News / Medi(TEA)tion

Is Tea Slow Food? / Ayurveda Workshop Event

Attending a Slow Money event recently got me thinking about the Slow Food Movement and organization. I wondered about how tea fit into these two movements.

The Slow Food website answers the question of what Slow Food is as follows:

Slow Food is food that’s good for us, good for our environment and good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it. In other words, food that is good, clean and fair. In many ways, Slow Food is the opposite of fast food. Slow Food is fresh and healthy, free of pesticides and chemicals, and produced and accessed in a way that’s beneficial to all – from the farmer to the eater.

So is Tea a Slow Food? According to that definition it can be. And it’s not THAT slow unless you are enjoying one of the more formal and ornate tea ceremonies.

In my opinion, a lot of tea is NOT Slow Food for various reasons. Agribusiness and the world commodity markets have pushed a majority of tea production into the use of pesticides and chemicals. Large estates in less than ideal terroirs tend to need pesticides for pests and chemicals to keep up production. And the poor working conditions on many estates, especially larger ones, are well documented. The distribution chains, many set up during colonial times or in a monopolistic way, eat up a lot of the money people are willing to pay for tea, ensuring that the farmers get pennies on the dollar. Marketing, profit, and consumer demand have made “ready to drink” (RTD) tea a hot sector.

But there certainly are Slow Food teas out there that meet the definition above. It’s well documented through thousands of years of use that tea is healthy and good for us. It can be grown without detrimental effects to the environment, as can be seen from wild trees, gardens, and estates that have been in production for hundreds of years. And, when grown, picked, and prepared by small farmers and artisanal teamakers, it can be good for the people involved as well, assuming that a more equitable distribution model allows them to reap more of the value of what they produce. The less people between the farmer and the drinker, the more chance that the farmers can earn a living, eat, and send his kids to school while preserving their land for future generations. So it can fit the definition of a Slow Food.

Coming back to the “slow” in Slow Food, the beauty of Slow Tea is that it can be prepared in all its glory in seconds or minutes depending on how you brew. So that ready-to-drink beverage isn’t saving you all that much time for the difference in quality (Unlike my Bolognese sauce, for instance, which takes two days to make vs. opening and heating up a jar of prepared sauce). Preparing and drinking tea lends itself to quiet contemplation and relaxing activities as well conversation between friends. So the importance of Slow Food in fostering connections is also there. In ayurvedic health circles, one is encouraged to eat foods that are prepared with love and avoid those prepared with resentment. We consume not only the food but also the emotions of the cook and preparers of that food.

So in the end, there is room for tea in both the commoditized, fast food market segments and the specialized Slow Food market segments. Where you choose to sip within that spectrum is up to you, your schedule, and your dharma.


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Introduction to Āyurveda Workshop

Join Arya, as we explore the beginning principles of āyurveda, the natural, holistic and medicinal system of yoga. You will be able to perceive your internal & external environments from an ayurvedic perspective and create the optimal space for well being.

Tuesday, March 15th

Sip tea, enjoy light bites, and shop while you learn the key traits of your specific dosha through essential oils that you can use in your everyday life.

All guests will receive aromatherpay blends to balance their predominant dosha.

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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.

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