One of the most popular blog posts on this site provides a detailed account of the amazing supply chain of coffee, but as the morning ritual of a girl from England, it’s a good cuppa black tea with milk that starts my day. The question is loose tea leaves or tea bag; I prefer the more modern and convenient approach of the tea bag. This amazing invention was unintentionally created in the early 20th century by Thomas Sullivan from New York, when he sent out tea samples in silk bags to be emptied into teapots.
Tea has fully immersed itself into British culture, and as a result, it is largely associated with the country. Although, when looking at the history of tea it is clear: tea originates from Asia. In fact, China was the motherland of tea and used to be the main world tea supplier until India overtook that role in the 19th century. But China still plays a role in tea production, as does Japan, Sri Lanka and other Asian and African countries. Tea was not introduced into England until mid-17th century. For a country known for their tea drinking habits, we were late to the tea party.
All the same, tea is the second most popular beverage behind water, and one tea bag contains around 2-3 grams of tea which have been travelling a fair distance. The roots of tea leaves are for the most part sprouting in farms back in Asia before they begin the journey to the mug in your hand.
The supply chain process of tea leaves has 8 stages of production: growing, picking, withering, rolling, fermenting, drying, blending and packing. The whole supply chain is then developed further with transportation and retailers to help provide customers worldwide with this essential product.
Seed to Tea Leaves
The journey used to begin with the Camellia sinensis seeds being re-planted in regions with hot and humid climates, on average of 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, with regular rainfall throughout the year. However, these days, selected plant cuttings are used and replanted on nursery beds for approximately 12 to18 months. The next step is transferring these young plants to the main plantation for them to mature into fully grown bushes. Every two years, farmers shape the crops so they reach their full growth potential of 1.20m. After four years, the tea plants can be plucked manually. For an excellent quality harvest, the workers use the fine plucking method, whereby the bud and the following two leaves are picked. The workforce can pick up to 21 kilograms of tea per person, per day. More than 200 cups of tea can be brewed from approximately 450 grams of tea leaves.
Leaves to Tea Bag
After the picking stage is complete, the leaves are weighed and transported to the tea factory. They must be distributed to the factory quickly; within approximately 5 to 7 hours after harvest to prevent loss of quality. With this, the transformation process of the tea bag begins. It starts with withering; this requires leaves to be spread out in warm air, where they can shrivel up to a soft texture making it easier to roll without splitting the leaf.
The CTC (Cut, Tear and Curl technique) is commonly used to produce black tea, making the brew quicker and stronger, which is perfect for a tea bag. This involves a machine rolling the leaves at various speeds, and in turn, they are broken and torn into very small pieces.
The next step is fermentation to avoid natural decomposition. In this section of the supply chain, the leaves turn black as they dry out. For different types of tea, the leaves change color while drying out, resulting in various flavors. The aim is for the final product to have levels of moisture between 2.5 – 3%.
Trading of tea takes place between producers and buyers through auctions, whereby tea companies, also known as packers and blenders, buy tea in packets with the assistance of brokers. Although the processed tea can be sold as a finished product, blending takes place to add extra value to the tea. In this phase, processed tea from smallholders is mixed with higher quality tea from large tea estates. Then the beverage is exported.
Bag to Cuppa Tea
After all this preparation, the tea is set for retail. The transportation and exportation throughout the various supply chain stages are crucial factors in the tea industry. They are heavily relied upon for their timings in order to deliver the highest quality tea to the end consumer; whether that is cafes or large supermarkets for home purposes. The tea leaves make several pit stops along the way before reaching consumers; from the plantation to the factory, and from the auction houses to the blending stations.
Tea is a drink for every season, as the Chinese Proverb goes: ‘a day without tea is a day without joy’. The global tea demand is expected to rise and tea producers are under more pressure as domestic consumption increases. As a result, global demand exceeds supply. Exports play a crucial part with maintaining the whole demand-supply balance. With Kenya being the biggest exporter of black tea, production levels have a significant effect on the global market. For example, in the first quarter of 2017, low rainfall impacted production.
Tea is a popular beverage worldwide with individual countries placing their own stamp on it; from different flavors to cultural customs such as the fascinating Japanese tea ceremony to a spot of afternoon tea. All of these traditions require a well-coordinated supply chain process, particularly in the production stages to distribute the desired tea. Smooth supply chain processes become even more relevant as the global demand continues to increase.
In your opinion, what are some other products with amazing supply chains?
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