I was fortunate to start my education as a tea retailer with some of the most authentic people in the industry: the founders of the International Tea Farms Alliance. I started selling tea on behalf of these artisan tea growers/producers, but as I expanded my network, I learned that one of the most valuable assets to find in tea partners is honesty. Tea buyers (retailers and consumers) must trust that what their partners say is true. Tea lovers are on their own journey to find this integrity in their merchants and producers.
In his article the Romanization of Tea Terms, Tony Gebely explained that one of the reasons why there is much confusion in tea terminology is because “they were haphazardly transliterated by traders before Romanization systems were in place, often from local dialects.” In some cases the confusion is unintentional, but there are many instances where tea merchants assume “creative license” when marketing their products, deliberately confusing the consumer.
A fine example of this is Hawaii-style teas vs Hawaiian-grown teas. Numerous tea retail brands utilize Hawaiian names and branding for teas which are blended with tropical fruits and/or flavors that are not actually sourced from Hawaii. As someone who represents Hawaii tea farmers, I have noticed that this both confuses consumers, and is unfair for the Hawaii growers who produce and market genuine Hawaiian-grown tea. “Hawaii-style” blended teabags sell for about $5 per ounce. Genuine Hawaiian grown tea is retailing for about $25 per ounce. I have heard many instances of confused consumers choosing to purchase the $5 box of teabags because they thought it was truly Hawaiian grown. I have even seen these teas labeled as “Local” at Whole Foods!
The conscious and ambitious tea lover will probably see through this and perhaps even call out merchants for using confusing terminology for their teas. These conscious consumers will go out of their way to research to discover honest sources of tea online, and might even travel around the world to find teas. Unfortunately, even with this growing level of awareness, there are still many opportunities for dishonesty. Tea retailers who source direct from the farm, or from brokers, tell of times when tea partners – even those with whom they have developed strong relationships – have sent samples of a high grade prior to purchase, but shipped entire orders of lower grade than was originally agreed upon. It’s amazing that a tea broker would put her/his business in that position because these dishonest transactions can ruin the chance of future business. Unfortunately, It is a common situation that many tea retailers and enthusiasts have experienced.
As I have built Tealet, I have experienced this too, at the cost of a significant amount of my time, resources, and money. For this reason my brother and I have decided to travel throughout this April and May to visit every one of our tea grower partners, so we can fully document their claims. We will then be able to provide honest tea to tea buyers. Honesty may be difficult to find, but it’s not impossible. There are many thousands of honest people around the world ready to share their tea and tea stories with you. It’s a matter of connection.
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I applaud your willingness to travel to the source even though it is expensive and time consuming. Sourcing tea is difficult, and a lot more complicated than answering the question about honesty, which is rarely the cause for the kind of quality control that you are describing. Rarely do farmers have the tea making skills to provide for a constant product from year to year, tea producers that get their tea from farmers do a much better job and making tea, but may put less attention to the packing and sending of the tea. Tea is much more complex than strawberries, tea changes from day to day during the processing and harvesting, and matching a customers expectations, with the every changing character of the tea during a season is not as easy as it may seem. The factors that determine the quality of tea that arrives at the buyers door are complex. It is perhaps as much a problem with the buyers lack of understanding as it is with a producers dishonesty that sits at the root of the problem. There is no short cut to sourcing that precludes spending time on the ground and understanding in detail the sources complicating problems that affect the tea that will be delivered to the buyer. These factors change from year to year, so I would suggest that you make it part of your yearly process and budget for it. At Seven Cups, we do which has provided with good quality control. We are also pretty sure that we must do it every year to maintain our standards. We find tea producers, unlike middlemen to be very honest, and the lack of honesty hasn’t ever been a problem for us, though as producers get to be more success, which is our hope for them, things get more complicated for them in managing their own process and inventory. The buyers that do most of the complaining about dishonesty are the ones that don’t do their work, and blame their sources for being dishonest.
Thanks Austin for the detailed response. You are right that there is another later in the value chain that Tealet may be leaving out in finding the highest quality teas. When I started Tealet my only goal was to connect producer to consumer. I found the easier to get this off the ground with transparency is to work directly with farms that are vertically integrating and producing their own tea. On our trip now I am sure we will connect more with tea producers that are not growers but focusing more on quality. As long as these producers can provide transparency on where their raw materials are sourced and how much they paid for them (we want to work with producers that are paying a fair price because we believe the sustainability of the industry depends on a strong livelihood for farmers). I’m sure we will learn so much on our trip. We may also learn that we have doing things wrong. This is why it is top priority for us to invest in this trip. We want to take accountability for our own honesty.
Good for you for making the effort to require your tea partners to be honorable. It does affect each and every tea drinker in ways that one can’t even begin to imagine. But dishonesty is a universal problem, affecting all fields of interest and all parts of the globe. The art world, for example, is often under scrutiny for forgeries. As with tea, one must develop a relationship with a trusted dealer to insure the integrity of ones purchase. Thanks for throwing light onto the dark side of tea.
change is a word everyone is chanting these days and its the only way we can save the industry .. young entrepreneurs like you will be the change that we seek .. proud and happy to have people like you coming into the industry .. its a bold step and a big investment and i personally wish to congratulate you for all the hard work .. ! best of luck in all your ventures and please feel free to ask for any help or contribution from the indian team.. we will be willing to go all lengths to support and help you ! we welcome the change and hope more people get inspired by you and become the change like you ! :)
Elyse~ My point it that the honesty question is clouded by the complicated variables in sourcing. I’m not questioning your honesty at all. What I am saying is that too often tea buyers are pointing fingers at producers claiming that they have been cheated, when in reality the buyers have failed to do their homework. It is not to say that there is not a whole lot of cheating that is going on and that there are some producers that are less than honest, but the people that are getting cheated are that ones that don’t do their homework. This is not a problem that only exists in the tea industry, it is true everywhere, don’t do your due diligence and you are likely to get burned. It would be great if all tea buyers set as high standards for themselves as you are setting for yourself.