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One Hundred Years of Tea

By Jane Pettigrew


As Tea and Coffee Trade Journal celebrates its centenary, Jane Pettigrew asked some of the industry’s longest-standing members how things have changed over the years.

There have been so many changes in the tea trade over the past 100 years that it is impossible to discuss them all here, but from talking to some of the key players around the world, certain themes recur and highlight the major points again and again.

One of the most heart-warming aspects of the trade is the feeling among many that it is the people that make working within it a satisfying and rewarding job. Comments from tea professionals included: “Generally, one was working with nice people” - Mike Bunston, Wilson Smithett, U.K.; “Traveling to tea countries and getting to know not only the tea production but also other cultures and in general friendly people. The tea growers are to be understood as a large family with much understanding for each other. Friendships sometimes last decades, which enabled us to get over various crises” - Peter Kühn, Wollenhaupt, Germany; “The good points are many. It all revolves around the people in the industry. One lives by one’s reputation. We all know each other - customers and competitors” - Joe Wertheim, Tea Importers. Inc, USA; “The industry’s good points are undoubtedly its people. There is something different about the tea trade, especially the tasters, and having now traveled the world I have met tasters in four continents and I always come away feeling I have made new friends” - Nigel Adams, Lyons Tetley, U.K.; and “The many happy occasions shared with tea friends over the years have been treasured memories. Belonging to this industry where being competitors doesn’t keep us from being concerned with each other’s well-being is a real privilege”-William McMelville, ex-partner and president, George Friedman Co, Inc and ex-director of the Tea Association of the U.S.A.

In the early days, however, the trade was relatively difficult for non-Europeans to find out about the industry and get into. From Sri Lanka, Maxwell Fernando told me, “Tea tasting in particular and the tea trade were subjects that captivated me from my childhood, but very little reading matter was available on the subject then and a genuine attempt had to be made to obtain any form of information on this fast developing industry. There was a certain amount of mystery surrounding the industry during the initial stages, and it was not until the mid-1940s that the locals were given an opportunity to savor the fruits of the trade in this country.” As a Sri Lankan, he was determined to “probe the mysteries that surrounded this enclave which was kept reserved for Europeans.” Fortunately for him and for the trade, “there existed a few openings for locals in the industry, and I, without hesitation, grabbed one.” Now, of course, the industry is a multi-national, multi-racial organization in which men and women from all the producing and consuming countries play an equal part.

Several of my interviewees thought that in the past the trade was too slow to change. Mike Bunston remarked, “If you could find a bad point, it was that perhaps, in hindsight, we were fairly slow to adapt, in some ways, but then the system worked so well that one is prompted to ask, do you need to fix what is not broken?” Nigel Adams felt that the same is true: “One of the industry’s strong points is also one of its worst. The trade has a fantastic history, steeped in tradition and an almost mythical past. This is an enormous strength which can be and has been used to great advantage in promoting tea consumption. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the trade are unable to distinguish between this heritage and traditionalism, which has meant that the trade has been slow to change and adapt to the modern world. There are now signs that this is being corrected at last and the last few years have seen a great deal of innovation from the drawstring teabag to internet auctions.”

But the system did work efficiently. Mike Bunston pointed out that at the height of the season in London, more than 60,000 chests of tea were sold every week, despite the fact that all the teas had to be sampled, inspected, tasted and catalogued before every single auction.

Wartime Tea

We also have to remember, as several people pointed out, that the industry suffered very badly as a result of World War II. As Peter Kühn explained, in Germany, “during these hard times and the following meager years all companies were forced to deal in other commodities in order to survive. Fortunately, the industry regained its values.” Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 had its effects on tea. As William McMelville detailed, “many of the cargo vessels had to be diverted to the allied war effort. This period marked a great co-operative effort to keep our industry alive. With much of the world’s tea production in the Pacific areas cut back, or completely under Japanese control, the British Ministry of Foods became carrier for all available tea supplies. In the USA, our government created the US Commercial Co., run by qualified members of our industry who would take over tea allocated to this market by the BMF. The available teas were then graded Fine, Medium or Fair by supervising tea examiner, Charles F. Hutchinson during the several years of this allocation system. After this grading of each cargo, US Commercial would then allocate a proportionate share of each cargo to each packer or importer based on his or her pre-war import statistics. Each got an even proportion of each grade at fixed prices for each grade. Importers in turn allocated their share to their customers with a fixed mark-up. Brokers also received a small fixed commission so our entire trade managed to make ends meet during those years - a performance our industry can be proud of.”

The Industry Speeds Up

In the early decades of last century, life in the trade was much slower. Dealing was carried out by phone and telegraph whereas, today, business is carried on by e-mail and the internet as well as by more conventional methods. As William McMelville explained “In those days, steamers were slow and usually took from six to eight weeks from origin. Most mail traveled by boat, so most important correspondence was by cable, which I usually stayed late to put into one of the major commercial codes, but mostly private codes for each of our overseas suppliers … The tea business was handled mainly by brokers who traveled the country by train, sometimes for weeks at a time to cover all the customers, many of them local wholesaler grocers. In those days, they normally bought a whole year’s supply of tea at one time, which they put in local tea warehouses.”

Today, buyers often travel directly to the producing regions in order to select the very best teas for their customers. “Over the years, it was fascinating to watch how the general traffic progressed - for example, in the past one would fly by turbo prop to India, and now a jumbo jet makes it possible to cover this distance in half the time,” remarks Peter Kühn. Joe Wertheim agreed, “In the year 1901, we had no airplanes, no container ships, no fax, no e-mail, etcetera, etcetera. Obviously these changes do not apply to the tea industry alone, but have had their impact on all aspects of life.” Mohammed Anverally of Anverally & Sons, Pvt., Sri Lanka, thinks that “the most important change that has taken place over the past 15 years is the introduction of computers and machinery that has speeded up the process of communication around the globe….Our systems of buying, collection and shipments have to be very fast now in order to be competitive and give a top service to our clients. In the old days there was only labor intensive work, but now everything is computerized and almost 75% machine-oriented.” But Anverally comments that the pressures of modern working routines aren’t necessarily always good, “In the early days, tea trading and tea buying was a very personal close business among brokering houses, the exporting firms and the clients. Although the three parties still work arm in arm, the flexibility that there was is no longer tolerated due to stress of work, time and financial constraints.”

Containerization and Shipment

As Nigel Adams stated, “The most important changes to have taken place in my 28 years of tea started with the palletization of tea chests. That was an enormous step forward and led to containerization.” Mike Bunston agreed that “containerization was the major turning point.” Mohammed Anverally recognizes the effects of this: “The speed in shipments for bulk teas and value added teas has increased tremendously. In the early days, we used to contract for shipment with the buyer within 2-3 months, sometimes even longer. Nowadays we are lucky to get ten working days shipment period from Sri Lanka to international destinations. William McMelville highlighted the same advances: “In recent years, container shipping has reached the point where special vessels have been created that are able to carry more than a thousand 40-ft containers from points of origin in most tea producing areas by fast vessels to major ports here and elsewhere, where the containers are loaded onto specially designed freight trains and delivered right to the doors of major packers and regional packers. It is almost a direct line from producer to packer without the containers ever being opened en route. This allows ‘just in time’ buying.”

The movement was tea within Europe was also eased by the creation of the European Union. As Peter Kuhn explained, “Until about 1990, the trade was discriminated against by customs barriers in Europe. It had always been difficult to ship teas across the European borders. This, as everybody knows, is now over due to the introduction of the European Union and its common market. This of course is one of the most significant changes in the European tea industry and it has had the effect of easing the trade back and forth from the countries of origin to all European consuming countries.”

The Teabag Revolution

The revolution started in America, as William McMelville described: “One important event of the past century was the introduction of the individual teabag, along with restaurant-size iced teabags in the mid to late 1920s. These were first made from cotton muslin tied at the top with string, and there were also some with perforated aluminum or perforated parchment. All used leaf grade tea of BOP and BM grades. It wasn’t until November 1941 when filter paper became more commonly used that the U.S. government regulations allowed the use of fannings and siftings only in filter paper bags. But these had to be labeled as using ‘cut’ black tea or whatever origin tea was being used. Up to 4% dust grades were allowed but had to be labeled as such - as cut black tea and dust. Europe took a long time to accept this type of packing, but seems to have embraced it along with most consuming nations.”

In Britain, the teabag and teabag machinery changed the entire face of the tea industry. They determined the type of tea produced and with the introduction of CTC teas, the small-leaf, quick-brew tea became standard. From a slow star in the 1950s and early 60s, a tiny percentage of tea brewed in bags grew rapidly and now accounts for approximately 90% of all tea brewed in Britain. There are those who see the teabag as the beginning of a decline in the appreciation of quality and taste. When small leaf tea is brewed, strength comes out of the leaf before flavor and as consumers fell into the habit of brewing teabags for only a couple of minutes, so they became used to a strong, colory tea without the depth of flavor they had previously enjoyed. It is wrong to condemn teabags by saying that only poor quality tea goes into them. There are some excellent blends around. But the general British public has perhaps forgotten how quality tea should taste.

Mike Bunston commented that the teabag “meant less tea was being used to make the same amount of cups because waste was eliminated and there was an element of portion control. We thought this to be a bad move and the purists did not consider it a satisfactory way to make tea. However, it was a very convenient way to brew and you could argue that if it had not been for the teabags, possible less tea would have been consumed. Originally I considered the teabag to be a retrograde step (and I still prefer to use loose leaf myself), but I am a convert in my thinking today.” For Nigel Adams, “the most important change was the round bag launch in 1989 as this was the catalyst which woke up the U.K. tea trade and was the trigger for all the new product innovation since then.” Today of course, the range of shapes, sizes and range of materials used for teabags varies enormously, with new innovations appearing all the time.



Continued on next page...

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