TAIWANESE TEAS AT COMINS : OUR APPROACH
Our last exploration of Taiwanese tea on the blog was our exploration of Taiwanese cultivars - you can read more on that here. As we start to bring you some new season teas for 2021 we thought it would be a good time to update you on our approach to sourcing great teas from Taiwan for you to enjoy!
This short blog covers :-
- Tea agriculture in Taiwan [taken from our book tales of the tea trade]
- Building Long Term Partnerships for Change
- Important Clarification on 'Organic' in relation to our Taiwanese Partners
- Paying a fair price : Distribution of $ in the tea system we partner with
- Spring 2021 Updates
Tea agriculture in Taiwan is performed in small lots. There are no huge gardens, like in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Africa and India. The vertically integrated system (where the farmer will grow, process and sell their own tea from their garden or estate) does exist in Taiwan and you can see examples below but it is not the norm for many tea in Taiwan. During our travels across the country we encountered a complex system in which the grower will often not process the tea, nor will they or the producer [who processes the tea] necessarily be involved in finishing the tea. Tea-making is, on the whole, a highly networked and collaborative effort in Taiwan and, as you can imagine, no matter where you are in the network, including for us as tea buyers, building a reputation based on quality and expertise is the key to success. With this last statement in mind it is only now, after many years in tea, that we start to be able to access some of the amazing teas we bring you today.
We work with a few vertically integrated operations in Taiwan including :
1. The garden where we buy our Oriental Beauty
2. Mr Yu's operation for GABA tea
3. Mr Chens operation for our Shan Lin Xi and Bao Zhong
4. Tsai Brothers garden for our Jin Xuan
but for many of our other teas we partner with a highly skilled and knowledgable Tea Master who has years of experience navigating the complex system in Taiwan. This is a long term relationship which we have built over a number of years and, as for the teas above, with them we share a common goal - which is :
a. Support the growth of ‘organic’ tea practices in Taiwan. [What does 'organic' mean in this context? You can read more below]
b. Celebrate the very best of Taiwanese tea - for us this means looking beyond the 'famous teas' to bring you a new level of transparency to how the tea system works here and some of the fantastic teas that are being produced as a result of the highly networked system that operates here. Some examples of teas that we bring you from this more networked approach are :-
1. Dong Ding & Charcoal Baked Dong Ding : Leaf & Initial processing Tsai
Brothers : Baking Yu Wen
2. Spring Comp Grade Dong Ding : Leaf Alishan, Processing & Baking Yu Wen
3. Taiwan Shui Xian : Leaf & Initial processing Mr Chen : Baking Yu Wen
4. Taiwan Hong Shui : Leaf & Initial processing : Mr Lai, Baked by : Yu Wen
5. Taiwan Wuyi Cultivar Hong Shui Leaf & Processing Mr. Zhi Baking : Yu Wen
6. Taiwan Gui Fei : Leaf & Processing: Mr Chen Baked by : Yuwen
7. Qing Xin White Tea : Leaf : from two separate small family gardens, combined before processing Processing Yu Wen
So let's dig a little deeper and take a look at organic and also look firstly at the detail behind some of the different elements of this highly networked tea system.
If you have visited Comins and discussed organic practices in tea you will already be aware that the use of the word Organic is controlled and holds a different meaning in different territories. Its something we will be exploring more in future blogs as new seasons teas come in but as a starting point it helps to know that in Europe the 'EU Organic standard' and label is much stricter than the general 'EU regulation on residual pesticide levels'. To obtain EU Organic status Taiwanese tea producers would most certainly need to use of European sourced organic agricultural fertilizers and compounds which are not readily available.
The local organic certifying bodies in Taiwan are equivalent to those set out in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and, just recently, the USDA. In order to 'certify' with any of these organisations the tea system must be vertically integrated & all facilities must be 100% dedicated to organic endeavours (grower and producer). The tea master that we partner with does not currently have their own factory - their new facility is under construction and only when the new building is completed can they start the process and set an agenda for full certification.
Apart from land use and farming practices, the firm benchmark we use for the teas we buy is residual pesticide content which is measurable and offers the only hard indication whether a tea may comply or not to western norms. Our Taiwanese teas are tested at origin and shown to comply with EU standards. You will therefore not see us state 'organic' on our teas but you will find a link to this article under teas that are produced from the partnership mentioned here
An additional note on organic : As we have discussed 'going organic' in tea is not easy. It has to be a belief - there are costs and there are risks and these have to be weighed by the grower - for example for the first few years after transformation the yields can be lower - yields will return and of course with this a premium for the leaf but this requires time and a little faith. Add into this the situation in Taiwan where agricultural land is very closely shared with industrial land and you start to understand the challenges that face growers : converting to organic is rather pointless if your neighbours have run-off onto your land. This along with what we outline above explains why each season of tea sees us approaching each new year a-fresh and returning year after year [through virtual conversations in the last year] to ask the same questions of our partners and growers
Lets now move to provide you with a little more clarity on the tea system that some of our Taiwanese teas come from. When you look at teas such as Qing Xin White Tea you will that in the details we talk about : Tea Maker [processing & finishing] & Leaf Origin. We therefore invite you to consider these teas as a combination of 'leaf' 'processing' and 'finishing'
Where we offer you teas from a 'networked' tea system these are teas for which our tea master partners procure leaf from tea farmers within their network who share the organic vision & therefore meet the strict criteria of complying to EU standards [confirmed by testing of finished teas]. These farms are family operations.
Focus on Plucking : The majority of Taiwanese tea gardens are mechanically harvested however some smaller operations - those who predominantly work in high mountain, high end Oriental Beauty, Green, White, and specialist teas that require hand plucked leaf such as the Wuyi cultivar Hong Shui - hand pluck their own leaf. In many cases there are simply not enough hands within the family unit to pluck the tea so, in Taiwan, where small farms proliferate, groups of tea pickers move around the island. These 'groups' of pluckers are 'contracted' by the growers. Groups of pickers elect a team manager or booker who takes care of finding work and administrative tasks. This person gets a cut from the pickers wages.
Price paid to pluckers / price paid for plucked leaves : There are no industry or government controlled pricing on wages for pickers or price on picked leaves in Taiwan. The market each year dictates the price and just as we are paying a premium for 'organic' teas our partners pay a premium for 'organic' leaves . Fluctuations are rare due to the highly competitve and low-margin nature of the industry. Only those prepared to pay a fair price will get the best leaves.
In a networked system this leaf is then either processed by the grower, locally through contacts within the growers family network or our partners take the leaf to a factory local to them [These are family operations] to oversee its production. Our partner is a skilled tea master/tea maker from a multi generational tea family with all the expertise to produce the delicious teas you enjoy.
At a production level you pay a 'price per jing'. Jing is a weighing standard - a taiwanese jing is 600g and the price is set depending on the type of tea that is being made. For example the price of production of an oolong and a black tea will be different. As we mentioned at the beginning of this blog in this highly networked system building a reputation based on quality, expertise and trust is the key to success.
The last step for many of the teas mentioned above is Finishing : when we say finishing we are really referring to 'baking' a process that is undertaken by our partner within their own facility - they themselves set the price for this part of the tea making process.
As discussed in our previous posts at Comins we carefully select the people we work with. For our Taiwanese teas we have a shared goal with our partners focused on quality. We have discussed the concept of quality before and our definition of quality is perfectly summed up by sharing the words of our wise Nepalese friends 'quality of tea together with quality of life of people involved with Tea, its environment, Society etc sums up our definition of Quality'.
Reading this blog should hopefully leave you in no doubt that the definition of quality with respect to our Taiwanese teas is exactly the same. The network that gravitates around the Taiwanese teas you enjoy from us respects certain standards : as our tea master partner puts it 'its no coincidence that when we find people who share our values these are the people who treat others the best'. It is the level of transparency, the focus on family operations and the drive for 'organic' 'quality' leaf that ensures the fair price that we pay is fairly distributed through the system. And in times such as those we are facing now - both from a COVID and climate perspective this approach pays dividends in gaining access to the teas we are able to bring you this Spring.....read on for more.....
Welcome to the 2021 season. Taiwan, like other tea producing countries, is at the mercy of the weather. Increasingly warm, dry periods, such as those this Spring, are affecting yields. A phenomena which pushes prices up but also affecting the types of teas made - for example if a grower is committed to supplying leaf for one particular type of tea and plans to give the excess for the production of another then a lower yield may mean he can only fulfil one of these contracts. Therefore we ask for understanding that our collection may not always be consistent- at Comins we see this level of transparency as part of our ongoing commitment to conversation around tea which, in our eyes and in the eyes of our partners is not only a good thing but also exciting - it means that our partners are innovating to bring us new teas which make the most of the available leaf. Its the best, and most honest way to bring you Taiwanese tea.