Mechanization Rolling into India’s Tea Gardens?

China—producer of the most tea in the world—needs more tea, particularly black tea.

3 brewTo tea drinkers in the U.S., where green tea is slowly being discovered, that may seem a step backward. Why drink black tea when you live in a country that produces some of the most exquisite green and oolong teas in the world?!

Yet, as younger people are turning to black tea, the need in China exists.

Sri Lanka has largely filled this demand, coupling savvy marketing with high-quality tea—but the island experienced drought this past year, and workers are striking over wages, which gives India an opportunity to step in.

And China is interested in helping India do this, hoping to import twice as much Indian tea as they did the previous year.

Tea garden, India
Tea garden, India

So what does India need to do to attain this goal?

Right now, China produces twice as much tea on half the amount of land as India.

That difference lies in mechanization, using machines rather than hand shears or hand plucking to harvest the tea leaves.

This brings up several issues:

  • This isn’t an all-or-none proposition. While most of China’s tea production depends on machinery, they still produce a lot of hand-plucked and hand-processed tea. India’s Darjeeling region is unlikely to ever move to mechanization and risk their “champagne of tea” status. Likewise, the Assam orthodox teas will remain plucked by hand.
steinthal leaves
Darjeeling FTGFOP1 Steinthal
Assam SFTGFOP1 Mokalbari
  • Historically tea has been hand plucked and rolled in India, but recent disputes over wages, working conditions, etc. have led to a shortage of workers, which in turn makes it challenging to maintain production levels.
  • How do you mechanize without compromising quality? China, with its depth of knowledge, will step in here. As part of the current agreement between the Indian Tea Association and the China Tea Marketing Association, China will share its production techniques with India.
  • Those “tea-based value added products,” with which China excels (items such as food and skin care products), are important. Although India does offer ready-to-drink beverages, it hasn’t branched out much past that.

This whole move to mechanization wasn’t made quickly or taken lightly.

marzipan leaves
Marzipan blend, black tea from India

Over the past few years, Indian tea producers have been researching ways to reduce production costs so that they could continue to compete in today’s market.

Mechanization was an obvious answer in that more leaves could be harvested in less time with fewer employees, but whenever you implement new technology, the initial cost of both equipment and training, as well as reconfiguring tea gardens to accommodate machinery, must be considered—not to mention bringing people on board with the whole idea. And although India looked at Chinese production methods, it seemed that those methods weren’t readily applicable to India.

Tests and studies were launched, however. And over time, people grow accustomed to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and with experimentation and trials, they improve on those new methods.

Now, with an agreement between China and India in hand, along with a concrete goal to nearly double the tea destined for the Chinese market, change has been initiated.


China and India together now drink 59 percent of the world’s tea (Bolton 2018)

what might result from China and India working together on tea production? Stay tuned as this story surely evolves!

all 3

Related post: Tea Traveled from China to India—and Now Returns to China

Sources: “Mechanized tea harvesting for lower cost,” by D. Bolton, World Tea News, 12/7/15; “Soon, Chinese technology can drive India’s tea estates,” by A. Rakshit, Business Standard, 12/13/18; “Tea exporters are unsettled but optimistic as global markets remain stable,” by D. Bolton, World Tea News, 12/11/18.

Teas pictured are available at TeaHaus.

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