Editor’s note: T Ching’s recent post, “Wild Misperceptions About Tea” generated just the sort of reader commentary, give-and-take, and thought-provoking discussion that we at T Ching are dedicated to bringing to our readers. The following post began as a comment, and grew into the lively discourse you see below.

So far as health matters in general, I would not choose to drink teas grown in countries where there is no chain of custody information available. Putting the specific caffeine discussion aside for a moment . . . in general, we cannot know with certainty what we are drinking when we drink say China teas, because China doesn’t use registered export factory marks. The Chinese export Yunnan Standard 32056, or Hainan Standard 117043 and so forth – these are bulks of a variety of regional teas.

They are exporting essentially what we would call “mystery meat,” if the product was salami, but they are actually teas. Why is it mysterious? If the teas are not tainted, if the teas are sound, this behaviour- not using registered factory marks – makes no logical sense in this day and age. With the development of the specialty tea market that has come to value and prize certain factory marks so very highly, one wonders why China does not take advantage of this established marketing tool. This is a major reason why – no matter what the wholesaler and consumer are being charged for China specialty teas by the importers – the reality is that China tea remains the cheapest tea of any major world origin on the world tea market. I define “major” as an origin producing more than, say, 75 million kilos per annum.

All other countries like India, Sri Lanka, Kenya et al take great pride in naming the factory marks where their teas are produced. In countries that hold the major world auctions at origin (India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, et al), a producer cannot join the auction without a legally registered factory mark and this is basically for chain of custody reasons – the auctioneers are, amongst other reasons, trying to protect the consumer’s health in case of problems down the line.

Last year, China decided she wished to commence holding a regular weekly tea auction for sake of efficiency and price transparency. The implications are huge. The Chinese government engaged the services of the world’s largest tea auctioneer company, J. Thomas Ltd. of India, to consult on the set-up. The Thomas’ people traveled up to Beijing for consultations with the Chinese.

The Chinese realized they’d have a tough time starting a weekly auction without a catalog of teas available arranged by factory marks and factory/garden invoices, precisely as the other origins’ auctions do. It would mean naming and registering all the tea factory marks for export in China – something that’s never been done.

The idea for a public tea auction in China was tabled until the Chinese sorted out this challenge.

From the view of T Ching’s bully pulpit, I would love to see you folks press for such a weekly tea auction(s) in China. Please understand that you may well be antagonising a number of tea authors who claim to be expert just because they’ve written things and are members of STI or whomever – but the reality is that anyone on earth can join these organisations by paying the annual dues. You may also be antagonising some major tea industry players for obvious reasons.

Upon locating, naming and registering that factory as a valid export trademark, the next step to be taken to better ensure a tea is fit for human consumption is that which has already been done in a large number of tea factories in Sri Lanka and India, and the trend has begun in Kenya and Tanzania as well – that is, to ensure that the tea factory has passed the most basic, globally accepted quality criteria. A large number of origin factories have already received HACCP and ISO 9000+ certifications, for example. This number is growing quickly in the mentioned origins. But it starts with the naming and registering of a factory mark.

With respect to what has become the STI for one over in the US – a great organisation whose organisation was founded by tea experts who choose to have little to do with STI anymore except to remain aboard for sales reasons – it is a super marketing machine which should not be confused with an organisation of tea experts. A person – in my view again – is not expert in tea until he or she can liquor a line of say 100 cups of wildly varying teas on the blind and tell you the country of origin, as well as district of production and ultimately even the factory mark of that tea. While there are a few, I don’t believe there are many members of STI capable of such expert analysis.

You asked me to be frank, as this is a free-wheeling forum for tea lovers. I have done so with this post and hope it does not offend. We need more do-ers and fewer talkers as our particular food industry is naturally pressed by the consuming public for valid definitions of quality, as opposed to romantic tea lore. Get on a plane to origin. Go upcountry and manage a tea factory or two for awhile – take an equity position in that factory garden mark company. Go down to the city and participate in the auction room as auctioneer, or more probably, as buyer. Export that tea in bulk or far better in added-value form. Go through these motions, so we can discuss tea expertise. And, finally . . . chemical analysis of the goods.

Probably the best country example of the drive for quality to date might be Sri Lanka. The Ceylon Tea Traders Asssociation (“CTTA”) has been working with the government in Colombo on getting every export parcel of tea random sampled pre-shipment for a complete chemical analysis to ensure healthfulness before leaving the country. This progressive trend eventually will yield export certifications of a scientific standard that can be compared across factory marks internationally as other tea origins adopt the same chemical analysis standard pre-shipment for their teas. This will be a major step forward in the global industry to deliver the consumer a healthful product. Healthful should not be confused with quality. A tea’s quality is determined by tea experts’ liquorings and the opinion of the ultimate consumers, as ever. And neither healthfulness nor quality should be confused with social-benefit certifications such as those provided by the Rainforest Coalition, the Ethical Tea Partnership, the Fair Trade Organisation and so forth – those certifications are a completely different matter than the one addressed in this post.

T Ching – Keep up the great work and thank you for it! Your blog is evolving into one of the most enlightening, entertaining, free-wheeling and provocative tea blogs on earth.