Posts in Origin
Transparency in regular tea

In this post I want to tell you about the road from tea farm to the retailer, and why it's important to buy Direct Trade tea, i.e. tea trade that has no middlemen: the tea comes straight from the tea farm to the retailer. I'll dive into the history of tea trade and how we Westerners lost contact with the origin.

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Tea Trade

Most often, as you can see from the chart, tea has A LOT of middlemen, and the tea market is the buyer's market: the biggest tea buyers tell the farmers at what price the tea will be bought. Often the tea is sold in auctions, where the predictability is hard, and sometimes farmers get their share of money and sometimes it's under priced.

The more middlemen are in the mix, the cheaper the buyers need to buy their teas, as each and every middleman take their part of the cake. That means really low income to tea farmers and the younger generation is abandoning tea farming as a whole, because there are more prosperous and easy ways of making a livelihood. A report from Oxfam stated that tea workers’ wages are often below the poverty line, whether they are on certified or non-certified estates. When the farm owners get a low wage, they won't have the money to pay enough wage to the employees either and start compromising their working conditions and using questionable work force, such as child labor. When bought directly (and being responsible in choosing the right kind of farmers with right values) all these problems disappear, because finally the farmers get to say their price, not the other way round!

This situation is enabled mostly because the market is taught to buy cheap tea bags that contain the lowest grades of tea - dust and fannings. This is ground tea or the left-overs and rejects after larger leaf pieces are gathered for sale as loose tea and the name tells it all: its dust-like material that has nothing to do with real whole leaf teas. 

Why are the Westerners drinking this traditionally low-quality tea?

All began with the huge demand in the last century as the practice of tea drinking became popular. The industrial revolution played a part, as the production shifted from manual to machines. The commercialization of tea was the end of slow-produced tea and bigger leaves as they need to come to the market faster and the leaves take more space to pack in to bags than dust. 

One single machine  produces two-million tea bags a day and this required the tea leaf to be crushed and replaced by a lower grade. They started making CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl: tea is manually ground to tiny pieces and agitated so that the flavors become more robust) Big tea factories prefer dust tea because it is cheap and also produces a very strong brew; consequently, more cups are obtained per measure of tea dust.

So if you want to be ethical and have transparency in your tea cup, choose the right retailers and get to know the farmer behind the tea.

 

Quality teas
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In my first blog post I want to discuss quality.

There are many big sellers out there that claim their teas high quality, but great quality teas cannot be made in large quantities. In order to understand this we need to go deeper.

The more the seller tells you about the tea, the better! That means your seller knows something about the origin, but another thing is do they know what all the info means. If you want to try great quality tea, this is what you need to look for in your next tea purchase:

1. Buy whole leaf (not broken or crushed! And not to even start talking about bag tea. You can't fit a whole leaf in a bag, end of story) If the leaves are smaller pieces of one leaf that means they're of worse quality, and as soon a leaf is chopped it starts oxidizing uncontrollably and that alters the subtle and complex flavors of tea.)

2. Buy tea that isn't flavored (when flavor are added that means it doesn't matter what the base tea's quality is, as the flavors hide the taste of tea). If you want to choose flavored teas, choose only natural flavorings, no aromas or artificial flavorings. In our opinion, if you want to taste the real taste of tea, only the most classical flavorings are accepted (bergamot, flowers, chai spices, turmeric etc), so perhaps it's better to leave the champagne-yoghurt-blueberry pie blends on the shelf.

3. Buy tea where you know the origin (no mixed teas, so only tea from one cultivar and from the same farm in one country (single estate or single origin). When you mix teas that means you mix different cultivars, different soils, different processing styles, and different tastes altogether, i.e. you don't taste the original flavor). Direct Trade teas are the best ones, because then you know the teas come straight from the farmer, without any middlemen.

4. Buy tea that is fair (there's so much cruelty in tea world and inhumane conditions and pay, so please buy from a source that you really can trust. Even fair certifications have their own problems and cannot be fully trusted. For example, they often guarantee "a minimum wage", but the minimum wage often is just above the poverty line.)

5. Buy tea that is fresh (tea is a fresh produce and you really need to focus on seasons in tea). Again, if the tea is Direct Trade, this shortens the distances and warehouse storing time tremendously.

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What makes quality in tea?

There are many factors playing a part, but everything has something to do with origin and skills of the maker, and the final contribution to the artisan wonder of tea lies in your hands:

1. where the tea plant grows (altitude, country, soil, climate)

2. what cultivar the plant is (like wine, tea has hundreds of cultivars and each of them contribute with their own unique flavor)

3. the farming methods of tea: a) is it organic farming? We want to eliminate all the fertilizers as they deteriorate the taste and contribute to unhealthy substances in tea and poor working conditions to tea workers. b) how are the leaves picked- by hand or by machine? By hand is more thorough and doesn't brake the tea leaves and we get the part we want. The heavy machines destroy the nature and increase the pollution.

4. which part of the plant is picked (the top part is the best quality as the leaves are fresh and small. The lower we go in the plant the older and bigger the leaves and the more surface they have to release all the good aromas. The top part weighs only a little so the pickers need to do so much more work in order to get 1 kg of tea, that's why it's more expensive.)

5. when the tea is picked (quality tea picked in the spring is better as the plant has been resting through the winter and gathering all nutrition and flavor)

6. of course, last but not least: the brewing method. There are no general rules of thumb when it comes to tea brewing, as all the different tea categories have their unique teas that need adjusted brewing ways. In general, it's known that the green and white teas, as they are less processed and therefore more susceptible to heat, need lower brewing temperatures. A good place to start is to brew water to 60-70 degrees for green, yellow and white teas, 80-90 degrees for oolongs and about 95 degrees for black teas and fermented teas. A good rule is to measure 1g of tea per 1dl of water. Once the leaves start to open, the tea is ready. Don't let the leaves open fully, as that means that you've passed this stage in brewing where the unwanted, bitter flavors start to emerge.

Hopefully this helped in creating a better understanding towards quality and tea! It's not a simple matter and many wrong beliefs exist in the tea world, but the most important thing is that you have the courage to try different ways to brew your tea, compare many similar teas with each other and find your way to enjoy the tea the fullest!