Turkish tea aims high

Experts note that allowing tea plantations at places with an altitude higher than 1,000 meters, currently considered forest area thus not open to agriculture, would allow for high-quality tea to be produced. (Photo:AA)

November 27, 2011, Sunday/ 13:54:00

The Turkish tea industry aims to make Turkish tea a world brand by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey, and, to this end, a workshop held last week in Rize, a Turkish province known for its tea, brought representatives from the tea industry together with bureaucrats and officials from the government in a three-day brainstorming session on how to build a world brand.

The Turkish tea brand needs quite a bit of brainstorming because Turkey, in spite of being the fifth biggest producer of tea in the world with a production of around 200,000 tons of tea a year, exports only 1 percent of its total production. Turkey aims to produce at least 10 world brands by 2023, one of them being “Turkish tea.”

Minister of Customs and Trade Hayati Yazıcı, who was one of the speakers in the workshop, believes that Turkish tea, especially organic Turkish tea, has the potential to be developed into a world brand.

The reason Yazıcı focused on organic tea in particular is simple. As opposed to other tea producing countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, which are situated around the equatorial line, where insecticides need to be used to protect the plant, Turkey's tea gardens, being situated in the northeast of the country, are naturally protected from harmful insects by cold weather and snow. This means that Turkish tea growers do not need to use insecticides, which makes the plant even healthier.

Even with such an edge, Turkey has much do in the way of organic production. Production of organic tea in Turkey is estimated to be around 500 tons a year, which is only 0.25 percent of the total production. To increase production in this segment, there are plans to build plants to produce organic fertilizer.

But as Minister Yazıcı very appropriately said: “To become an international actor in tea, one needs to first get acquainted with local consumption habits and tastes and align them with local tastes.” This is where a problem seems to arise because tea is losing ground against coffee at home. Coffee has come to be perceived as a prestigious beverage, while the Turkish population has no such feelings about tea, which is claimed to be healthier than coffee, although, people still drink more tea than coffee.

Faced with a question on why a coffee cup needed to be included in a concert ad an eminent Turkish firm had given to a newspaper a few years ago, the person in charge of public relations replied, “Because coffee is a sign of modernity.”

The cause lies mainly with coffee chains, which seem to have mushroomed in big cities in recent years. Young and old alike enjoy getting together with friends at coffee houses that provide a cozy and chic atmosphere where they can have a quality drink at a reasonable price. In people's minds, coffee has come to be identified with these coffee shops and this is exactly what tea lacks in Turkey.

The only thing tea can be identified with is the traditional kahvehane (“coffee house:” in Ottoman times coffee was the traditional beverage, as Turkey began producing tea in 1938) which is no match for the new coffee house. A survey conducted with the participation of over 800 students at the University of Rize demonstrates that students who grew up in big cities are less inclined to drink tea than those who were raised in small towns and villages. “The tea industry needs to take this into consideration,” Associate Professor Ali Rıza Saklı from the university's management department told Today's Zaman.

Hamit Vanlı, an associate professor teaching at the faculty of economics and administrative sciences at Maltepe University, who, like Vanlı worked for many years at the General Directorate of Tea (Çaykur) and made a presentation at the workshop in Rize, concedes that tea has gradually lost prestige to coffee in recent years.

“To be able to step into the international market, we first need to properly organize our own. Tea houses like that of Çaykur's in İstanbul need to be opened in other cities, and not only one kind of black tea, but a large selection of various teas should be offered at these tea houses. Unfortunately, tea has fallen behind in this area,” he told Today's Zaman. The Çaykur tea house Vanlı refers to is a relatively recent development, opened in March this year, and it is one of the very few examples of its kind, whereas the number of coffee houses, local and international, is around 500.

Like Yazıcı, Saklı, believes that the fact that no insecticides are used is a great asset for Turkish tea. Noting that people consume green tea mainly for health reasons, he said: “We should try to make use of this strong point in the production of organic tea. The European consumer would prefer Turkish green tea, but we must increase our number of tea varieties in accordance with consumer demands in Europe.”

But Cemal Alpaslan Karakan, general manager of Doğuş Çay, one of Turkey's leading tea companies, does not agree. He does not find the organic option a viable course of action because of the currently limited production of organic tea. It is not enough to avoid using pesticides for tea to be labeled organic, it must also be fertilized organically, which is not the case for most Turkish tea. “So what if Turkey exports several hundred tons of organic tea? That's nothing. Turkey should aim for much bigger amounts,” Karakan maintains.

He strongly believes that for Turkish tea to become an international brand, some of the tea plants need to be replaced, which would allow for a higher-quality tea yield. “The replacement could start with the 10 percent of each tea garden, and another 5-10 percent could be replaced the following year,” Karakan states. Otherwise, the only way to build a brand is blending Turkish tea with teas from other countries, he claims.

Allowing tea plantations at places with an altitude higher than 1,000 meters, currently considered forest area thus not open to agriculture, would be another way to produce high-quality tea, which is in high demand around the world. One of the obstacles in exporting Turkish tea is that the whole yield is blended together regardless of quality. So, high- and low-quality teas are packaged together. “We could start with teas growing at an altitude of 700-800 hundred meters and process and package them separately,” says Saklı.

In order for Turkish tea to become an international brand, Saklı believes, Turkish tea should be presented with the culture behind it. So, he suggests drawing inspiration from the elegant coffee cups of Ottoman times, saying we should produce equally beautiful tea cups. In addition to the traditional Turkish tea glasses, this might prove to be an effective way of reaching high-class circles, he claims.

Tea is, after water, the most widely consumed beverage in Turkey, as well as in the rest of the world. In Turkey, 96 percent of the population drinks tea every day. Turkey ranks in the top five countries with the highest consumption of tea, sometimes being given first place for per capita consumption, while other studies place it in third or fourth place with a yearly consumption of three kilos per capita. Turkey is the fifth biggest producer of tea, with a production of around 200 thousand tons a year, and is accepted as the third biggest tea market in the world, with a yearly market volume of TL 2.25 billion.

It is almost inconceivable for most in Turkey to start the day without a glass, not a cup as in most countries, of hot black tea, but Turkey has been relatively unsuccessful in exporting its tea. Only a small amount has managed to sell abroad, which is not all that “abroad,” because the majority of the consumers in those markets, such as Europe, are actually Turks living there.

There are many issues, such as taste and quality, that have to be dealt with if “Turkish tea” is to become an internationally known brand. Turkish tea has a peculiar taste to it and is not known for its high quality because tea plantations have not been properly taken care of.

The Turkish tea industry expects a new tea code to properly regulate the industry. Without such a code, it feels wronged by unjust competition in the domestic market and illegal tea entering Turkey, which is claimed to be as much as 40,000 -50,000 tons a year.

Karakan's words regarding the lack of tea houses is quite significant as far as tea firms in Turkey are concerned: “That's a major shortcoming on our part. The industry has always struggled with problems. That's why we have not been able to take any action.”

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