Transparency and Connectivity in the Tea Industry

Recently there was a big to-do on reddit and Steepster about some 1800-year-old puerh cakes that were being sold by a tea company. That audacious claim was firmly repudiated by several knowledgeable forum-members but also stirred up many who felt either hoodwinked by the company in question, or offended that another tea company should point out the ridiculousness of the claim. While the conversation quickly began to devolve into almost soap opera chaos, it seems there should be something that can be said about it.

My thoughts about it quickly went to the lack of standards for specialty tea in our industry. 1800-year-old puerh would certainly be a specialty tea, or maybe even in that rarefied air above a standard that some boutique and rare wines are. But the difference is that there are standards in the wine industry. As there are in the coffee industry and many others where the quality of a product can vary from a commoditized “meh, it’s edible” to a specialized “that’s the best ________ I ever tasted.” Having standards would hopefully make it a little harder for dubious claims to fool people and at least make for some peace of mind for consumers and tea retailers. In my mind, tea’s time has come for those standards. I don’t sell a lot of puerh because it is so complex, and with complexity comes risk and a whole lot of learning ahead of me. And that complexity probably means it would have its own set of standards. What I do sell, I don’t make grandious claims about. I simply do what I try to do for all my teas: Vet out the source, get the details about its origin, plucking, and production, and pass that along to you. And make sure it’s delicious. As Lu Yu stated, “Its goodness is a decision for the mouth to make.”

There is a lot of tea that would not meet a meaningful specialty tea standard that is being sold at price points equal to or greater than tea that would meet that standard. And the big companies and concerns that do it are not for standards, of course; they use marketing to define specialty and want to keep it that way. The standards are more for consumers, producers, and small tea businesses. Check out the Specialty Tea Manifesto as one effort to start the discussion and bring some accountability and transparency to the specialty end of the tea business.

Rounding back to the beginning of this post, standards don’t mean there will be no more dubious marketing or outright deception. That can always happen. But it is nice to have the bar set for those who are working hard to source and sell the best high-end specialty teas possible.

The other benefit of transparency is connectivity. These days we tend to think of connectivity as whether our phones and computers have access to the internet. But there is a more basic and human connotation to connectivity, especially within the food production system. Knowing where your food, or tea, comes from connects you to that place and to the people that produce it. When we don’t know where and by whom our tea is produced, we easily slip into the mindset of not seeing any harm in super-cheap tea or dodgy marketing. In general, global corporate farming and food production don’t want you to know the details of production; they just want to extract the profits from commodity (and specialty) markets. But when we are connected, we value our tea more; we think more about the conditions under which tea is grown and plucked for it to be so cheap. When we hear a news item about a flood or earthquake in Dehong, we might see and understand a correlation in tea production. When we know how close the sencha we like is grown to Fukishima, we might worry about those growers and workers and about the effects of the radiation on the tea. Knowing how unique some terroirs are for the specialty tea they produce, we might worry more about how a changing climate will affect livelihoods, availability, and prices. Living in Southern California, I don’t have the luxury of being a locavore with specialty tea like I do with so much of my produce and other foods. So I have to get the kind of tea I like to drink (and sell) from halfway around the world. But I still care about the stewardship of the people and lands that grow the tea I love to drink.