When we source new teas, we always make an effort to visit the farm and see for ourselves how the tea is grown and crafted. While the majority of teas are bought and sold through middlemen at large tea markets, we prefer to work directly with the farmers to ensure we can personally vouch for the quality of each tea we select, as well as provide accurate information about the variety, provenance, harvest date, and crafting style that give a tea its unique flavor profile.
At each farm, we wander through rows of tea bushes, meet pickers and crafters, and observe whatever stage of the process is currently in progress. These visits are our first line of defense against misinformation, and we’re always looking for signs that the teas we’re considering are farmed sustainably. Here are five indicators of a high quality, natural tea farm.
1. Remote land & healthy tea plants
We often talk to tea drinkers who are rightfully concerned about the effects of China’s pollution problems on the natural teas we source. Even farmers that are conscientious about their own farming methods are subject to the environment they live in, and images of smoggy cities paint a dire picture of China’s pollution. Indeed, the small scale of most Chinese tea farms makes cross-contamination a serious concern, especially for farmers holding organic certifications.
This is exactly why our sourcing trips take us far and wide across the great expanses of China’s rural regions. It’s not glamorous, but we pack our own toilet paper and make the trek up narrow, winding mountain roads to reach farms untouched by pesticide runoff or city smog. The cold temperatures and rocky soil found at high elevations make the growth process slower, but the sprouts of new growth that do emerge will contain more flavor compounds and natural sugars as a result.
2. Natural pest control methods
Though none of our teas are titled as organic, many are grown with organic methods, and all of our teas are tested independently for common agricultural chemicals. It can be hard to know when we visit the farms how these tests will turn out, but one good sign of a pesticide-free farm is the presence of natural pest control methods. Most farms we work with use a combination of methods like solar-powered light traps, fly paper, or cover crops like chrysanthemum that reduce the number of pests on the tea plants. While the presence of these techniques doesn’t guarantee a chemical-free tea, it’s a good sign to us that we’re speaking to responsible producers.
3. Biodiverse growth
Cover crops are a natural defense against insects, but diverse plant life also helps to improve biodiversity and long-term health of the soil. When we see other plants or trees sharing space with tea bushes, we know the farmers are foregoing the mass quantity of monoculture and instead choosing methods that will make great tea. Any diversity of plant life helps to reduce the impact of pest threats on the tea bushes, and the presence of grasses or weeds assures us that herbicides are not in use. Again, this observation is no guarantee that the tea will pass our testing standards, but it is a good indicator of natural growing methods being used.
4. Whole, hand-picked leaves
We have to visit the farms in person to see most of these signals, but one sign of quality that's easy to see in the finished product is the presence of whole leaves, which must be carefully hand-picked. Skilled seasonal workers are highly valued at remote tea farms, where they work tirelessly during the harvest months to select the right leaf configurations and pluck without crushing. In contrast to the low-wage labor used on plantations established under British rule, Chinese tea pickers are recognized as playing a key part in the production of good tea, and are paid well for their expertise, especially since younger generations are now lured by indoor jobs in the big cities. Any tea farm in China using traditional hand-picking methods over cheaper, more efficient machines is investing heavily in the quality of their tea.
5. Transparent crafting process
Finally, and most importantly, we expect transparency from any farm we work with. While it’s easy to sneak a peek at the growing bushes, we work with farms that offer us an inside look at the entire crafting process. During harvest season, there are typically several batches of tea in rotation through the various stages of crafting, so we are able to see almost every step of the process, from initial withering to oxidation and roasting. Tea sellers who are unwilling to share “trade secrets” raise red flags in our book, since the terroir and expertise that go into quality tea are impossible to replicate. Without a look behind the scenes, we can’t vouch for the process, or the finished tea.
Sign up for our newsletter to get blog updates in your inbox!