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Fair Trade Teas

by Lydia Kung

By each April in China, hotels and shops prominently display posters announcing spring’s new teas, as shown by the sign with the white characters at right.

Department stores feature a wide array of spring teas, while provincial hotels and shops showcase local teas. In the photo above, the green sign on the left lists Yellow Mountain (HuangShan) famous tea and also Keemun, which is only apt since the shop is in Yellow Mountain city in Anhui. Being local products, the path of such teas from garden to shop is straightforward. For the export channel, however, the path is more involved.

In a previous post, I emphasized the importance of traceability, made possible by a quality management system that maintains records from the freshly picked leaves to the teas loaded onto containers. The process begins, of course, with the tea picker.

As I have often mentioned, spring teas require precision plucking. Workers are instructed as to what to pick on a particular day: single buds only; 1 bud & 1 leaf, or 1 bud & two leaves, or, in the case of Lu’An Melon Seed Green, just the 2nd leaf. This establishes at the outset the grades of finished teas.

At left, mid-April 2019 at an organic garden at White Cloud Mountain in Hunan, situated at about 700 m.

There, we saw pickers sorting through their piles of leaves that they had just gathered.

Curious about this added step in their routine, we soon understood why.

As each worker presented his or her morning’s pluck to the factory representative, he would inspect the contents in each tray and he would then place a card on the tray signifying the leaves were ready to be weighed. These leaves had made the grade. The words on the card state that the quality of the pluck was “up to standard.” Then a batch number was assigned and recorded.

And only then would payment be calculated by weight.

(Discarded budsets on the ground shown at right.)

Workers are not paid by the hour, and in seeing the discarded tea, selected by the pickers themselves, we saw how important this very precise picking is in quality assurance.

The tea from this garden that was finished before April 5th was to be a modern-day tribute tea, much of it going to Beijing – – – an Organic White Cloud Mountain Yin Hao Green.

Even domestically, this tea has very limited distribution. The window for plucking is not long, spanning about 10 days. A picker earns RMB25 per 500 g of approved leaves. An experienced picker can pick 5 kg a day, but not many are that fast.

This factory was established in 1992 and at season’s peak, employs some 400 workers, and being an organic factory, entry was restricted.

Our next stop about 3 hours away was at a FairTrade garden in NW Hunan, where we enjoyed a Silver Summit (Yin Feng) green.

Of the 11 Fair Trade tea companies in China, 7 are in Hunan, and this Silver Summit green comes from the Luo Ping area. The hills here are part of the WuLing Mountain range, and although 700 m up may not seem very high, the ride up proved long and hard. A drive of 8 hours from such a garden to Changsha means that even dispatching samples is not a simple task.

The gardens in this Fair Trade Coop comprise 1500 hectares (~ 3700 acres) privately owned by farmers who may choose to join the coop. Approximately USD1.10/kg for loose teas and USD0.50/kg for fannings go to the organization to administer. An area known for its teas and oranges, this coop’s gardens expects to earn organic status in the year 2020. For the past two years, in anticipation of the certification, tea farmers there have agreed not to set off fireworks. This accompaniment to start of a new year and other celebrations such as births and weddings is a long-held tradition, and foregoing fireworks demonstrates an admirable shared commitment.

Refining or secondary processing at the Silver Summit factory:

1. Machine for removing stems:

2. Sieving, for sizing. A fan blows the leaves, with the larger leaves falling into the nearer bins,and smaller, lighter leaves blown into the containers further down:

3. Then a color separator to sift out any non-tea particles but also non-standard leaves; the colors to be detected may be set according to each batch:

4. Finer separation of leaves for grading:

This has been a brief overview of what happens before primary processing even begins and what secondary refining looks like. The small local shop may not require a batch number when they take delivery of their spring teas, but lot numbers follow batches are they wend their way in the manufacture process, destined for export and with further inspection points to follow.

The pre-sorting by tea pickers at White Cloud Mountain described at the beginning of this post becomes part of that tea’s identity. To be sure, these small yield teas are somewhat special cases, but they are examples of how teas are expressions of a specific place, in their manufacture and also of the local culture. As for the teas themselves, their flavors, the curtain has been lifted a bit on this corner of Hunan, offering a glimpse into a province not usually associated, in the export market, with high quality spring teas. These green teas are nuanced and concentrated at the same time, while the early black teas are lush with honey and plum notes. These should be enjoyed now.

May 21, 2019