A World of Tea Beyond Big Companies and Fair Trade Certification

Fair Trade necessarily should involve knowing the producers who pick tea

I joined Seven Cups as a staff member in June 2012. As a newcomer to Tucson, I was curious to read about Seven Cups in the local Tucson Weekly. Pleased to have found good reviews on Yelp.com and in the Weekly, I made a point to find out for myself. As a supporter of local small businesses and intrigued by the experience provided to me by specialty stores, I enjoyed walking into the tea house and immediately noticed the tranquility of the place and the great variety of teas available to the average consumer. What I did not know at the time was how special this place really was. It was not until I visited their website, when I saw that they were hiring, that I truly realized there was more to Seven Cups than their brick and mortar store.

I had come to Tucson from the VA/DC area where specialty shops abound, and the trendy menu of local small business is always expanding. I want to explain a reality that I am coming to terms with – that my experiences elsewhere in fair trade, in other countries and cultures, growing up with a Malaysian-Chinese mother, and my continued interests in all things Chinese have all led me here to Tucson where I am rediscovering all these parts of my identity again. You may be wondering what all of this has to do with tea. Whether you are new to Seven Cups, Chinese tea or are curious about small business and sourcing tea from outside the U.S., I invite you to take the time to reflect on what you have to offer and how a personal understanding of tea can expand your knowledge base of personal growth and of the world around you.

Like most people, I thought I knew all there was to know about tea or that the specialized knowledge was reserved for scholars and those who are on the ground involved in the production of tea. My husband is half-English so with the in-laws we drink Tetley’s with milk and sometimes sugar. My mother drinks green tea for purposes of weight control because I can attest it is certainly not for the taste. Living in Indonesia and Malaysia, I was introduced to large plantations with mass produced tea from companies such as Boh. On a visit to Sri Lanka, we discovered beautiful tea plantations and met the communities who live in this region southeast of Colombo. In my time studying abroad in China, I was given tea from my host mother to be shared with family in America. We visited countless tea houses in Beijing, Shanghai, and even Confucius’s hometown at the base of Tai Shan. I tutored two young boys whose father was a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates, and at their house I was always offered a comforting cup of tea with an afternoon snack or to accompany their lavish meals that very often they shared with me. And then there has been the weekly experience of walking past half a grocery aisle, shelves stocked with box after box of tea in bags often given comforting names (Sleepy time) and some more exotic (lemongrass and ginger). But with this exposure to tea, I still wondered where does it all really come from, and how does it get to my teapot and cup? Who are the people making decisions about what tea to source, the markets to promote to, and what motivates the average person to choose one tea over another?

With my experience in fair trade certification, I felt as though I got closer to answering these questions. Concerns are pointed to the process of production and to the stories of the growers. This is encouraging to the average educated consumer. I was impressed with the advocacy of fair trade groups and their marketing campaigns against big corporations. There were even educational tours offered to those interested in meeting growers and cooperatives and experiencing the process first hand. I felt that I had joined a club, that I had become more informed, but sadly there were others who were left out.

My hope is that I can share this experience of (re)discovery as I come to learn more about Chinese teas and the regions Seven Cups directly sources from. I can say a whole world of tea has opened up to me, and I no longer feel that it is world of knowledge that others like myself can’t discover for themselves.

Share your stories of learning about Seven Cups, and your personal relationship with tea- its value, taste, and culture.