If you have any interest in tea – and most probably you do or you wouldn’t be reading this – you likely have read about the escalating price of tea in China and the rest of the world. As a tea lover, you may be concerned that your favorite Dragon Well or Big Red Robe will eventually be cost prohibitive, except for an occasional indulgence. But before you reach for your Kleenex, listen up – rising tea prices may not spell all doom and gloom.
First, a disclaimer: I am a tea retailer, but I am not saying this because I can reap more profits. On the contrary, as a non-producer of tea, this impacts me more. The rise in the cost of tea outstrips the average consumer’s propensity to pay for artisan, hand-crafted tea (at least outside of China), so increased tea prices are actually detrimental to my bottom line. Why then am I not greeting this news with tears?
As a tea lover, I want sustainability in this business. Ten years, twenty years, and fifty years later – if the Lord wills – I want to be able to enjoy quality tea daily.
Quite simply, it would be inconceivable if all the pickers, farmers, and producers eventually left the fields to join the blossoming urban work force just because economic growth and inflation render survival in the fields impossible. In this dystopian future, the only available tea would be machine-picked and machine-processed, bagged CTC tea produced and distributed by large state-run or multinational corporations.
This could be a reality as pickers and farmers increasingly send their children to the city to work. An average, unskilled laborer could earn somewhere in the area of USD 300 per month in a large city. Just a few years ago, a tea picker earned closer to USD 30 per month.
Small wonder many are ditching the fresh air of the countryside for the polluted, congested cities. According to Wikipedia, the population of Guangzhou doubled from about 6 million in 1990 to 12 million in 2010, a phenomenon made even more incredible given China’s one-child policy. I have no statistics on this, but I reckon more than a handful came from rural areas in Guangdong province, including Chaozhou, where those wonderful Phoenix Dancongs come from.
The art of hand shaking (zao qing), roasting or firing, and even picking tea leaves requires dedication and commitment to master. Skilled practitioners deserve a premium for their mastery and effort. Not to mention the fact that a decent remuneration would attract new entrants into this trying industry to replace the old masters when they retire.
The rising price of artisan tea will help retain talent in the fields. If the price of quality remains unaffected by decades of double-digit GDP growth in China, it is hard to imagine anyone choosing to remain in, let alone join, this field, family heritage or otherwise.
Of course, there is no doubt that the rise in prices is also partially driven up by speculation or for cultural reasons. For example, the recent, well-published price of Pre-Qing Ming Shifeng Dragon Well (more than gold!) is by no means typical.
In China, the best – if not best known – tea has always been the property of emperors, provincial governments, and leaders. Famous teas, especially those from renowned bushes, have been coveted, not merely for their taste, but also as a status symbol. That’s why high-ranking officials or wealthy merchants willingly bid astoundingly high prices to secure these rare teas if they ever appear on the market, not for personal consumption but to show favor and reverence to business associates or family members. Astronomical prices for these teas are not representative of the entire market.
There are also speculative price spikes, like those associated with the earlier Pu-er and Iron Goddess (Tieguanyin) phenomena. The prices of Wuyi Rock teas have more than doubled in the past couple of years. There are signs that Dancong and some white teas may follow suit. These are not the price increases that I would greet with any measure of pleasure since they are not sustainable and could harm the industry.
It would be naïve to presume there is no element of opportunistic profiteering, especially among the middlemen and the retailers. There are many ills and abhorrent practices in this industry that go beyond the scope of this post. The tea industry has a way to go before typical consumers feel comfortable that the prices they pay are entirely justified. Yet before we get there, we must ensure the continual supply of artisan tea and there is no better way to do so than by allowing all members in this supply chain to have a means of earning a reasonable living.
So many factors go into crafting that high grade, artisan tea that is beloved by many. The skill of the tea masters and pickers is not acquired overnight. Nor are the natural complements of the fields, such as spring water, minerals, high mountains, and natural shade from sunlight. The epicurean pleasures derived from a fine cup of tea do not pale in comparison to those of fine wines. Why then should we begrudge those who labor to produce fine teas a decent livelihood, especially one adjusted for inflation and GDP growth?