Shop owners are looking for it, customers are demanding it, and numerous gardens are working toward it. The future of organic tea production is looking very bright, yet there are still some issues to be explored. Paramount among them is whether or not we are compromising quality in switching to an organic line of loose tea. This is a conundrum for the shop owner who wants to carry the best teas in their class, yet has an increasingly large customer base demanding more organically grown tea.
In switching to organic teas, are you really offering your customers an inferior tasting product? Are you sacrificing a little flavor for the assurance that none of the known 193 pesticides used in the agricultural sector are coating the tea leaves you will be sipping?
Eight years ago, when I made my first attempt to go down the road of switching to organically grown tea, I was so dismayed by the quality that I abandoned the effort after cupping more than 40 different organic teas from all regions of the globe. Most were undrinkable and some resembled the quality you found in the supermarket aisles. It was a fruitless effort.
So what constitutes organically grown tea? In Canada and the U.S., we have similar bodies that regulate the sale of products deemed organic. The NOP (National Organics Program) adopts guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These guidelines state:
1. The farm emphasizes the use of renewable resources.
2. It does not use most conventional pesticides.
3. It does not use fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge.
For those of us in the industry, we let our developed palates guide us as to what constitutes a fine cup of tea and not whether it is organic, fair trade, or biodynamically grown for that matter.
We all know that higher-quality teas are found in high altitudes away from human activities. Camellia sinensis tea plants like it wet. They thrive in high mountain areas with moderate climates, damp conditions, and rich soil. These prime areas are dwindling, so tea production is moving to lower-lying areas. A low-lying plantation that follows organic farming will compare poorly to its high-altitude cousin.
Recently though, after years of converting higher-altitude gardens to organic production, the quality of organic tea has now reached a point where it is easy to find a great cup of organic tea. I am in the midst of cupping 50+ organically grown teas for my new catalogue. Unlike my experience eight years ago, this time around I am impressed and in some cases extremely delighted with the flavor emanating from the cup. It seems that finally, after years of reworking conventional gardens and planting new ones according to organic specifications, the teas that are being produced are very drinkable, and in some cases better then their non-organic counterparts. Along with this increase in quality comes the piece of mind that you are drinking “clean” tea.
It has taken eight years for me to finally come to the conclusion that there are now camellia bushes out there growing in pristine, chemical-free environments that produce a worthwhile cup of tea. The absence of residue on the leaf and the increased customer satisfaction in your product offering are reasons why wholesalers and retailers alike should not readily diss organic tea at this juncture. Let your palate guide you and you may just be enlightened and converted.