At Comins we always work hard to look at the whole picture in the tea world. Although we source and sell what are called 'orthodox' teas, a recent trip to Kenya has brought up the topic of CTC teas. In this blog post we will examine the history and impact of CTC tea in the Kenyan tea market & how change and opportunity is coming in the shape of Orthodox offerings
Firstly : a few explanations.
Back to the trip : Lets start with some background on CTC tea : Interested in the tea landscape in Kenya I decided to visit two state of the art factories with CTC lines on this trip. A 'line' is a stretch of machinery where the freshly picked leaf enters at one end and the finished product exits from the other. A complete line runs for over a hundred metres.
Once quality has been checked the tea is taken to enormous tanks to start withering. This begins with chemical withering where the enzymes in the leaves are simply left to do their job [see our previous blog on oxidation]. This takes around eight hours. After this the leaves are released from the tank to enter the ‘physical withering unit’. This enormously long machine is where the moisture content of the leaves is reduced in preparation for the next stage of 'maceration'. This is when the leaf passes through rotating toothed cylinders which chop the leaf up into very small particles. These are then allowed to oxidise before firing [heating] stops this process and stabilises the tea. The finished tea is then sorted and packed ready for shipping.
Kenya currently produces the majority of its tea in this way. As mentioned in a previous blog Kenya is the third biggest producer of tea in the world and is THE biggest exporter of tea. 95% of tea grown here leaves the country. The majority goes to the UK, Egypt and Pakistan. Most of the UK population are drinking Kenyan tea without knowing it, as it is a key component in blended teabags. Its speed in producing a strong colour, aroma and taste means that it is the perfect base for a beverage where often brewing is short but readiness is judged by colour after adding milk.
This all seems pretty straightforward, but when looked at in more detail there is a problem - and, as with a lot of commoditised products, this is down to money. CTC tea is cheaper to produce than orthodox leaf. However over production of CTC in the market drives down prices. This is very clearly shown in Kenya, where CTC often costs more to produce than it sells for. On speaking to tea experts, scientists and farmers they all commented the the price gained at the auction was too low to be sustainable. Even after an extended dry period this year, which should push the price up due to scarcity, the price remains at a level which is well below production costs. With wages and factory costs rising steadily, this can not continue for very much longer.
Turning now to the area that we are interested in at Comins, Orthodox tea, we see a different story. According to the Kenyan Tea Directorate the prices that can be achieved at auction can be over three times that of CTC. Consumers buying Orthodox teas are looking for a different experience from their cup of tea and, appreciating the skill and labour needed to produce highly differentiated teas, are prepared to pay more.
The starting product for both is the same - freshly picked leaves.
To produce Orthodox teas the small-holders we met and many more like them do not need to change much, they are already skilled and growing good tea. The problem for many of them comes with the factories, as the line needed for orthodox production is very much different than for that of CTC - this needs investment and without this investment, based on the CTC insights shared above, factories will be forced to close. The overall change needs to be from the top. The Kenyan Tea Directorate are doing a fine job to promote and support factories which are launching into orthodox tea production, but the majority of the tea that is sold through the auction is purchased by a small number of buyers meaning a change needs to happen in their purchasing or alternate channels need to open up for buyers looking for orthodox tea in order to drive meaningful change at scale.
This is a very complex system that I have only had a glimpse into. However, on speaking to numerous people in every sector of the tea industry it seems the only way to go for a brighter future is to increase production of orthodox tea. This should put the value back into an incredible tea whose flavour is known so well across the world but that is also often under appreciated as a single origin tea. The move from CTC to orthodox will also serve to educate people about the superiority in the flavour of the orthodox teas. As I mentioned earlier the process for CTC places a greater emphasis on volume and consistency of flavour profile. Orthodox production centres on bringing out the best possible flavours according to the individual characteristics of the leaf understanding that terroir will influence the profile of the tea and that individual producers will produce distinct and different offerings.
To visit a tea growing country discover that it is still early on in its development of the sort of orthodox teas that we sell is very exciting. By building new direct networks and supporting Kenyan orthodox tea we can hopefully make a positive impact which can at least benefit the smallholders, but maybe ripple through more of this fine country.
Watch this space in the next few weeks as our new teas arrive.