As direct importers, we believe that transparency in the sourcing process is one of the best ways to ensure that tea production stays sustainable. We make it our mission to understand and share as much information as possible about any tea we carry, from the variety used to grow it, to the environment it was grown in, the harvest date when it was picked, and the way the leaves were crafted into finished tea. But this in depth knowledge depends on our personal trips to the tea farms we work with, and the control we have over each lot we source, from the time it leaves the farm to the time it arrives at our San Francisco warehouse. Not all teas have such a direct path to your cup. Here are a few of the twists and turns your tea might be taking.
Farms to Crafting Centers
Due to the small size of most farms in China and Taiwan, many growers of Camellia sinensis collaborate with a central crafting center to create larger, more consistent batches of tea. In some places, these may be run cooperatively by the growers themselves, while in other situations the factory may buy fresh leaves by weight from independent growers or pickers. Mostly, this practice is a time honored tradition, necessitated by the investment and expense required to operate and maintain tea crafting equipment, as well as the limited growing areas of mountainous terrain and the difficulty of collecting large quantities by hand.
But in some places, like those where local teas have reached worldwide fame, this business model can lead factories to fulfill high demand for exclusive teas by blending batches of different quality. This is legitimate if sold as such, but too often, low quality leaves are used to dilute a batch of high quality tea for extra profit.
Crafters to Market Sellers
Even when many farms contribute to a single crafting center, each lot of tea produced during the season may amount to only a relatively small batch. Some buyers specialize in sourcing from rural operations and re-selling these teas at large tea markets in the city. Regular customers know exactly which booths to visit for their favorite styles, and who they can trust to give them the full story about where their tea came from, but for tourists or casual shoppers, these markets can be a minefield of mediocre teas at high prices.
Asking the right questions is key, but many unscrupulous vendors won’t hesitate to lie about the origins of their tea, if they think it will get them a better sale. Even for professionals with plenty of experience like us, it is impossible to verify the details of a tea’s origin based on observations of the finished leaves, so in this high-competition venue, it’s difficult to trust the story behind any tea.
For large companies, the scale and consistency required of their products poses a special challenge. To meet the expectations of grocery store shoppers, a tea brand must repeatedly match a specific flavor profile, which can be hard to do when the flavor of each seasonal lot can vary with environmental conditions. Even the most skilled crafters expect some variation from season to season, and year to year. So to create consistent flavor, large companies buy from a variety of farms, crafters, or market sellers and hire expert blenders to combine batches until they get the perfect flavor. The leaves might be crushed to create an even texture, and packaged into bags that will end up on shelves across the world.
Despite the strange beauty of this elaborate process, we find it removes much of the joy from the tea drinking experience. We revel in rediscovering each tea during the harvest year, and appreciate the unique intensity of the very best. In the search for a familiar flavor, many of the unique characteristics of a good tea can get lost in the shuffle.
Of course, tasty teas may take many paths, but every step between the farm and your cup represents a loss of information and a profit margin to pay for. This is the primary reason we always recommend asking any vendor about the variety, provenance, harvest date, and craftsmanship of a tea - those with a commitment to quality and a direct connection to the point of origin will be happy to answer any questions!
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