Workings of a Tea Industry

In addition to my last post, I would also like to share some observations about large, established tea industries.

While it is fashionable in the West to think any type of tea (green, oolong, black/red, puerh) can be processed from the one and only species: Camellia Sinensis, this is only true to a limited degree. Particular tea varieties and cultivars have become very suited to certain growing regions and processing techniques over great amounts of time and adaptation, which in a major tea industry, largely dictates what tea will be processed and where. It is true that you could make a green tea from a cultivar suited to making oolong, or that two completely different varieties can be processed exactly the same, but this isn’t taking into account the countless and volatile factors associated with terrior (soil, climate, elevation, sun exposure, cloud cover, rainfall, latitude/longitude, etc.) and farming practices (organic, biodynamic, conventional, intentional, etc) which will greatly determine the quality and taste, and in a well-established tea industry with lots of history, you’ll be hard pressed to find the support needed to maintain such unconventional business practices such as making BaoZhong Tea in Meishan Township, for example. While it could technically be done, most people here would say that doesn’t even make sense?

In a large tea industry, you can’t just set your own price based one what you think the market will endure. There’s a lot of people growing tea here, that would be too crazy. Instead, they enter their tea into major competitions for at least one main reason: to determine a legitimate price within a standardized system. When you enter a tea competition, the price at which your tea can be sold is in accordance with the rank it receives. Your tea is sealed and certified by a third party based on the results of the competition so that consumers can be confident the price matches the quality. This quality, however, is an assessment of a standard, which doesn’t take into account the emotional experience often associated with tea. It’s a scientific approach to tea versus a natural enjoyment of tea. It’s someone telling you this tea is good so you can enjoy it, instead of cultivating the skill to create an environment conducive to the enjoyment of any tea.

In the picture above, you’ll notice the boxed-up tea, which after being ranked in a competition was packaged, sealed, certified, and ready to be sold to the public at a market where everyone is doing the same thing.

So a large tea industry, while very restricted in one sense, is very refined in another. Everyone plays by the same rules, which means fair-play, but possibly at the expense of creativity. Not to say people here aren’t creative. Taiwan is known for its beautiful tea ceremony where visual presentation, skill in preparing tea, and experience outweigh any rank in a competition.  My arguments here are definitely askew because I’m learning about tea within the industry, and not as a student of preparing tea in ceremony, for example.

Let’s look at Hawaii as a counter example, where a large ingrained tea industry doesn’t exist, but rather, a cottage tea market in its nascent infancy. Farmers can generally set their own price within certain realistic boundaries, not based on rank in a competition, but based on what they think of as quality, the time of harvest, cost of living, volume of tea, experimentation, etc. There is no well-defined market to tell the farmers how much their tea should cost or what tea “can” be made, so they are in the process of setting the market price and establishing tea’s of a regional terrior (I call this terrior status), essentially telling consumers how much they should be paying and where to go to buy it. And let’s face it; consumers don’t know how much tea “should” cost yet, which is fine. I’m sure most tea industries started out like this. I’m sure there are so many other factors that I’ve overlooked; I don’t mean to insult any of the hard working Hawaiian tea farmers out there! I’m no business student, so please correct me if the information I present here is drastically off.

And again, these are only my limited observations after spending over two months in Taiwan now, and collectively spending six months on tea farms in Hawaii. There are exceptions to everything I’m saying and everything is changing.

I only have a couple more weeks left in Taiwan before returning to Canada. I’m off to visit a teacher of tea, art, and meditation this coming week, and will thoroughly enjoy my final week in the tea-mountains of Taiwan. I have a couple more blog entries I’d like to address; one on being a tea-driver, and another on all the wacky adventures a language-barrier sets you up for!

TLC

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3 responses to this post.

  1. i came across your blog this morning and have been reading it all day. what a wonderful gathering of information, not to mention the pure love for the gathering of knowledge about tea and the cultures that it weaves in with. thanks so much. my family and i hope to be in taiwan this time next year, doing what you’re doing – after a stopover in india and nepal. peace and blessings to you.

    Reply

    • Hi cml archie! Thanks for your warm words of kindness. I’m glad you enjoy my blog and I’m even more glad you’ll be traveling to such culturally rich places as Taiwan, India, and Nepal – with your family. That’s great!
      Likewise, peace and blessings your way.

      – Shane

      Reply

  2. Aloha Shane,
    Your writing continues to inspire.
    I think your comments about the Hawaii grown tea industry a right on.
    At one point during this past decade of creating a tea industry in Hawaii we had one tea competition that was an interesting event to experience and learn from. Hopefully more industry professionals will help the state in setting standards for our unique teas so that the growers will establish a strong sense of tea origin for Hawaii, one of the most culturally diversified community in world tea.
    All the best.
    Aloha,
    Eva Lee

    Reply

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