There is no lack of choices when it comes to teas. We can drink some of the most exclusive teas in the world and pay 1 EUR for our cup and we can also enjoy very high-quality organic tea for 25-30 cents per cup. Those sums are not huge, yet most people still decide to pay 5-6 cents for the lower quality mass production teas. This decision is often made at the nearest supermarket when we purchase our regular 25 teabags box for 1,5-2 EUR. A shiny package which holds 40-50 grams of tea dust, literally dust.
Loose leaf tea. First tests for Renegade Tea Farmers.
I believe that the main reason why this is happening is the paradox, that even a low quality and crappy tea can be quite acceptable to drink if it is prepared properly. It's not screaming in your mouth the same way as bad wine or even bad coffee would do and so the quantity is coming before quality very often in the tea industry.
But there is a reason, why cheap tea is cheap and I hope that after reading this blog post, you maybe will dedicate a bit more time for sourcing your teas and consider buying something that costs slightly more in the future...
Quality of the tea
Essentially tea is a processed and dried leaf of the tea bush. So, the quality and characteristics of the tea are directly linked to the quality of the leaves that are harvested. The more tender and fresh they are, the better tea can be made from them. But the simple truth is that to produce tea from those highest standard leaves is not 2-3 times more costly, but it can be 10 or 20 times costlier. I will try to explain, why it is like this.
Usually, the golden standard of high-quality teas is that you should never use more than a bud and 2 small, not fully grown leaves for production. As the leaves mature, they will become darker and coarse, losing the softness. While tea can still be made from those leaves, the original flavour and aroma will be mostly replaced with a dark colour and overall bitterness.
Usually, the golden standard of high-quality teas is that you should never use more than a bud and 2 small, not fully grown leaves for production.
Collecting only small, not fully grown leaves influences the cost a lot. I'm not trying to be scientific here, but my personal observations indicate, that adding the 3rd leaf to the harvest will increase the harvesting mass by 50-100% because often the 3rd almost fully-grown leaf is as big as the first 2 together. Adding the 4th or 5th leaf will triple the harvest, increasing the productivity on both plantation and employee level. The effect on the cost is huge.
For example, some of the teas are produced only from buds and the same area that produces 1kg of buds could easily produce 50 kg of average quality leaves.
The other fact is, that the highest quality leaves are only possible to harvest by hand. Only those shoots and leaves that are healthy and correspond to the required standard are plucked. If "2 leaves + bud" standard is followed, then on average a reasonably experienced plucker can harvest a bit more than 10kg of fresh leaves per day. This quantity is sufficient to produce only 2-2,5kg of tea. In order to boost productivity, the majority of the tea is today harvested by cutting machines. Using motorized cutters can increase the efficiency some 20 times, but the increased productivity comes at a cost. The machine cuts everything that will be on its way, so such harvesting method inevitably includes leaves of various quality and maturity, often also weeds and stems. Productivity is higher, quality is lower.
It is the plantations, where it all starts.
So, a big part of the difference in production cost comes from the harvesting approach. Collecting only the fresh, highest quality leaves reduces the productivity of the plantations and requires a lot of manual work.
Renegade Tea Estate, Georgia
Then, on top of that, there is the climate. For high-quality teas it is generally desirable that the leaves grow and mature slowly and are not constantly exposed to direct sunlight and high temperatures. That is why the most exclusive teas are usually produced in the mountains, which are often covered with clouds and mist and where the average daily temperatures are lower. And although the tea bush can be productive 12 months per year, again for the flavour and characteristics of the tea, it is better when the bushes have a dormant period with the daily temperatures dropping below 10 C.
So, it is the rule of thumb that for the quality of the tea it is better if the bushes have a winter rest period and the temperatures do not get very high also during the production season. Of course, this again means that the total production per hectare will be much smaller compared to regions where the temperatures are high throughout the year.
Cost of growing high-quality tea in Georgia
Georgia is one of the farthest areas from the equator where tea is commercially grown and produced. The production season lasts only from early May to early October, resulting in ca 6 months of rest period. Also, during most of the season, the average daily temperatures are quite low, resulting in the slower growth of the shoots. This means that Georgia is a good region for high quality and delicate teas. It however also means that Georgia could never compete with many big tea producing regions on the production cost level. Even in theory.
Lunchbreak in Renegade Tea Estate.
In practice, there is another variable - salary costs. Georgia is still a developing country, trying to overcome the scars of the Soviet past and hectic period that followed its collapse. But it is also a country that is working tirelessly to become a member of the EU and NATO as soon as possible. So, when people are happy to work for 2-3 USD per day in Africa and some of the Asian regions, it's not the case in Georgia.
We have made our initial calculations and currently it seems, that when our high volume summer teas end up in our storage room at the factory, the production cost has reached some 20 EUR/kg. This does not include transport, marketing costs or any of the other costs we have at the plantation or elsewhere. It does not include our own salary or cover the investments. For some of the exclusive speciality teas, we plan to produce over the next few years, the direct production cost would be well over the 50 EUR/kg level. Our teas will not be cheap and for people who are firmly on an opinion that tea is tea, as long as it colours the water...well, I suppose we can't convince those people to buy our product.
For others, I can only happily conclude that even the most expensive cup of our teas will not set you back more than 35-40 cents. I think it's a good deal :)