Humble cuppa holding its own

MIKE HOULAHAN IN DUNEDIN
Last updated 15:34 07/11/2012

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New Zealanders drink a lot of tea.

If you ever doubted how much tea we drink, a quick look at the Bell Tea production line in Dunedin would quickly confirm the humble cuppa holds its own against a latte and an espresso.

At rapid, almost hypnotic pace, machinery is punching out tea bags.

A box of a hundred is filled in just a few seconds and another slides  to take its place.

Three quarters of New Zealand households drink tea and each of us consumes about 1kg a year.

Bell produces more than 700 million teabags annually - the average of 218 each person aged over 15 years a year just shot by on the production line in the blink of an eye.

Hope St is a hive of industry: the Dunedin factory supplied the whole South Island with Bell products, and factory manager Neil Shearer said it had the capacity to take over production for the North Island as well if Bell's Auckland factory was forced out of production.

About 40 tonnes of tea a month are processed at Hope St.

''The tea industry and coffee industry seem to rely on history; the stories are part of the industry,'' Mr Shearer said.

''To be able to say to customers that this factory has been in production for almost 90 years, that's all part of Bell's story. I'm not sure how many people know we are here: since I started with the company a year ago I've found several people who did not know that.

''On the other side of the coin, I have been approached by people in their 90s who used to have a job delivering Bell Tea.

''Bell buys black tea from around the world and sacks of leaf are shipped to Dunedin and put in to storage.''

Depending on demand, tea is then dispatched from a warehouse and taken to the top floor of the Hope St building.

Gravity is the tea maker's friend.

Bags are selected to match the recipe for each brand and then mixed in a hopper on the top storey.

The blend then drops down one floor for bagging, and then down another floor for packing.

On the ground floor, pallets of tea await distribution.

''Some teas we just pack,'' Mr Shearer said.

''We are the New Zealand agents for Twinings and Earl Grey and English Breakfast are packed on site. They come in already blended; we receive it in 15 or 30kg packets and then pack it into teabags for them.''

Tea's dominance of New Zealand's hot drink market has slipped - coffee overtook the traditional cuppa a few years ago as the nation's hot drink of choice.

The number of tea bags whizzing through Hope St suggests there is still plenty of life in the drink yet though.

''There will always be a place for both tea and coffee in the hot beverage market,'' Michaela Dumper, Bell group marketing manager, said.

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''Even with the rapid growth explosion of barrista coffee into our culture the tea market has continued to grow. Black tea continues to climb but we have seen exponential growth in the green and infusions categories.''

In a competitive market, quality testing is rigorous. Each week Shearer has to despatch samples of Hope St blended teas to make sure they are up to scratch.

''Each blend is sent to Auckland and tasted, for them to say they are happy. There are two or three people in Auckland whose job involves spending a couple of hours a day just tasting tea. If there is an issue they will come back to us saying 'don't send such a day's production out' but I'm not aware of us having had any such issue.''

Teabags are the main way tea is drunk and form the bulk of Hope St's work, although loose leaf tea is also packed.

Ten people work on site, with temps brought in during periods of high demand.

''Inability to supply is our biggest sin, so we carry quite high stock levels, both as finished goods- at any time we have maybe a month sitting here of every line of tea - and raw tea stored waiting for production,'' Mr Shearer said.

''We have months of buffer on hand, normally. Black tea - we don't do green teas here - can last pretty much indefinitely.''

As well as the many varieties of Bell and Twinings, Hope St also makes Edglets and Tiger Tea - a brand which is hard to find anywhere further south than Christchurch.

''There are a few other lines we supply purely to industry, but Bell is our biggest line,'' Mr Shearer said.

It should continue to be made in Dunedin for some time to come.

''The Bell factory is an iconic part of Dunedin's community and is the heart of our business,'' Bell financial control范ler David McKeown said.

''This is where the origins of Bell began and we are extremely proud of the fact that we still manufacture from this plant as we have since 1924.  It's also a great risk management asset to have two plants that mirror each other - if we've learnt anything from the Christchurch earthquakes it's that it's critical to have the ability to manufacture from multiple sites.

''As far as we are aware the Dunedin factory will endure the same risk assessment process as other buildings around the country and when or if there were to be a problem we would address that accordingly.''

- D Scene

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