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The Romance of Teas: where do big factories fit in?

by Lydia Kung

Tea work in winter is not very picturesque. Nonetheless, the tasks are essential: clearing paths between the bushes, pruning the plants, weeding and clearing the areas around and under the bushes, maintaining irrigation, checking equipment, and lots of cleaning of any surfaces that teas will touch. There could be a shortage of workers at this time of year. When spring plucking begins, there might be an added pool of migrant workers, but even then, tea producers are competing with factories and the pull of city life, or even employment overseas. In some areas, such as the Nepal region where we obtain a few teas, housing is built as an incentive to retain workers. This is also the time to re-train seasonal laborers in proper pruning techniques, and so forth.

But when we take our story of tea beyond winter, in anticipation of the first expression of tea places in spring, then our images move from the prosaic to the visually charming or, even, strikingly vivid. There might be even a bit of the romantic spirit associated with regions such as the gardens under the Himalayas or those surrounded by bamboo groves in Wuyi, China.

Show here — the Himalayas provide a dramatic backdrop to tea gardens in eastern Nepal:

The gardens in eastern Nepal I just mentioned are not individually owned by farmers but by the factory producer, who provides organic fertilizers, water, and for some workers, housing and tuition subsidies. This type of production scheme can come under criticism from tea consumers, as I was recently reminded in a Yelp review of a local tea business, one the reviewer applauds for obtaining teas directly from tea farmers. [I have not visited said business, and from the photos, the proprietor appears to be operating a tea shop with tastings from a condo.]

Nepal tea workers doing pruning and weeding work:

There is something beguiling and adventuresome in the notion of discovering a tea farmer working his family plots, marveling at the finished product, whose processing one perhaps has been privileged to witness, and visualizing the tea carried across the ocean to share with other consumers. Indeed, the Yelp reviewer is admonishing and righteous in his dismissal of tea chain or smaller stores who obtain their teas from large factories or middlemen.

(He also asks: can a tea be considered “rare” if it can be found in chain stores? Again, we face a misconception. Rare teas mean limited production from scarce material, but this does not mean merely or always a scale of 10 or 50 kgs. A single plucking tea harvested before Qing Ming can yield a couple of hundred kgs, still “rare” enough in the grander scheme.)

This reviewer shows himself knowledgeable about teas in invoking the name of David Hoffman, an almost legendary pioneer in specialty tea circles, who is rightly credited with elevating standards. Not a few in the community sympathized when the Marin County (northern CA) government shut down Hoffman’s “backyard” operation. But let’s consider what lay behind the years of battling the local government: Hoffman’s tea caves, among other structures and practices, were not up to code.

As an importer, there are a few pieces in this picture to fill in so as to complete a larger, more integrated perspective.

Back in the day, when the World Tea Expo was the Take Me to Tea trade show, there were exhibitors whose point of pride was to showcase their intimate connection with a tea farmer. Often it was a case of the exhibitor having a cousin’s brother-in-law, or some similarly extended relative, who had a special source for tea, which was then carried back to this country in small batches.

I do not mean to dismiss the central role of the tea farmer; on the contrary, an ethnography of the lives of the farmers and tea pickers is long overdue.

Restaurant menus nowadays proudly identify the farms and ranches from which their produce and meat come, sometimes listing farmers by name. Unless one lives near tea gardens in Hawaii or South Carolina, however, teas are not products to be found at farmers’ markets here (in the sense of having just come from the farm). There are tea markets in China, to be sure, but as an imported item, teas, as is true of other comestibles, must go through a regulated process from the exporting country and then meet the U.S.’s own standards.

Shown below is a photo of a village in Anhui that was taken in October.

Teas were not the featured product here at this time of year. Instead, drying chrysanthemums made for an even more colorful scene. I could easily enjoy one cup of the chrysanthemum, but this is not something that I’d be willing to market in this country. What’s missing in cottage industries like this are the controls that ensure safe food practices, procedures that ensure the continual monitoring and record keeping of such practices, and ensure that corrective action and recall plans are in place.

The paper trail matters. Before a ship sets sail, documents (Prior Notices) from the exporter must be filed with the FDA by the importer (us). Tardy filing means a daunting 4-figure fine. These documents trace the product from the grower to the container loading facility, onto the vessel, and to the consignee here. New regulations that the FDA began enforcing last year require even more detailed traceability.

In addition to commercial documents for Customs and the FDA, there are phytosanitary reports and analysis reports. Acronyms now abound: CIQ (on China’s export side, an inspection and quarantine step), SQF codes, ISF, FSMA, FSVP (FDA’s rules covering importers), HACCP, ISO updates, EU compliance reports, PCQI (Preventive Control Qualified Individual), are some of the key ones.

One must know suppliers, factories, and beyond that, be able to follow and document the route of raw material from the farmer, a process that should be monitored with accountability and traceability. Not to deny the farmer his central place in the picture, but standing between the raw material he supplies and the tea we brew are multiple parties and agencies essential to the integrity of what we sip.

What that well-meaning Yelp reviewer misses, in his idealized pathway of tea from a farmer in China – – over a fairly direct route – – to an American consumer, are the controls that make that cup of tea safe. At best, he is guilty only of a naïve attachment to the romance of tea. At worst, short-sighted in not considering safeguards that only operations of a certain scale can provide. The context of his views is easily relatable: who among us would not opt for a local butcher’s product over a large factory’s? But that is assuming all the codes required of the latter are also applied to the former.

I admit to having rhapsodized about small operations, where teas are processed without the aid of computers or other sophisticated equipment. For example, see the hand-drying of Da Hong Pao in this photo, and I do not recall even seeing a clock in the room.

Hand-processing in tea making, done in small scale operations, does not mean it is unsafe. Indeed, those tea masters whose sense of smell, touch, and expert eye have been honed by years at the job are to be valued, but their actions are governed by rules.

I have also marveled at large factories with gleaming equipment, staffed by lab-coated workers stationed at computers who barely handle any teas directly. Shown here is one section of a factory producing Shui Hsien Oolong in Fujian.

But in both instances, before teas are packed, the inspection and the record keeping procedures are in place and paramount, and these steps do not detract or devalue the final product we see.

We hear from other customers that they are sometimes approached by restaurants wanting to offer “farm to table” teas, or the equivalent when it comes to teas. This is not a simple black/white picture because no one really wants to bypass all the testing.

Does a restaurant/shop really want to serve teas that have not been tested for heavy metals, for microbes, E. coli and such? Especially in culinary destinations such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, foods directly from farms carry more cachet, but with teas, the story is a bit more complex, and rightly so.

In closing, let me not be too hasty in dispelling the romance behind teas. In a mindful moment when we are even briefly attentive to the leaves before us, they can still transport us to images of gardens, rock art, verdant landscapes, art and poetry. So I close with one of my favorites, captured in October in Anhui.

I began this post with a photo of the Himalayan range. Come spring, between that formidable vista and this relatively unspoiled village in Anhui, we have many teas to look forward to.

February 23, 2018