As direct importers, we made the conscious choice many years ago to source from small, family owned tea farms, despite the extra level of difficulty this adds to our buying process. While large, commercial farms can produce teas with great consistency at inexpensive prices, we choose to seek out smaller, family-owned tea farms that focus on quality over quantity. Often, we have to look far and wide, well outside of the normal boundaries of famed tea markets or major cities. In return for the extra effort of annual sourcing trips through rural mountainous regions in China and Taiwan, we are rewarded with better quality of flavor, inherent sustainability, and an infinite variety of new tea possibilities.
1. Flavor Quality
Because much of the agricultural land in China was redistributed after the Cultural Revolution in the 1970’s, many tea farms in traditional regions are limited in land area. As larger commercial operations have opened and the domestic market for teas has grown along with the Chinese economy, smaller, family-owned farms must focus their efforts on producing high quality tea, since they are not able to compete in quantity. As Chinese wealth grows, tea connoisseurs are willing to pay high prices on the basis of flavor, allowing small farming operations to turn a profit by excelling at their craft.
One traditional farming method that is essential to quality but also severely limiting to overall yields is the hand-picking process. While commercial farms typically use machines to bring in a large harvest quickly, small farms with a focus on flavor quality employ skilled seasonal workers to select the perfect leaves for each tea and pluck them without damage. Keeping the leaves intact is the first step toward creating excellent flavor, as it helps the tea retain natural oils and flavor compounds during the process of crafting and drying the leaves. Once the leaves are harvested, they are processed using techniques that have been passed down and perfected through generations of tea crafters. Without this extended experience, commercial farms usually pick the easiest or least expensive method of crafting, giving little thought to the effects of each step on the final flavor.
Because farmland in China is typically passed from generation to generation under long term lease from the government, family-owned operations are heavily invested in preserving the environmental health of their farms, and are equally concerned with the health of the members of family and close community that help to operate the farm. Potentially toxic chemicals used as herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers are typically avoided, both for the benefit of the family and the benefit of the valuable tea plants.
Avoiding chemical fertilizers also increases the flavor quality of the tea by discouraging rapid growth that would spread thin the nutrients and flavor compounds within the plant. While large commercial operations may use fertilizers to increase harvest yields, the quick growth of the tea plants creates a shallow root system and shortens the overall lifespan of the tea plant, making frequent re-planting necessary. For small farms, the sacrifice in flavor and the extra expense of new plants would quickly eat away their narrower profit margins. Instead, they invest in slow growth, which allows the plants time to store natural sugars and develop more complex flavors.
One of the aspects of small scale production that creates extra challenges in the sourcing process is the variation between seasons and years. Each harvest has a unique flavor profile created by the interaction between environmental factors like rainfall and seasonal temperatures, along with the impact of hand crafting methods that are not easily replicated. While commercial tea brands also have to contend with some natural variations in flavor, many employ master blenders to combine diverse lots into a larger consistent batch. Instead of striving for an exact replica of last year’s flavor profile, small farms (and buyers like us) relish the new flavor experiences we find each year. The infinite variety of small batch teas is what keeps us trekking through China and Taiwan each year, seeking out the very best we can find to share with you.
What’s your favorite advantage of small-batch tea? Let us know in the comments below!
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