Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Shade Grown Tea vs. Shade Grown Coffee

I recently read a post by Sir William of the Leaf about Shade Grown Tie Guan Yin. This post also references Japanese teas, such as Gyokuro, which are grown in shade for part of their timespan. The shade results in a higher concentration of chlorophyll in the leaf, as the plant tries to adapt to lower-light conditions, giving the leaf a more intense green appearance.

I want to write this article to talk a little bit about the concept of "shade grown", as this concept exists and is frequently used by connoisseurs to refer to both coffee and tea. But these concepts are used rather differently, and it can be misleading to think that they refer to the same thing.

Shade-grown coffee:

Coffee is a relatively shade-tolerant plant; it naturally grows beneath a forest canopy in rainforests. In fact, it is so shade-tolerant that is able to be grown indoors as a houseplant, in northern climates without much sun. Here is my coffee plant:

Even though the coffee plant itself can grow in low-light conditions, it grows faster and produces a greater yield of coffee beans when grown in full sun. In most commercial coffee cultivation, the coffee is grown in a monoculture, in full sun, with just coffee, and nothing else. This practice results in a greater yield of coffee, but there is an ecological cost associated with this practice. Besides the perils associated with monoculture, which I have written about in an earlier post on monoculture, there is another problem, the total yield, in terms of the total biomass, the total productivity of the ecosystem as a whole, is much lower. Another recent post which ties into this is the one on the value of diversity, in which I explain that as a general trend, ecosystems become more productive as a whole, the more biodiversity they have. A monoculture may yield the most coffee, but there is a tremendous loss.

Shade-grown coffee is based around the idea of protecting this biodiversity. The growing of coffee can take many forms. In some cases, the coffee is grown beneath a canopy of trees which produce food crops, such as nuts or fruits. In other cases, the coffee is grown beneath a canopy of wild rainforest trees which are not harvested, and are instead just left to preserve biodiversity and ecological value. This value can be immense. As one small example, many migratory birds use coffee plantations as wintering grounds, and the value of shade-grown coffee plantations as habitat for these birds can be immense, in terms of protecting the population of vulnerable or threatened species. There's a great article about shade grown coffee and migratory birds on the website of the Smithsonian National Zoo. Wikipedia also has an interesting article on shade-grown coffee. Shade-grown agriculture in general, when carried out under a forest canopy, is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture.

Shade-grown tea is not the same:

If you are like me in your love of nature, you probably got excited reading about shade-grown coffee. Unfortunately, shade-grown tea is not as exciting. When producing "shade-grown" Tie Guan Yin or gyokuro, there is no forest canopy. The tea is grown out in the open in a monoculture, and is grown in full sun for most of the time, and then at a certain point, a screen is put in place to filter out some of the light. While this produces a similar shading effect, in terms of producing biological changes in the plant, resulting in changes in flavor, it provides no additional ecological value, and there is nothing more sustainable about it; if anything, it may even be less sustainable as it raises the cost of production, and the additional sunlight is blocked rather than captured by other plants.

Shade-grown coffee rightfully carries a strong positive connotation of being sustainably produced and protecting ecosystems. Unfortunately, shade-grown tea does not deserve this same connotation. For this reason, I hesitate to call gyokuro or other teas that have been shaded by screens or meshes "shade-grown". I think a more accurate description would be "shaded". "Shade-grown" crops, in common use (everywhere except the tea industry) is associated with the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity by growing a crop under the natural shade of a forest canopy.

Other people are sticklers about terminology, when it comes to things like "herbal tea" vs. "tisane". I find that debate unimportant. The use of the term "shade tolerant" is more important to me because it has real ecological implications. I know that for some time, I was personally misled about gyokuro because I knew so much about shade-grown coffee, and when I saw the "shade-grown" label, I assumed that it meant the same thing, and I was sorely disappointed when I later learned that it did not.

Why can't tea be shade-grown under a forest canopy?

The short answer is that it can, and it already is. The tea plant is a remarkably shade-tolerant plant. Like coffee, the tea plant grows naturally as an understory plant, often under a closed canopy of other trees. Tea grows wild in forests, both naturally, and in areas where forests have been allowed to grow up over former tea plantations. I have had wild harvested tea, harvested from these forests, courtesy of Life in Teacup, and it is delicious!

Can tea be commercially grown under the shade of other plants? I don't know. It is possible that the tea plant is not as shade-tolerant as the coffee plant, but some gardening sources I've read have listed Camellia sinensis as having "excellent" shade tolerance. The source I trust most, Sunset, lists Camellia sinensis as tolerating "partial" shade, but Sunset is particularly conservative on its shade tolerance scale, and is oriented toward U.S. gardeners and many tropical areas have much higher total light levels (It also lists sugar maples as tolerating "partial" shade, and this is one of the most shade-tolerant of U.S. hardwoods). I'm not sure of the degree to which it is carried out, but I know that Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling, as well as numerous other tea gardens, plant trees in their tea crops to provide cover, nitrogen fixing, or protect against pests. However, pictures of these areas seem to suggest that the area is still mostly open and sunny.

Who would buy shade-grown tea, grown under a forest canopy?

Will truly shade-grown tea, grown under a forest canopy, ever become widely available? I have no idea, but I will personally say, I would love to see this happen, and I would gladly pay a steep premium for such a product. And, if it tastes anything like the wild-harvest tea from forests that I tried, I do not think we are going to be disappointed with its flavor either!


  1. Great, interesting distinction between the two plants. Thanks Alex.

  2. In Sri Lanka there are plantations that will plant trees along with tea, in as high of concentrations as 25%. This helps the soil, diversity, as well as provides shade to those tending to the tea.
    Great article! I did not know about the concept of "shade-grown" coffee!
    Always enlightening!

  3. Yes! I have seen pictures of these plantations in Sri Lanka but I have never read much about this practice...it is something I'm very interested in though.

    Shade-grown coffee is rather exciting...if you ever drink coffee I would recommend trying to get your hands on some, it's becoming fairly mainstream. It also tastes noticeably different than conventionally-grown coffee.

  4. To add to what Sir William said: I've seen the same intentional planting of shade trees in India. Especially as you get close to the Equator, there's a tradeoff between yield and quality, i.e. taste and aroma.
    If you look at it from another angle, the quality of leaves from the
    high-yield season (in many places, the hot, rainy summer) is much lower than the quality from the low-yield season (typically early spring.)
    I know a tea planter who insists that you never get good quality leaf from a plant that hasn't been stressed.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Lew Perin, that makes sense about the tradeoff between yield and quality.

    I also find it fascinating how various forms of stress, whether from shading (Gyokuro and other shaded teas), poor soil (think Wuyi rock oolongs), or insect predation (Bai hao oolong or muscatel Darjeelings) can contribute to unique flavors and aromas that can be highly desirable. This is a subject I want to write more about!