Minghuang, or ‘King of Tea’ in Chinese, is one of China’s leading tea extract producers with an annual output of 3,000 tons. Located in Longyou City in mid-western part of Zhejiang province, the company is geographically close to four of China’s leading tea producing provinces: Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian and Jiangxi.
Minghuang was first founded as Longyou Tea Plant in 1980 and was mainly engaged in green tea production and refining. In 1985, Fu Zhusheng, who was then the plant manager, went to Zhejiang Agricultural University (which was merged into Zhejiang University in 1998) for a three-year executive course on tea science.
This study trip was a turning point for both Fu and his plant which was faced with dwindling market demand due to increased competition following the decentralization of the tea industry.
The business potential of tea extract and the level of laboratory researches motivated him to contract the university to transform their R&D results into practical application. The tea extraction project was on track in 1988 and commercial operation was started by 1992. The tea plant was renamed as Longyou Minghuang Natural Herbal Products Co. Ltd. to reflect the change and Fu was retained as general manager. Minghuang tea extract products received positive feedback from overseas buyers and entered into North American, EU and Asian markets. Sales to the domestic market started later in 1996 following a surge of demand from China’s RTD tea segment. In 1998, the company was privatized and restructured into Zhejiang Minghuang Natural Products Development Co. Ltd.
“Technology and innovation is our foundation for success,” Fu, president and general manager of Minghuang, told Tea and Coffee Asia. “We engaged top ranking agronomists in tea science since day one, and have developed our own R&D force through the years. Minghuang is seriously committed to new product development and technology advancement.”
On the wall right behind him is a large golden Chinese character on a square red board. The character means harmony and is considered one of the four virtues of tea in Chinese tea culture. In Minghuang, it also resonates with the ethos of sustainable development and social responsibility.
Minghuang has four tea extract workshops, a bio-tech development subsidy, a provincial-level tea extract R&D center and over 667 hectares of central tea gardens. The company has perhaps the most comprehensive line of tea extracts covering all six of Chinese basic tea categories (green, black, oolong, white, yellow and post-fermented tea) and two of reprocessed tea categories (jasmine tea and brick tea). Other value-added products include: fresh tea extract, tea polyphenols, decaffeinated tea extracts and a rich choice of herbal extracts. Most tea extract products are instant tea with a shelf life of two years, others are liquid concentrate. Both hot-soluble and cold-soluble powders can be dissolved instantly to make a clear cup of tea. There are over a hundred specifications and extracts of customized blends that can be produced according to individual clients’ unique requirements.
“Some of the technologies we developed are patented and that gives us a competitive edge,” Fu revealed. “Our jasmine tea extract is a very popular product due to unparallel wholesomeness of fragrance, which is achieved through an innovative processing flow and the fine encapsulated technique.” The new-tech jasmine tea extract has received a Technology Advancement award from Zhejiang municipal government for the excellent retention of original jasmine fragrance.
Fresh picked leaves
Minghuang fresh tea extract is another best-selling product for RTD manufacturers who want extra-freshness and greener color in green tea drinks. It is derived directly from unprocessed fresh picked tea leaves and contains more catechin, theanine and vitamin C than traditional green tea extract. Other special products such as yellow tea and brick tea extract are uncommon type in the market. Each year, the company launches new products to enhance its product range.
China National standards on both instant tea (powder) and tea concentrate (liquid) have taken into effects since March 1, 2011. Minghuang was one of the five companies invited to contribute in the drafting stage. The other four are Damin Foodstuff (Zhangzhou), Shenzhen Shenbao Huancheng, Fujian Xianyangyang and Unilever (China), which contributed to instant tea standards but not tea concentrates.
So far there are no specific national pesticide standards for tea extracts and manufacturers are required to follow the standard on general foodstuff.
In Fu’s experience, most pesticide residue cases are caused by “illegal or improper application of pesticides both in the present and in the past.”
For example, Methamidophos, a pesticide that is banned in tea gardens, is still being used secretly by some ignorant planters for its fast killing effect. As for legal pesticides, there must be a waiting period after each application during which plucking shall strictly be avoided.
Soil pesticide residue is a relatively hidden cause, according to Fu.
“Degradation of soil pesticide residue is very slow, pesticide applied decades ago may still leave trace in soil and can be absorbed by tea plants,” he pointed out, adding that to safeguard source pesticide issues, “both soil residue condition and current pesticide application shall be monitored and cross-referred.”
In general, there are fewer pesticide problems in tea extract than in tea as most lipid-soluble residues cannot go into the brewed liquid in the first step.
“Water-soluble residues will partially go into tea liquid, the most threatening type being organophosphorus pesticides that dissolves fast in hot water,” Fu said. Minghuang has implemented source controls in all its central tea gardens and contracted gardens. Planters are updated on pesticide-related information and pesticide usage and timing is duly recorded and monitored. QA control is another reassurance for product safety.
Consistent quality has established Minghuang as a trusted supplier in international market. Exports account for a 70% share of sales. The company was among the earliest Chinese suppliers to get international organic certificate.
“We worked with organic certification more than 10 years ago,” Fu recalled. “There were only 10 or so Chinese tea companies that took that initiative at the time.”
Minghuang has cooperated closely with international and Chinese certification bodies. So far, it has NOP/EEC (by IMO), OTRDC (by Organic Tea Research and Development Center, China), QS (by China Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine), GMP and ISO9001, and is Kosher and Halal certified.
Domestic trade started about four years later than exports, yet this segment has caught up quite rapidly.
“The RTD tea boom is the main force behind domestic growth as throughout the years regional differences in RTD and instant tea consumption have reduced are now less obvious,” Fu said. “Black tea RTD is a leading variety and is mostly made from black tea extract powder. Green tea RTD is more inclined to use fresh tea extract for its fresher taste.”
Minghuang black tea extracts are further segmented according to major RTD tea varieties such as ice, lemon-flavored and milk tea, etc. It also launched roasted barely extract, chrysanthemum tea extract and Liang-cha (a cooling herbal blend) extract in response to rising demands from the domestic market.