Organic Certifications and Chinese Tea Market Misconceptions
When I think about tea trends, I am thinking over a ten year period and extending what I see going ten years into the future. Things have changed a lot in the past ten years from when we began our business. Twenty years ago getting any good Chinese tea was virtually impossible in the US. I had to get mine from a Chinese friend whose family was from a tea-growing region in China. At the time it seemed incredible to me that such a fine product could not be purchased, even if you had the money. That is not to say that you couldn’t buy any Chinese teas; you could certainly go to an Asian market and buy some poor quality tea, but that could not compare to the tea I was getting from my friend’s father. I started going to China to get my own stash, an act which, in 2002, developed slowly into a business. A lot has changed between then and now, both in the American market and in the Chinese tea industry, so I want to identify what I see as trends. As is usually the case, I want to point out that my orientation is weighted towards the China side of things, so just keep in mind my biases.
First let me start with China: ten years ago there were only five companies out of tens of thousands that had been organically certified. Now organic certification is relatively common. There is a misconception that China’s tea industry was/still is completely dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, a misconception that is meant to hail the organic movement. Sure, chemicals are used but usually by large producers who, at that time, were government operations. Because the government had cleared a lot of fertile land in the seventies, they relied on fertilizers and pesticides to spur and maintain growth. However, this all was a very recent development in the two thousand year old history of tea cultivation in China, and these practices have since fallen into disrepute in the general Chinese tea industry. Chemically produced tea holds its rightful place in the lower-end of the commercial market. In 2008 the Chinese government beefed up their export laws to prevent contaminated food products including tea from being exported. All shipments actually get inspected if they are legally exported. China does not publicize their strict export laws, but surely China is a leader in ensuring the safety of food products being exported, and one of the worst countries when it comes to public relations.
It is difficult to convey just how fast China has been building its infrastructure, in fact, it’s hard to even imagine. The building projects that have been most relevant to the tea industry are road building. Some tea growing areas, where ten years ago the roads required a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach, are now easily accessible. Although roads indirectly impact tea production, the changes they have made in the industry are clearly visible. Comparing the state of the factories of before and after says a lot. Seeing the wide range of vehicles that are at the Anji farmers market says a lot. The size of the farmers market is amazing considering it did not exist ten years ago. Plus the farmers are getting top dollar when they sell to tea makers. All of these conditions certainly would not have been possible if it were not for better roads. If you are someone like me, who has traveled over thousands of miles in rural China, roads change everything. As the roads improved, small town economies got better, tea making became more profitable, and more young people stayed home instead of becoming urban migrant workers because these traditional skills started paying better.
There are other factors driving this gradual shift in the market. Let’s get back to roads: as countryside travel becomes more accessible, more and more people, especially young people captivated by the tea experience, are wanting to go to China and get out into tea producing areas. In addition, a lot of these young people are learning to speak Chinese. Authentic information about tea is going to start flowing out of China onto the internet, which will make the demand for quality tea higher and higher. For centuries the middlemen, in both China and Europe, have been able to control information about tea. That has kept tea makers and consumers, literally, worlds apart. I predict that ten years from now, tea companies will be judged not only on the quality of tea that they supply, but also on the depth and veracity of the information about the tea and its producer. No longer will tea companies maintain their hold over consumers and producers by claiming sources as “trade secrets.” Hopefully that would give rise to tea makers being identified along with the cultivar, and the date it was made. Open sourcing will become the standard for dedicated tea drinkers, not the exception.
On the American side of the equation I have been out talking with small tea businesses along the West Coast as far north as Victoria and east into New Mexico. What I am hearing from all of them, without exception, is that they are unhappy with the quality of the tea that they have been getting from wholesalers in the US and Canada. They are concerned about distinguishing themselves from their competition, which is increasingly vast. You can even include many coffee roasters in that mix because they are selling a lot of tea alongside their high-end coffee. Inevitably, the need for better, distinguishable tea will point to China.
I think that future for tea drinkers and tea producers is going to get better and better- just as America’s food revolution is renewing taste in the menu, and is renewing the demand for skilled, small farmers, thereby adding invaluable quality to our day-to-day lives. Of course it will cost more, but so what? Why cap a price on the quality of life? What will happen to the tea plantations that follow the agricultural model (cheap products at the cost of human and environmental expense) established by European colonies? As I write this blog, those exploitive systems are breaking down in the tea plantations of India and the chicken factories of America. We want our broccoli to taste like broccoli, our chickens to be healthy, and our tea leaves to be unbroken. This is a trend that is going to continue and grow, as young people that are not susceptible to what has been traditional marketing get older and demand good food, sustainable agriculture, and transparency in the supply chain.