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- CRB Fundamentals - 2008 Commodity Articles


Tea is the common name for a family of mostly woody flowering plants. The tea family contains about 600 species placed in 28 genera and they are distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical areas, with most species occurring in eastern Asia and South America. The tea plant is native to Southeast Asia. There are more than 3,000 varieties of tea, each with its own distinct character, and each is generally named for the area in which it is grown. Tea may have been consumed in China as long ago as 2700 BC and certainly since 1000 BC. In 2737 BC, the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, according to Chinese mythology, was a scholar and herbalist. While his servant boiled drinking water, a leaf from the wild tea tree he was sitting under dropped into the water and Shen Nung decided to try the brew. Today, half the world's population drinks tea. Tea is the world's most popular beverage next to water.

Tea is a healthful drink and contains antioxidants, fluoride, niacin, folic acid, and as much vitamin C as a lemon. The average 5 oz. cup of brewed tea contains approximately 40 to 60 milligrams of caffeine (compared to 80 to 115 mg in brewed coffee). Decaffeinated tea has been available since the 1980s. Herbal tea contains no true tea leaves but is actually brewed from a collection of herbs and spices.

Tea grows mainly between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn, requiring 40 to 50 inches of rain per year and a temperature ideally between 50 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to rejuvenate the bush and keep it at a convenient height for the pickers to access, the bushes must be pruned every four to five years. A tea bush can produce tea for 50 to 70 years, but after 50 years, the yield is reduced.

The two key factors in determining different varieties of tea are the production process (sorting, withering, rolling, fermentation, and drying methods) and the growing conditions (geographical region, growing altitude, and soil type). Black tea, often referred to as fully fermented tea, is produced by allowing picked tea leaves to wither and ferment for up to 24 hours. After fermenting, the leaves are fired, which stops oxidation. Green tea, or unfermented tea, is produced by immediately and completely drying the leaves and omitting the oxidization process, thus allowing the tea to remain green in color.

Supply - World production of tea in 2004 (latest available data) rose +4.2% to a record high of 3.342 million metric tons. The world's largest producers of tea in 2004 were India (with 26.0% of world production), China (26%), Sri Lanka (9), Kenya (9%), Turkey (6%), and Indonesia (5%).

Trade - U.S. tea imports in 2007 (annualized through October) rose +2.4% to a new record high of 200,541 metric tons. World tea imports in 2003 (latest data available), fell -8.6% to 1.320 million metric tons. The world's largest tea importers were Russia (with 13% of total world imports), the United Kingdom (12%), Pakistan (8%), and the U.S. (7%). World exports of tea in 2003 (latest data available) rose +0.6% to 1.384 million metric tons. The world's largest exporters were Kenya (with 21% of world exports), China (19%), India (13%), Sri Lanka (12%), Indonesia (6%), Vietnam (4%), and Argentina (4%).

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