest quarterly result in 11 years. “Although they rebounded to $2.57/kg in the second quarter, they remain 3% below year-earlier levels. We expect tea prices to average $2.50/kg in 2020. Even assuming that underlying conditions improve in 2021, we expect only a moderate rise in average prices, to $2.81/kg,” writes EIU.

Sri Lanka also reports increased prices at auction with some record-setting buys, defying on first appearance the rules of supply and demand.

Controversial Import Proposal

As domestic prices surge, India is weighing the possibility of importing tea from Kenya and Vietnam. The government currently imposes a 100% tariff on tea imports which discourages imports.

If the initiative advances, The Federation of All India Tea Traders Association (FAITTA) said that importing teas will be a one-time affair and that it will not push for imports in the coming years, according to a report in the Economic Times. FAITTA wants a one-year relaxation of tea tariffs.

FAITTA chairman Viren Shah said, “Prices have gone up significantly this year due to a shortage of supply. But we are not being able to pass on the price to our customers because the economic situation in the country is not conducive to increasing prices. The pandemic has created economic uncertainty everywhere.” 

The debate is heated. Tea landed in India to this point is for re-export, which is not available in domestic markets where it competes with locally grown tea. Re-exports total only 9-10 million kilos annually. Planters, represented by the India Tea Association (ITA), strongly oppose lowering tariffs even for a limited time.

“We will move the commerce ministry with a request to stop the import of cheap teas if the traders try to do so,” said Vivek Goenka, chairman, ITA.

The price of CTC tea has increased by 48% year-on-year making imports less expensive than domestic teas. Even with a 100% duty, imported Kenyan tea at $1.84 per kilo or Vietnamese tea at $1.50 per kilo would be less expensive than the average INRs305 ($4.07) per kilo paid for CTC at the Kolkata Tea Auction.

India consumers purchase 1,100 million kilos annually. Much of this tea is from Assam and West Bengal where production is down 30% during the period January-July. Ultimately imports may be unavoidable as teas from overseas would stabilize domestic prices.

Drenched

Annual mean anomaly predictions for 2020 relative to 1981-2010. Ensemble mean (left column) and the probability of above-average (right column). As this is a two-category forecast, the probability for below-average is one minus the probability shown in the right column. Grpahics: World Meteorological Organization.

Monsoons annually claim the lives of many tea workers and cause hundreds of millions in property damage. Ten days ago, 43 died in a mudslide that swept tea workers away in their sleep at the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) in Munnar, South India. Rescuers dug for two days but found no additional survivors amid the 20 homes that were lost. The garden employs 12,500 workers.

In Kerala, lowland floods claimed additional lives. This spring India’s tea production fell 26.4% compared to last year due to a combination of flooding and coronavirus lockdowns. Assam gardens reported serious flooding in May, June, and July which is the top tea producing month.

Indian Tea Association Secretary Sujit Patra, told Reuters that a recovery in crop totals was unlikely in the second half of the year. The shortfall has caused auction prices to rise up to a record average of IRNs232.60 ($3.12) per kilo last week, up 57% compared to the same period in 2019.

This week in Yunnan China, 14 died and 20 are still missing following flash floods caused by Typhoon Higos. Landslides killed five. The storm forced the relocation of 34,900 residents and affected 1.1 million people, causing at least $450 million in damage, according to China.Org. After an extended drought, rainfall averages are up 12.5% year-on-year. Across China 200 have died in weather-related incidents this year which have caused $25 billion in losses.

In July the Japanese island of Kyushu suffered severe flooding that damaged several tea farms. Production is down overall, in Shizuoka the normal harvest decreased by 20-30% from 7,616 metric tons in 2019, and likely will be the lowest since 1953, when the first of such data became available.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predicts “high latitude regions and the Sahel* are likely to be wetter than the recent past whereas northern and eastern parts of South America are likely to be dryer” during the period 2020-2024.

“Most of Eurasia, eastern USA and central Africa have been wetter than average, with southern Africa, eastern Australia, Indonesia, north-east Brazil, and western Europe drier than average,” according to WMO’s five-year forecast.

“The annual global temperature is likely to be at least 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels (defined as the 1850-1900 average) in each of the coming 5 years and is very likely to be within the range 0.91 – 1.59°C,” according to WMO.

“The smallest temperature change is expected in the tropics and in the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere,” according to WMO, but “it is likely (~70% chance) that one or more months during the next 5 years will be at least 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial levels.

Click here to download WMO’s 16-page global weather update.

*The Sahel is the 1000-mile wide ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south. Having a semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.

AVPA Teas of the World Competition

The deadline to enter the third annual Teas of the World competition, conducted by the Agency for the Valuation of Agricultural Products (AVPA) is Sept. 15, 2020. Prizes will be awarded Nov. 16 in Paris, France

The competition is open to producers who benefit from recognition of their exceptional quality, helps producers stand out from others growing and processing tea, and encourages producers to explore new tea markets.

The competition consists of “Monovarietal teas.” a category limited to Camellia Sinensis and “Infusions” which include beverages made with plants other than Camellia Sinensis including blends and favored teas.

Download the AVPA Monovarietal registration form.

Download the AVPA Infusions registration form.

Judges evaluate gastronomic rather than standardized refereeing, seeking a striking rather than consensual sensory profile. “This is the first time that an independent body in a consumer country promotes the good practices of production and trade actors,” writes AVPA.

Fees are €110 for individual producers, €550 for other tea professionals and €1,500 for collective organizations.

Click here to review contest rules.
Click here to see who won the 2019 competition.

AVPA is a non-governmental, non-profit organization of producers and enthusiasts. The organization annually conducts four international contests in addition to evaluating tea. These include “Coffees roasted at Origin”, “Chocolates pressed at Origin” and “World Edible Oils.”


Subscribe and receive Tea Biz weekly in your inbox.

Need to Know | Over the Cliff | Elemental Exam

Need to Know | Over the Cliff | Elemental Exam

Tea Industry News for the week of July 27

  • Over the Cliff
  • World Tea Expo Goes Virtual
  • Made in America
  • DMCC Expansion Plans
  • Measuring Elements in Tea
Historic contraction follows 23 quarters of economic growth as high unemployment and rising infections make a long recovery likely.

Over the Cliff

Few tea ventures deployed parachutes capable of breaking the fall as the world’s economies catapulted over the second quarter cliff.

The result is the permanent closure of hundreds of high-profile tea locations in malls and tourist destinations as well as beloved Mainstreet independents like the 10-year-old Wenham Tea House in Massachusetts and 27-year-old Lucy’s Coffee & Tea in Birmingham, Ala.

The Samovar Tea Lounge’s three San Francisco locations are “hibernating” for an unspecified time and the Floating Mountain Tea House will relocate from New York’s upper west side to Croton-on-Hudson upstate. Restaurants that featured fine tea, including Augustine in New York’s Beekman hotel, Vaucluse on Park Avenue and “even the glitzy McDonald’s flagship store off Times Square closed,” according to a list maintained by Eater New York. In July DAVIDsTEA permanently shuttered 213 locations including 42 in the U.S. leaving only 18 in Canada.

The U.S. experienced a record 9.5% drop in economic output, that if left unchecked before the year ends could lead to an unprecedented 32.9% annualized decline in GDP. Europe experienced a 12.1% decline, its worst contraction on record. Canada, which has suffered many fewer infections and COVID-19 deaths than the EU and US, estimates its economic activity will decline 12%, according to Statistics Canada. Retail sales in all the Western countries signal a deep recession with several segments, including food service, plummeting from the end of March and continuing their decline through April. Retail rallies began in May except in the U.S. where a new surge of infections led to a loss of steam by July.

The descent was especially rapid and painful in the U.S. It is difficult to get precise numbers on sales of tea in retail channels. Grocery sales figures are generally good as millions of customers that purchased tea at restaurants and cafes now brew at home. Online sales spiked last spring but are flattening. The tea shop category mirrors the fate that has befallen small independently owned cafes and bars with some segments such as Sunday afternoon tea in tony hotels and at cozy Victorian tearooms located in southern tourist towns virtually annihilated.

“Afternoon tea was devastated in the U.S. in particular—most of those businesses didn’t have a way to pivot online or offer tea-to-go,” writes Abraham Rowe, founder of Sinensis Research in Washington, D.C. Rowe observes that online sales proved to be a lifesaver, “people were loyal to some local shops, and are now shopping online from them.”

“Store closures are down a bit—I don’t have final figures, but hope to run another survey sometime to finalize it,” said Rowe.

As brick and mortar sales at tea merchants slipped over the precipice, online sales increased but not uniformly. An updraft enabled Amazon to glide to the bottom with a year-over-year increase of 34% in tea sales, totaling $29 million for the 52 weeks ending in May, according to Hinge Global. Walmart generated an unexpected $4 billion during the first quarter, up 4% over the same period compared to the previous year. The company announced it intends to become a “omnichannel” business. During the past year Walmart consolidated its online and physical store operations and is focused on expanding e-commerce rather than building new stores.

Amazon and Walmart are the exceptions amid a pandemic that devastated the retail sector. While customers ordered groceries online and had food delivered, very few tea ventures had time to deploy a Plan B. DAVIDsTEA, headquartered in Montreal, Canada, in March closed 231 locations eliminating $12.1 million in second quarter sales. Sales for the three months ended May 2 declined 27.3% to $32.2 million. Wholesale and online revenue climbed $9.3 million to $17.0 million. Online sales reflect the trend identified by Rowe at Sinensis Research: specialty tea buyers online remain loyal to their local tea shop whether in a mall or downtown.

“Sales in grocery stores and pharmacies across Canada continues solid growth,” according to Frank Zitella, who is both CFO and COO at DAVIDsTEA. He wrote in a July 31 earnings report that “with first quarter sales growth of over 120% year-over-year, we are extremely pleased that our loyal tea-loving customers have shifted to buying our teas online, and in supermarkets and drugstores. The strong performance of these sales channels provided us with the confidence that we are on the right path for the future.”

See: DAVIDsTEA Reorganizes for additional detail.

Calls to wholesalers confirm that while online sales have eased the painful loss of tea house closures, declining monthly orders from restaurants and hotels resulted in orders that are no where near pre-pandemic norms. The collapse of restaurant dining, which accounts for 20% of tea sales globally, is the biggest cause. Some 2.2 million restaurants worldwide are not expected to survive through 2020. Closings have a greater impact on coffee sales in the U.S. but in tea drinking nations like the UK and Russia the shift from away-from-home to at-home preparation has been significant.

McKinsey Small Business Forecast

“In a muted recovery, it could take more than five years for the most affected sectors to get back to 2019-level contributions to GDP,” according to McKinsey & Company. Small businesses, which are hard hit due to lower margins and limited reserves, constitute 68% of the food services and accommodations sector and are not expected to recover before the first quarter 2024 stretching into 2025. Arts, entertainment and recreation sectors will take even longer, according to U.S. Small Business Recovery After the COVID-19 Crisis.

“After the 2008 recession, larger companies recovered to their pre-crisis contribution to GDP in an average of four years, while smaller ones took an average of six,” writes McKinsey Global Institute.

“Improving operations and adapting business models can help small businesses in many industries recover,” observes McKinsey, but muted demand, operational challenges due to health and safety restrictions and new customer expectations all take time: “Finding the cash to do so may be a stretch.”

Working capital is often tied up in inventory and small businesses have added cost servicing their debt. A McKinsey survey of 1000 small firms finds the cost of servicing debt averages 30% of revenue. The shift to off-premise delivery and carryout “is likely to erode profitability and increase packaging costs and hinder their ability to sell high-margin items.” McKinsey found that nearly 40% of small businesses in the restaurant sector operate at a loss or break-even.

Solutions suggested in the report involve technology and marketing.

“Independent restaurants might digitize their businesses by using aggregators to increase their visibility, reach potential diners, and outsource their delivery,” write McKinsey authors Andre Dua, Deepa Mahajan, Lucienne Oyer and Sree Ramaswamy.

“Aggregators might help by offering additional on-boarding support or spotlighting small, independent restaurants on their platforms. Some combination of public and private aid may also be necessary for small restaurants, especially offering technical and financial support they’ll need to compete with larger ones that can build contact-less solutions at scale,” according to the report.

“The crisis has exposed financial frailties that have built over time, and the next normal could impose additional burdens,” according to the authors, who add, “The survival of US small businesses across the economy will require new business models and technology solutions that few have the resources to finance.”

World Tea Hosts Virtual Summit

Organizers of the World Tea Expo this week announced a virtual summit scheduled for the second week of October.

The World Tea Conference + Expo was postponed from June 14-16 to October. It was later canceled due to restrictions on events drawing large crowds to the Colorado Convention Center, in Denver Colo.

The World Tea Virtual Summit + Resources is scheduled for October 12-14.

“The virtual summit will introduce online networking and lead generation,” according to Questex, organizers of the event. Guests include Sebastian Michaelis, head of tea at Tata Global Beverages; Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA, and Tony Tellin, co-founder of A. Tellin Co.

The agenda of three half days offers an opportunity to “learn from peers, share ideas, network virtually and safely, and support one another as we continue the shared journey through COVID.”

The next live, in-person event is scheduled for July 14-16, 2021.

Learn more: World Tea Conference + Expo

Made in America

Great quantities of tea are blended in America but according to the Made in America Act, a product manufactured in the US that claims to be American made, must contain at least 50% US ingredients.

A Lexology post this week discusses a class action suit “that calls out Bigelow Tea for pushing unpatriotic tea.”

The post summarizes a report by Linda Goldstein and Amy Ralph Mudge with the Washington D.C. based law firm Baker & Hostetler.

The complaint, filed in California’s Central District Court, by Kimberly Banks and Carol Cantwell, alleges that by promoting their tea as “Manufactured in the USA 100% American family owned” and “America’s classic” Bigelow violates provisions of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, False Advertising Law, Unfair Competition Law, and Breach of Express and Implied Warranty.

Plaintiffs allege themselves and other consumers, “purchased the Bigelow Tea products because they reasonably believed, based on the packaging and advertising, that these products are American-made. However, the products are comprised solely of foreign-sourced and processed tea.”

Had plaintiffs known the truth “they would have paid less for them or they would not have purchased them at all,” reads the complaint.

Bigelow Tea responded Friday with the following statement: “Bigelow unequivocally disputes the allegations in this California based lawsuit.”

“Every box with our statement of being “Manufactured in the USA” refers to the fact these teas are produced and distributed by one of our three Bigelow owned and operated manufacturing facilities, located in Connecticut, Kentucky, and Idaho.  In addition, our packaging clearly states that our teas are “Blended and Packaged in the USA”.  Bigelow continues to be open and transparent about our global sourcing of ingredients (many of which come from the United States) on both our website and the packaging of select varieties of our teas.”

“Frivolous lawsuits such as these are designed to purposefully damage the reputation and finances of the companies they target. Bigelow Tea is proud to be a 100% American family owned and operated manufacturing company and we are prepared to vigorously defend ourselves against this meritless lawsuit,” writes Bigelow.

While Bigelow owns the largest US tea farm, The Charleston Tea Garden, located in Charleston, South Carolina, the tea garden markets its tea under its own brand. The plantation website makes it clear that “Bigelow Teas are not made from any of the tea leaves grown or harvested here at the Charleston Tea Garden. Charleston Tea Garden teas are the only teas made from the tea leaves produced by the Camellia Sinensis plants grown in the fields of the Charleston Tea Garden.”

DMCC Expansion Plans

UAE Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed tours DMCC’s tea and coffee centers. Photo courtesy DMCC.

Fifteen years ago, Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Dubai’s Multi Commodity Centre (DMCC) envisioned a tea trading hub that would service the world’s largest growing regions.

Today DMCC processes 48,000 metric tons of tea annually, accounting for 60% of global re-exports. The facility has processed 320 million kilos since its inception. The modern port facilities and airfreight capability attracted 800 new companies during the first half of 2020, said Bin Sulayem, adding that the months of May and June saw a “noticeable uptick despite an overall softer business climate.”

The tea center and atmospheric-controlled warehouse, which stores 5,000 metric tons, has a turnover of $184 million annually.

Commodity teas from 13 origins are blended for consistency and these blends, are often mixed to make herbal, floral inclusions sold as some of the world’s most popular teas. Examples include Earl Grey and the many breakfast blends distinct to markets in Ireland, Scotland, and England. Classic brands processed include Lipton and Red Rose as well as local blenders such as Tea Trading International DMCC, a Dubai-based British SME that markets brands Vertea and The Leaf to food-service catering, hotel, and resort customers.

DMCC’s tea and its new coffee center drew the attention recently of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, during a visit reported by Gulf Today.

“Under the guidance of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, DMCC is fast becoming the global hub for the tea and coffee industry. Our ambitious plans to triple our capacity in the near future are strategically anchored in Dubai’s drive and ability to facilitate world trade,” said Bin Sulayem.

In a release by Arjun Katyal, of McLeod Russel Middle East DMCC, said, “The DMCC’s expansion plans are incredibly exciting, and represent a huge boost to Dubai’s status as a leading global trade hub. We have been a DMCC Tea Centre member since 2011, and have seen, first-hand, the expertise, experience and vision that has shaped the success of this facility. McLeod Russel Middle East DMCC has its sights set on continued growth, and we will continue to engage new markets and reach a wider customer base than ever before. The DMCC Tea Centre has an important role to play in our success story, and we congratulate them on their latest announcement.”

Since 2005 DMCC has become one of the fastest growing free zones in the world with more than 17,000 companies conducting business in a number of sectors including precious metals, tea and coffee, and food commodities. Establishments and individuals operating in DMCC are exempt from all taxes including income tax, for a period of 50 years.

Testing tea for trace elements

Measuring Elements in Tea

Minerals are essential to the heath of tea plants and for tea drinkers to experience the full range of tea flavor, but too much of even the best of things in life can create problems.

Researchers Dr. Ying Guo, Dr. Seungjin Lee, and Dr. Tae Lee at Georgia Gwinnett College are currently engaged in testing five commonly available tea brands using a handheld Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) unit manufactured by SciAps. The Z-300 analyzer detects very low concentrations of mineral and potentially harmful heavy elements.

The team, whose lab work is temporarily suspended during the pandemic, detected all of the following minerals and alkali metals (Cs, K, Li, Na) in five popular tea brands. The three most common minerals were carbon, calcium, and magnesium in all five samples. Several heavy metals were also present in all five samples including Cd and Cr which are toxic in very low concentrations.

“(Before the shutdown), we obtained the spectra of tea samples and were able to qualitatively determine the elements present,” Guo says. The next step will be to calibrate and complete the quantitative analysis, she says.

ElementDaily Intake Thresholds
Al (Aluminum)0.10–0.12 mg Al/kg/day for adult
C (Carbon)None
Ca (Calcium)1300 mg/day [harmful > 1500 mg/day]
Cd (Cadmium)FAO/WHO rules limit Cd to 0.2 mg/kg
Cr (Chromium)120 µg/day [harmful > 200 µg/dan
K (Potassium)4700 mg/day [harm depends on weight]*
Li (Lithium)Lithium toxicity level is 1.5 mEq/L
Mg (Magnesium)320-420 mg/day (varies with age)
Na (Sodium)Less than 2300 mg/day
P (Phosphorus)1000 mg/day [harmful > 250 mg]
Si (Silicon)Elemental silicon is an inert material
Source: US FDA and National Institute of Health

Researchers pelletized tea grains from each brand and measured the intensities of emission spectra at different wavelengths to determine the presence of elements of interest in the samples. Results were validated by inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy.

Analyzer manufacturer SciAps notes that “minerals play an important role in maintaining the human body. For example, Ca helps with the functions of muscle contraction, enzyme activity, healthy bones and teeth, blood clotting, transmission of nerve impulses, and regulating heartbeat. K can help reduce risks for certain diseases such as stroke, kidney stones, and hypertension. Even though those are beneficial elements to the human body, there is still a suggested daily intake limit.”

Dr. Ying Guo

The article states that “additionally, tea may be contaminated by heavy metals, “either as a result of uptake from soil or from atmospheric dispersion due to vehicular or human activities,” according to Guo. This is what led them to investigate the levels of both the beneficial minerals

(e.g., potassium and calcium) and unwanted contaminant elements (e.g., cadmium and chromium) present in different tea brands. Heavy metals can be highly toxic even at a very low concentration. LIBS was able to detect the presence of these metals in all five samples.

The following table lists the quantities of each element by relative abundance for each tea brand.

Table courtesy Dr. Ying Guo, Georgia Gwinnett College

The research has not been published, but once reviewed, “By comparing with recommended daily intake limits and reference dose, we’ll be able to provide insights on daily consumption limits of tea in order to avoid too much intake of toxic elements,” says Guo.

[Editor’s Note: Tea Biz will follow up once the research is published]

Reversal Forces New Lockdowns

After flattening the COVID curve in April and May it began sloping upward in June in the U.S. while Europe continued to suppress spread of the coronavirus. July has since become the worst month on record for COVID spread with 1.9 million new infections and 1,000 deaths per day, bringing the U.S. total to 4.5 million who have tested positive. The virus is now present in populations young and old in every state with infections rising in more than half the U.S. states. Globally there are more than 18 million cases with deaths approaching 700,000. About 6% of those who have tested positive perished. On a hopeful note, 94% (11 million) have recovered. The U.S. continues to lead country totals but Brazil (2.7 million) and India (1.8 million) are hot spots. The UK, Spain, Peru and Chile experienced death rates greater than 500 per 1 million population. More than 250,000 have died with a high of 6,900 per day in April that dipped for about a month before moving seven-day average of 5,600 globally in July.


Subscribe to receive Tea Biz weekly in your inbox.

Retail Impact of COVID-19 is Devastating for Tea and Coffee Shops in China and Italy

Survey finds 75% of Chinese tea and coffee shops closed at the height of the coronavirus epidemic.

Statistics compiled from a survey of retailers following China’s unprecedented lockdown of 700 million people reveal that while international chains like Starbucks and Costa and big national chains, including Ten Ren and Luckin, experienced severe financial setbacks, independent tea and coffee shops suffered mortal blows.

Now that the contagion has spread to Italy, shop owners are taking a hit comparable to their Chinese counterparts.

“Being in the “orange” zone we’ve seen the downtown area of Milan losing its fabric, most people (not all, fortunately) are just not going out and are avoiding close contacts with others (i.e., any crowded area) We’re currently recording a drop of 40% to 50% both in the store and the tearoom. We’ve adopted the sanitary ordinances that set a “safety perimeter” of one-meter minimum distance from others and have had to cancel all planned events and tea seminars,” writes a veteran shop owner who established his specialty tea business in 2008.

In China, a Kamen survey of 2,000 shop owners, those with ten shops or less, revealed that 75% of the stores closed during the epidemic. Closures were due to policy prohibitions (primarily in Hubei Province) and concerns about personnel safety as well as the absence of foot traffic.

Globally there were 98,000 confirmed cases and 3,347 deaths, including 148 in Italy. The death count in Hubei Province is 3,000, with 23,972 of the 67,466 confirmed cases still in the hospital.

Revenue, compared to the same period in the previous year, declined to zero at 65.9% of the shops surveyed. Business declined 50% to 80% at 19% of the shops. Asked to evaluate the loss, 65.93% of shop operators said the event was devastating, with 30.97% saying the impact is controllable. Only 3.1% reported minimal impact. The Chinese government has announced subsidies, low-interest loans, and relief from taxes for retailers in the vicinity of Wuhan.

Starbucks announced this week that 85% of its shops in China have reopened. In a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Starbucks estimated losses of $430 million from the closure of half of its Chinese shops.

Morocco Hoards Chinese Tea

Fearful of the impact on shipments of green tea imports, Morocco is hoarding tea. The president of the Moroccan association of tea and coffee manufacturers (AMITC), Mohamed Astaib, announced that Morocco had imported enough tea to last six months as a preventive measure. Logistics is partly to blame as hundreds of thousands of containers stacked up at China’s 34 ports.

In an article published by the China Media Times Tea Weekly Yu Lu, vice president of the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products (CFNA) said that Morocco, China’s largest trading partner, implemented stringent standards for pesticide residue for 60 chemicals. As a result, sales decreased by 4.2%.

Moroccans consume 70,000 metric tons of tea annually, making it the 9th largest tea importer in the world.

London’s Fortnum & Mason Markets Children’s Herbals

The tea floor at Fortnum & Mason in London’s high street is stocked exclusively with tea sourced globally. In first for the company, it will now sell a non-caffeinated children’s tea in four flavors.

The Small & Wild brand, blended by two millennial-aged mothers, launched two years ago. The teas are ethically sourced, sugar-free blends of natural herbs and fruit.

The decision follows a U.K. consumer shift to tisanes, which are growing in popularity. Hardly stodgy, the fabled tea company reaped a windfall last year on sales of a bottled sparkling tea.

Teatime for Rampaging Vikings

Fans of the widely acclaimed television series Vikings gave a nod of understanding with word that researchers attribute the Viking’s barbarian behavior to a hallucinogenic herbal tea. Warriors high on a brew of stinking henbane amd alcohol experienced less pain, according to Karsten Fatur, an ethnobotanist at the University of Ljbuljana in Slovenia. Fatur speculates that ingesting this tea before battle led 9th century Norse Berserkergang “berserkers” to howl like beasts as they rushed wildly into battle wearing animal skins and little armor. Unchecked aggression, unpredictability, and dissociative effects, such as losing touch with reality, might have allowed them to kill indiscriminately without moral qualms, writes Fatur.

Coronavirus Presents Logistical Challenges for China's Tea Harvest

Coronavirus Presents Logistical Challenges for China's Tea Harvest

The coronavirus outbreak is causing logistical havoc in advance of the world’s most valuable tea harvest.

“All parts of the country (except Hubei Province) are gradually returning to work and production under the guidance of the tea district government,” writes Tea Weekly.

Hubei Province, an important producing region, remains under lockdown with 2,500 (2,467) deaths, and 80,000 (78,914) confirmed cases of the fast-spreading epidemic centered in the city of Wuhan.

“China is reeling from the outbreak of novel coronavirus-caused pneumonia,” according to Cai Jun, secretary general of tea with the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products (CFNA). CFNA is an influential trade association that operates under the supervision of China’s Ministry of Commerce.

Setbacks are not due to illness or deaths of tea garden workers; it is the result of a national effort to limit travel, close factories, ban public gatherings and shutdown bus, train, air, and subways to prevent the virus from spreading.

“As far as I know, Chinese tea people are all safe and sound, which indicates that drinking tea helps to strengthen immunity,” writes Mr. Cai.

China’s tea industry saw this coming, according to tea retailer Austin Hodge, founder of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea in Tucson, Ariz. Hodge, who imports tea direct from China, recalls the SARS epidemic in 2003. The Chinese learned valuable lessons from that outbreak, which killed 774 globally.

“No tea is going to waste. They are not plucking if they cannot process,” explains Hodge, who praised the Chinese for “making all the necessary adjustments.”

“In rural tea country, the real issue isn’t the virus; it’s the lockdown and logistics. Everybody is local. They don’t have to travel anywhere,” he said.

He expects his first tea of the year to arrive on schedule in a week or two.

Procedures at China’s largest tea company factory in Erhai are typical. The plant resumed operations Feb. 13 as 700 workers were screened for fever, completed and signed a personal health commitment promising to wear masks, disinfect their hands and periodically visit one of six health test points. Upon entering the factory, they scanned the “Yunnan Epidemic Prevention” QR code with their cell phones, activating a cell phone (WeChat mini app) that tracks their movement and warns employers if they have encountered someone who has come down with the virus.

Effective Feb. 11, all Yunnan residents must scan a QR code to enter and exit public places, including residential complexes, markets, malls, hospitals, and public transit hubs. “No name, ID or other content is stored,” and Yunnan promises to destroy the tracking data once the virus is contained.

A factory manager estimated the increased security reduced productivity by 10%.

In the southern-most tea gardens where the harvest is just beginning, those who prune and pluck tea are required to wear masks and are not permitted to form groups. They must keep a minimum distance of 10 feet apart while working.

The China Tea Circulation Association reports that specialty harvests began Feb. 10 in Gaoxian in Sichuan and on Feb. 20 in southern Zhejiang (Wenzhou and Lishui).

“Under the epidemic situation, while doing a good job of prevention and control, multiple tea-producing areas and companies across the country have also organized tea farmers to start the first batch of 2020 spring tea picking,” according to the association.

“We’re not in picking season yet, so the virus hasn’t had much effect on the tea production and international trade. Although it does affect the sales, it’s overall manageable,” writes Mr. Cai.

Retail Impact

Grocery stores and supermarkets remain open, and food and beverage delivery are permitted, but the lockdown has cut foot traffic at China’s premier tea malls to a fraction of normal.

“When most tea markets are not open, companies are encouraged to sell online and micro-businesses,” advises the Agriculture and Rural Bureau of Yuzhou District as reported on the Sichuan News Network. Production of Chuancha in Yuzhou is projected at 1,800 metric tons valued at more than $42.5 million (RMB300 million).

More than 500 million Chinese drink approximately 1.9 million metric tons of tea annually, according to the China Tea Marketing Association. The domestic tea market is valued at $18 billion.

During the crisis, overall retail sales are being stripped of $144 billion a week, according to China’s Evergrande Think Tank (as reported by Forbes).

The impact thus far is most significant in congested urban areas. Every province, including Tibet, has reported cases of Covid-19, but tea regions were spared the initial brunt of the epidemic. Hubei reported 64,084 cases and 2,346 deaths.

Enshi tea producers are the closest hot spot, about 500 kilometers west of Wuhan. Plucking generally commences March 15 on Wufeng Mountain. Enshi is a green tea region, one of the few that specializes in steamed green teas. Train and bus service was suspended in January, all 70,000 cinemas in the province were closed, and public gatherings were forbidden. Only grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, and hospitals are operating.

Here is a sample of the impact in China’s tea producing regions as of February 25: Henan, 1,271 cases, 19 deaths; Guangdong 1,347 cases, 7 deaths; Hainan 168 cases, 5 deaths; Anhui 989 cases and 6 deaths; Zhejiang reported 1,205 cases with 1 death; Jiangxi 934 cases, 1 death, Fujian reported 294 cases with 1 death, Guangxi has 252 cases with 2 deaths, Yunnan reported 174 cases with 2 deaths. (Image credit: Johns Hopkins University)

Johns Hopkins is tracking cases globally.

Generally speaking, the spread of Covid-19 in tea growing areas is slow, and infections in neighborhoods and local outbreaks are comparatively rare. Covid-19 cases in other places such as Enshi and Shennongjia are still attributed to imported cases, and the risk of spread is relatively low,” according to Epidemiologist Dr. Liang Wannian, Beijing’s health chief. His responses to questions from reporters were posted by the State Council of Information Office in Beijing.

How Bad Could It Get?

In addition to tea and coffee, Yunnan is one of the most important growing regions for cut flowers. Harvesting flowers is time-sensitive, and Valentine’s Day represents a significant but fleeting business opportunity.

Fresh-cut flowers from Yunnan are exported to 46 countries and makeup 70% of domestic market share in China’s major cities. Growers earn $64,000 (RMB450,000) per hectare on average selling flowers for $0.20 (RMB1.43) per bloom.

This year the timing could not have been worse, resulting in big losses due to a critical break in the supply chain as trucks, trains, and flights were suspended.

The magnitude of the problem became evident in early February at the Dounan Flower Market in Kunming. Dounan is the largest fresh-cut flower market in Asia. During the period Jan 27 to Feb 5, trade volume in the market slumped 95% to $61,355 (RMB431,500). Sales were 4.78% percent compared to the same period in 2019. Dounan sold 6.53 billion cut flowers valued at RMB5.4 billion last year.

This was compounded by the fact that 50 million consumers were confined to their homes in the Wuhan region and that offices nationwide were closed for as long as two weeks beyond the traditional spring festival travel holiday. The auction was shut down for several days, re-opening Feb. 10.

One-third of Yunnan’s annual cut-flower revenue is earned in February, according to Wang Jihua, deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Mr. Wang estimates that the loss of Yunnan’s flower industry, including supporting industries such as logistics, during the special period will reach RMB3 to RMB5 billion ($425,000 to $715,000).”

Transport options were cut by 90% during the height of the lockdown and are only now being restored. Roadblocks prevented entire villages from access to larger cities and towns. Tea faces a less critical timeline―processing must begin within four hours once leaves are plucked―but the logistics of transportation are the same.

Phil Orlando, Chief Equity Market Strategist and Head of Client Portfolio Management at Federated Investors, told Bloomberg Newsweek the world’s stock markets had not indicated the true impact on trade. “In my humble opinion, it will be bigger than people think,” he said.

Orlando was proved correct Feb. 25 when stock markets globally suffered steep declines.

Looking Ahead

The last three weeks of February were the first in which the number of patients cured of the disease outnumbers those who contracted Covid-19. It is too soon to declare an end to the crisis, but progress is evident.

“The epidemic is under effective control due to the Chinese government’s prevention and control measures,” writes Mr. Cai. During the lockdown, “most people work from home except those who work in the sectors responsible for the supply of the necessities. We have full confidence and capability to win this fight against the epidemic,” he said.

Mr. Cai said that China’s major tea companies “have shown a dedication to fighting this virus by donating money and necessary supplies to those affected areas.” CFNA was forced to postpone three tea conferences scheduled for March, and several tea fairs, including the spring edition of the Global Tea Fair, are being rescheduled.

Sources: Bloomberg Newsweek, China State Council of Information Office, Xinhua, Tea Weekly

Tea Growing Regions in China

China’s Four Tea Growing Regions

China’s 80 million rural tea laborers annually produce 2.56 million metric tonnes of mainly green tea on 3 million hectares of land. Their effort results in half of the world’s annual tea production of 5.2 million metric tons.

Domestic sales by volume are mainly of green tea, but many localities, including Quimen, Fuzhou, Wuyi, and Fuding (in Fujian province) and Pu’er in Yunnan Province, specialize in the production of high-value oolong, white, jasmine, black, and post-fermented teas.

The China Tea Marketing Association estimates 63.1% of domestic sales are from green tea; Pu’er teas represent 14% of sales; oolong represents 11.1%; black tea accounts for 9.9% of sales and white tea for 1.5% with yellow tea estimated at 0.4% in 2018. The Chinese will drink 670,000 metric tonnes of tea in 2020, for which they will spend $18 billion.

Tea plantation acreage has grown substantially since 2006 with most new plantings south of the Yangtze River valley in Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Hubei provinces—the four best-known tea growing regions.

Jiangnan

Tea grown south of the Yangtze river spans several provinces.  It is called Jiangnan and includes Zhejiang, Jiangxi, portions of Anhui, and Hunan provinces. It is the largest tea producing region by volume. Hubei province is split with Wuhan north of the Yangtze and Enshi, south of the river near the Wufeng Mountains. Wuhan is 850 kilometers inland from Shanghai, which is at the mouth of the Yangtze.

Jiangbei

Tea grown north of the Yangtze (Jiangbei) spans Henan, Shandong and northern Anhui. Jiangbei is China’s smallest tea growing region.

Huanan

South China is known as the Huanan growing region. This superior tea growing region spans coastal Fujian, Guangxi, and Hainan island. Fujian is the most important tea producing province by value.

Xinan

Tea in Southwestern China within the Xinan region is grown in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces. The earliest teas are plucked in late February in the semi-tropical portions of this zone bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.