News From China

Reporting from our Changxing Office in Zhejiang

I’m writing from our recently opened office in Changxing, in Zhejiang. Changxing just a short drive away from Guzhu Mountain where Luyu supervised tea production for the Tang emperor, while he composed the first book about tea, while he lived and died in nearby Huzhou. This area is very old in relationship to the growth of civilization, which is prehistoric around Tai Lake. This is where silk originated, as well ancient pottery (Yixing is just up the lake from here), and bronze technology. Tea culture, as it evolved into modern times, started here in the Tang Dynasty, about 1200 years ago.

Sichuan is still reeling from the recent earthquake and the after tremors, floods, mudslides, and damaged dams. China is mobilized as only China can mobilize, with hundreds of thousand troops and volunteers from all over the country, not to mention an outpouring of aid from around the world. I saw the mayor of Yaan at the recent tea culture conference, and he had been dealing with things on the front-line. He was very moved by the world’s generous support.  The textile factories in nearby Huzhou are working full bore to make tents as temporary housing for all people left homeless. I was at the quake site in the ancient city of Puer again this year to find that permanent houses had been completed for the victims of last years quake. It seems unlikely that the same can happen in Sichuan. The devastation there is beyond belief. There is a growing scandal about all of the collapsed schools. One school principal has emerged as a national hero for having fortified his school in advance and saved his students.

The tea harvest has been spectacular for the most part this year, even if the brutal winter drove up the prices for the best green teas, the quality has been exceptional. There are other factors as well, labor costs, higher mandated standards, energy costs, and the shrinking dollar, but most producers have been good about keeping the price down. While some prices have risen, others have fallen, puer especially.  Seven Cups is doing a couple of special order cakes under our own brand in the newly reopened Jinggu factory. I have just returned from Yunnan.

We are tasting this year’s Dan Cong oolongs this afternoon. So far they have been great.  I also saw Ye Han Zhong, our Dan Chong producer, at the conference. He is said to be eloquent in his speaking and elegant in his tea making.  He is certainly the leading expert in China on Chaozhou tea culture.

All have the oolongs have been finished for this year with the exception of Wuyi Yin Cha which will be finished in a day or two. It is hard to get any reports from Wuyi because Liu Guo Ying because he is working 18 hour days during the production time and turns off his phone.

It is father’s day and I am homesick. Thank god for Skype and my Macbook so I can see my family. It has been a lot of work moving our China office from Guangzhou to Changxing, and either Zhuping or I have been here continuously since February. We feel honored to be part of the community here, and proud to be the first wholly owned American tea company to receive our own Chinese export license.

Even though they have not publicized it, the Chinese government has really increased the standards for the safety of tea exporting. All tea bases must be registered with the Bureau of Inspection and Quarantine. Registration requires extensive documentation including soil and water testing, full details of production including and chemicals used. Penalties are substantial for breaking these laws. China doesn’t want to see any more scandals, especially during the Olympic year.

Since the suppliers that we have dealt with for years, besides the paper work and the expense of testing, it has not been difficult to comply. Many of them have organic certifications or have been in the process of getting certified.

It is hard to say what will happen to websites that have circumvented both the Chinese law and the FDA by sending small commercial packages through the mail from China. They are under the radar here because they are hosted outside of China, and are blocked inside of China, but it seems likely that they are running a much bigger risk than before.

It is hard and expensive to navigate through the legal process, for example we must supply the inspectors with 200 grams of every tea we export for testing, and for a small company like ours and the rare teas we deal with, it can run into a lot of money, not to mention the expensive of being in compliance with packing, reporting, and having staff in China that are experts in the bureaucracy. It takes two full time people to handle these tasks.

Never the less, we are committed on both the producer side and the consumer side to be the best we can be. As I am sitting here on Father’s Day feeling homesick and missing my family, I am reminded of why we are doing this as I sample this great tea.

Happy Father’s Day you dads.