Something that has come up quite often since I have been a supplier of Chinese and Taiwanese teas has been the issue of consistent quality. As everyone knows, the quality of tea – that is, its flavor, taste, aroma, and appearance – can sometimes vary quite a lot from season to season. These things are dependent on a variety of factors, including the age and varietal of the tea plants, environmental and weather conditions during growing and harvesting, the timing of the harvest, the harvesting and processing techniques, and even the packaging and storage.
The weather conditions play a big part in the outcome. Tea harvested from the same plants at the same time of the year, using the same people and techniques for harvesting and processing, can still turn out quite differently because of varying weather conditions. Extremes in temperature and rainfall leading up to harvest time affect tea quality. The weather during the harvest is also critical. I have seen tea farmers in Taiwan invest a lot time and deliberation in deciding the precise timing of the harvest. Whether or not to wait another day or two for the weather to become more stable for the ideal harvesting conditions versus the possibility of the weather turning worse, or waiting too long to the detriment of the ripe and ready leaf and bud. Tea, probably more so than most other food products, is difficult to replicate exactly the same every time. Add to this – at least with most of the Taiwanese and Chinese tea farmers that I work with – a variety of tea-making techniques and skills and some experimentation, each with a limited supply, and it makes for anything but consistency.
Nevertheless, inconsistency in tea quality is something we have had to come to terms with. On occasion, we have had to deal with a tea order returned by a dissatisfied customer who expected something different to what he or she received. One way to eliminate this is to provide a sample for a customer when the new harvest is ready and, if it is good, to encourage him or her to purchase a large quantity (and we also purchase a larger quantity for future orders).
We have some teas that we can provide all year round with pretty consistent quality and minimal variation in taste and aroma. These may not always be from the same harvest. For example, for some of our oolongs, such as Dong Ding or 4 Seasons, we can provide similar grades all year round. Maybe our $50/kg Dong Ding will come from a higher elevation farm in autumn and the same or a similar quality tea can be supplied from a lower elevation farm in the spring. With many of our regular customers now, we understand and are aware of their expectations and requirements and tailor their orders accordingly. We also recommend a particular tea if we feel it may appeal to them. If there is a noticeable difference in taste with a new batch of one of our regular teas, we will be sure to mention this and, if necessary, provide a sample ahead of time.
Sometimes, the overall quality of a particular tea is just not as good for some reason and even though the price cannot be lowered, the quality is what it is for that harvest and we just need to wait until next season to get it better again. Once again, we have found good communications and providing samples helps to alleviate any problems or misunderstanding between suppliers and buyers.
We classify some of our teas as seasonal teas as we cannot provide these teas all year round. Usually they are from smaller estates and of limited quantity and we supply them on a first-come, first-served basis. The main issue here, of course, is not quality, but supply. Some customers prefer to pre-order these seasonal teas to ensure supply, which we can arrange with the farmers prior to the harvest. In Taiwan, these include teas such as Taiwanese Bi Lo Chun, Hong Yu (Ruby Black), some premium High Mountain oolongs, as well as some of our special lower-priced, but high-grade teas, such as Baozhong, which are limited in their availability.
It certainly is a rewarding challenge to provide teas of a consistent quality, and teas that satisfy the requirements of our diverse customer base. One of the most wonderful things about tea, in my opinion, is its incredible variety. It is a never-ending journey of discovery.