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    Why Tea Lovers Can No Longer Be Picky About Their Leaves

    Rising labor costs and changing consumer trends are making high-end tea prices steeper and steeper.

    Spring is an important time of year for Chinese tea lovers. In the southern reaches of the Yangtze River Basin, the passage of the spring equinox signals the beginning of green tea season. As a Chinese idiom goes, “Spring tea is the most valuable, and its value lies in the time of year it is picked.”

    The most prized of the season’s teas is mingqian tea. Southern China’s spring tea crop is divided into two main types — mingqian and yuqian — with each named according to when it is harvested. Mingqian tea is tea harvested prior to Tomb-Sweeping Day, which this year fell on April 4. Considered the highest-quality spring tea, it is aromatic, with a fine, delicate texture and a rich flavor profile.

    Yuqian tea is picked and produced after Tomb-Sweeping Day but before the April-May rainy season. It is considered above average in quality, while tea picked between the end of the rainy season and the beginning of summer is typically coarser and of lower quality.

    This year, however, mingqian devotees have found themselves confronted by an unavoidable reality: Their favorite tea is becoming increasingly expensive. The price of Longjing tea, a renowned green tea variant, is just one example. Five hundred grams of West Lake Longjing tea, picked during the mid-March first harvest in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, wholesaled at between 1,800 and 2,500 yuan ($260 to $360) this year. After it is repackaged and sold to consumers, West Lake Longjing will retail at between 6,000 and 8,000 yuan per 500 grams.

    Of course, mingqian tea has always been expensive and high-end. In the run-up to Tomb-Sweeping Day, temperatures tend to be lower, slowing the plants’ growth. As a result, only a small percentage of tea plants are ready for harvest during this time. The rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes. In ancient China, the year’s first harvest of mingqian tea was presented as a tribute to the Imperial Court. The 18th-century Qing emperor Qianlong even composed a poem in honor of Longjing tea.

    Now, though, the problem isn’t just that mingqian is expensive; it’s that the price continues to spiral upward. What’s making it so costly?

    First, the steady increase in labor costs over the past few years has become a major factor in rising tea prices. The raw material of tea production is unprocessed, freshly picked tea leaves known as chaqing. Generally speaking, immature tea leaves hold more water than overripe ones, and tea picked in wetter, rainier weather has a higher moisture content than tea picked in fairer weather. Just over 2 kilograms of unprocessed tea can be turned into only 500 grams of processed tea, but high-quality hand-dried green tea requires around 2.5 kilograms of the raw leaves.

    An experienced tea worker can generally pick about 1 kilogram of tea leaves per day. If the period leading up to Tomb-Sweeping Day is wetter than normal, though, the plants themselves flourish, but workers have less time to harvest and process them, meaning that demand for labor is concentrated in the weeks leading up to a national holiday. In recent years, that’s exactly what has happened.

    In addition, most young people today are uninterested in tea picking. One county in southwestern China’s Guizhou province faced a labor shortage of 60,000 tea pickers this year alone. Of course, this has led to higher wages within the industry, with workers in some areas of Zhejiang able to make as much as 180 yuan a day, with housing and meals provided. Labor costs now account for as much as 50 percent of the total cost of unprocessed tea.

    As technology improves, the tea production process has become increasingly automated. Mechanized production methods allow for the implementation of economies of scale and have reduced labor costs, resulting in significantly lower overall prices.

    Machine-processed tea is actually more aesthetically pleasing than hand-processed tea, and machines can process more tea per batch. In terms of flavor, however, hand-processed tea remains the superior choice, as an experienced tea worker has much more control over the production process. Additionally, there is less tea in each batch, making it easier to ensure that quality remains high.

    Besides brand, flavor, and price, Chinese tea drinkers are also growing increasingly attentive to food safety concerns. One of the reasons mingqian tea is so highly valued is that it is produced in cooler weather, meaning it is exposed to fewer diseases and pests. This requires less fertilizer and pesticide, ensuring a safer, cleaner tea.

    Another reason tea costs have spiked in recent years is the beverage’s growing popularity among younger consumers, who have more disposable income. Most people think of tea as the province of the middle-aged and elderly, but according to a 2016 survey, people under 35 comprised nearly half of all tea drinkers, roughly equivalent to the percentage of tea drinkers aged 45 and up. Moreover, young people aged 14 to 25 made up a quarter of the total tea market. Investors have already begun to take note of the market for tea among young consumers. Liu Qiangdong, CEO of the online shopping giant, recently invested 500 million yuan in the tea chain inWe, saying he wants to turn it into a “Chinese Starbucks.”

    No matter how you look at it, Chinese tea consumption habits are changing. More and more people have started paying attention to their tea’s safety, quality, rarity, and brand — as well as the standards and reputation of the tea producer — when making purchasing decisions. These changes are reflected in the growing price gap between high-grade tea and mid-range tea, one that will likely continue to increase as different grades of tea are marketed toward different consumer bases — meaning that, for the foreseeable future, Chinese tea lovers will have to shell out more for a cup of their national drink.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A tea grower picks tea leaves in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, March 18, 2014. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone)