The tea plant has its historic roots in China's rural Guizhou province, and today the tea industry is providing a new engine for prosperity to tackle poverty in long-struggling areas.
Guizhou's production of tea has exploded. Long known as a tranquil, pastoral place, Guizhou has surged to become China’s number one province for tea cultivation by area, with 6.9 million mu (1,776 sq.mi.) of tea fields.
Last year, the province produced 284 million tonnes of the drink, with an output value of 252 billion yuan ($36.5 billion), according to Chen Zongmao, tea culture ambassador speaking at the China International Tea Cultural Festival and Tea Industry Exposition in Zunyi.
Its production has come a long way. In 1958, Guizhou's total tea exports were 150 kilograms. By the late 1980s, the total had risen to 7,172 tonnes with a value of 7 million US dollars.
"Guizhou is an area most favorable to tea production, thanks to its high altitude, low latitude, unique landscape and bio-diversified environment," said Chen.
Tea has become a pillar industry for battling poverty in Guizhou, where per-capita income is roughly half China's national average.
In Zunyi's Fenggang county, local official He Bo credits the growth of the tea sector to cutting the poverty rate to 0.2 percent, with average incomes to farmers and pickers rising roughly 1,000 yuan per year in the last several years.
“Because of the tea industry, many have escaped poverty,” he said, noting that annual income in the county rose to nearly 10,000 yuan ($1,450) last year.
“We help local farmers to professionalize their production,” said Zheng Xiaoxu, manager of the local tea federation, which was founded in 2013 and serves 57 companies and 1206 individual tea farmers in Fenggang county.
They pride themselves on avoiding pesticides and fertilizers, using flypaper, lights, and natural sprays to deter insects.
This year, the association’s farmers gained European Union import approval, she said, a sign of the county’s progress in implementing strict quality control measures.
She credited Guizhou's climate and lack of direct sunshine for the mild, slightly sweet flavor of Zunyi's teas, particularly the celebrated green tea Meitan Cuiya (or "green buds”).
Their distinctive character has won increasing admiration abroad.
The Zunyi expo attracted tea aficionados from around the world, with attendees from Algeria, Britain, Guyana, Malaysia, Suriname, and Morocco.
In the showroom, groups of Senegalese women in colorful scarves pose for photos in front of booths offering samples of Yingde black tea
“Now like bread and olive, tea has become a necessity for Moroccan households,” Morocco's envoy Abdullah Jamal Alawi said in a speech at the event.
Tourism has developed on the back of the growing industry.
Zunyi's county of Meitan has built public sculptures of ceramic tea cops and a giant red teapot — China's largest —on a mountaintop.
It boasts China's largest green-tea trading market, which lies off a pleasant square with flowing fountains, tasting tables, and a large, digital sign showing the real-time prices of green and black tea varieties.
Despite its small scale, Meitan is home to over 100 tea factories, a tea research facility, an industry museum, and a teapot-themed hotel.
An hour's drive away lies the Sea of Tea, a rolling landscape of emerald hills that is considered to be China's biggest unbroken tea plantation.
Local officials see the growth of tea production, appreciation, and celebration as a return to Guizhou's roots.
At the tea museum in Meitan, a displays shows the oldest tea ever discovered — a one-million-year-old specimen discovered in Guizhou
"Guizhou tea,” said Zhou Guofu, head of the national tea culture institute, “serves as a brilliant bridge of Chinese civilization."
Byline: Ben Carlson