The spring of 2020 brought waves of complications to the growing side of the tea industry. While the popularity and importance of drinking tea at home has never been higher due to the calming effects and health attributes associated with tea, the pandemic has caused significant disruptions throughout the supply chain, particularly at Origin. Spring and early summer harvests account for the vast majority of our tea selections each year, so the timing of the pandemic had tea buyers like myself curious and concerned. We waited on bated breath as reports filtered in from our partners at Origin. When would lockdowns go into effect? Then, when would they be lifted? Would the lack of a workforce before the harvest decrease the quality of the teas? Then, would there be a workforce when the tea was ready to pluck? Most importantly, were all of our suppliers, their families, and their employees healthy and safe? These are the questions that plagued me in the early months of COVID-19 and, if we’re being completely honest, continue to worry me today.
Our spring harvests most notably come from China and India, so the focus of this update will revolve around these two tea-growing regions, though most growing regions have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The harvest season in China begins at the end of March, a time in all of our lives that does not conjure memories of enjoying our normal routine. In America, we were only beginning to understand the ramifications of the virus and what working from home, working on the frontlines, or not working at all would look like. In China, that same timeframe saw the beginning of relief. While still dealing with the virus, the beginning of April allowed for the slow re-introduction of work. Heavily monitored and carefully regulated for the health and safety of their workers, tea producers started slowly opening operations. For tea lovers this is a tremendous blessing. Everyone in the tea industry held their breath as China got back to work. There was potential for the loss of the entire spring harvest, but China was able to carefully get back to work just in time. After a brief sigh of relief, the troubles shifted to the shipping ports. Backed up from months of forced closures, shipments took weeks (and in some cases months) longer to leave China for the U.S. Raised tariffs and heightened political strife added to the fear that both suppliers and buyers alike continue to face to this day.
In India, country-wide lockdown orders began in March and continued to be pushed further back, just as the opening date peeked around the corner. Estate and factory owners scrambled to find solutions for their gardens and the livelihoods of their tea pluckers and production workers. The most notable and devastating loss was to the Champagne of teas, Darjeeling. First Flush Darjeeling, in particular, which accounts for 20% of the output from Darjeeling but 80% of the seasons’ profit was all but decimated. Without pluckers on the estates, there was a near total crop loss for the short window through which First Flush Darjeeling can be harvested. Because garden managers were not working leading up to the season, what was salvageable when they were able to return to work was not representative of the quality of a normal season of Darjeeling. Restrictions eased in May and June, allowing for more production of Second Flush Darjeeling, but the crop loss and quality were still affected. We are still cupping second flush Darjeelings in July and have not found suitable quality yet. If we do not see marked improvement in sampling, we will forego this harvest for a single-origin Darjeeling offering.
Just as India was celebrating the ability to harvest Second Flush Darjeeling, they were faced with two additional challenges – a lockdown on shipments and devastating floods in Assam. Agricultural communities were the first to return to work, allowing for the production of tea, but getting samples to buyers around the world was another challenge entirely. Sea and air shipments alike were at a standstill until very recently, when a barrage of samples flooded our lab, representing weeks of production. In a typical year, we will receive multiple sample shipments for evaluation each week. This year, they all came at once. By June, we started to see Assam samples – an occasion we typically celebrate in May. Assam represents the majority of our black tea use at Smith, so the quantity and quality that we require are of utmost importance. But with the arrival of harvest came the floods. Knocking out production capabilities and quality in one fell swoop. Quantity and quality decreased as prices skyrocketed.
We feel incredibly fortunate to have relationships with some of the best producers in both countries, so we have been lucky enough in the current state of the tea market to find teas that both meet our rigorous quality standards and we feel confident serving. As COVID-19 continues to surge worldwide, we are facing new challenges each day as an industry. We are an interconnected group of passionate growers, producers, buyers, and teamakers and we rely heavily on each other and the efficient movement of our supply chains. This pandemic has stressed every aspect of that supply chain and it has forced each link in the chain to be creative and flexible. It’s a true testament to the passion of every member of our supply chain that we have high quality tea to serve for the upcoming year. With each new challenge comes an opportunity to grow and learn together. We continue to face monumental adversity through the pandemic, but I’m hopeful that by continuing to work together we will emerge strong as an industry and world.
Article and photos by Sara Kaufman, Tea Buyer