€‹Turkish people drink the most tea in the world, per capita. What makes Rize tea so special?
The importance of the culture of tea in Turkey may well be beyond comprehension for people from other parts of the world.
It is consumed on every occasion, everywhere possible, from sunrise to sunset; undoubtedly the nation’s primary and most-consumed beverage.
Turkey has, by far, the highest per person consumption in the world. Each individual drinks 3.5 kilo of black tea on average annually, and this number can only be challenged by Afghanistan with 2.4 kilo per capita consumption, a full 32% less.
Historically Turkey has always been among the top five producers in the world after China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka respectively.
Tea growing areas in Turkey are quite different to those in Africa and Asia.
Turkey’s tea fields are located in the very north of the country.
The main growing area in Turkey is around Rize—a relatively small city by Turkish standards—with a population of 350,000 people, 200,000 of which have a direct economic relationship with the plant.
Rize itself produces 60% of the country’s total tea, followed by Trabzon and Artvin.
In 2018, the sector reached total production of 260,000 tons, a figure which had previously stood at between 200,000 and 240,000 tons over the past 10 years.
Export and Import
Despite being one of the biggest producers in the world, Turkish tea export numbers are comparatively small. There are a few reasons for this, primarily due to domestic demand. Since national consumption is the highest in the world, almost 95% of the total production is channeled into domestic use, so much so that since 2015, Turkey has had a negative trade balance in the commodity as a consequence of a surge in demand.
Moreover, since then, the population of Turkey increased by 10%, with new waves of incoming Syrian refugees and immigrants mainly from Asian countries.
Natural obstacles—in addition to structural problems—that are causing relatively low export figures include high prices in relation to production cost and the frequency of harvest. Unlike hot and rainy climates where the harvest can occur 8-9 times a year, the cold climate in the north of Turkey allows only three tea harvests seasonally which naturally impacts the prices negatively and leads Turkish tea to lose its competitive edge. Currently the average price is around USD3.5 per ton in Turkey, compared with the world average per ton which stands at below USD2.5, with China, Kenya, and India even managing to sell for under USD2 thanks to low labor costs.
Structural problems and suggested solutions
Tea is and always has been a strategic product for Turkey. As a result of this mindset the country established its own company, Çaykur, to regulate the expansion of production areas and of course prices.
The company collected 60% of tea leaves last year at pre-determined prices, which ultimately led the company to announce big losses, around 274 million Turkish Lira in 2017 and 674 million TL in 2018.
The strange thing is that even though Çaykur financially puts itself at risk by regulating prices, and thereby protecting farmers, the price of tea went up by 70% over the past five years. The governments’ tight grip on the industry through Çaykur effectively curbs investor appetite, limiting growth in exports.
Furthermore, Turkey has long had a 145% tariff on imported tea.
There is, however, an inherited quality of Turkish tea that could not only solve the many structural problems of the industry but also change the perceived quality of Turkish tea worldwide.
The harsh climate of the Black Sea region is a drawback in terms of harvest frequency, but there is a silver lining: snowy winters.
Turkish tea doesn’t require chemicals to protect it from diseases, with the snow taking care of all that, enabling the land to produce chemical-free, high-quality tea.
However, aging tea shrubs and the effects of climate change have also taken their toll.
The area has been battling with major climatic disruption, landslides, and soil loss.
The suggested solution on which many stakeholders have reached consensus is to mobilize a rapid shift toward organic tea production.
Çaykur has already started to realize this plan in some selected pilot areas in Trabzon, aiming at a complete transition within three to four years in every tea field.
Once this plan is finalized, the actual and perceived quality of Turkish tea will be elevated and in time Turkish tea can become a globally-recognized brand by positioning itself as a high-end product, justifying higher prices compared with its competitors.