In September of 2015, a new tea vendor called Conundrum Tea launched. I was able to try some of their teas when they launched, and really enjoyed the tea. Not only was the tea very good, but I also learned that all of their tea is sourced directly from farmers, and they are committed to selling all-natural teas. Upon receiving my package from Conundrum, I was impressed to find that each bag had handwritten information detailing the origin of the tea and the farm that the tea is from. I recently spoke with James Lissey, the founder of Conundrum Tea.
T Ching: Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to start Conundrum Tea.
James Lissey: I’ve been a tea enthusiast for a number of years and I’ve been wanting to start my own tea shop for quite a while, but I was never able to come up with an idea to make my tea shop stand out from all of the other ones. That is, until one day I was trying to find a tea that was grown using the natural cultivation method, and I was able to find some fairly generic organic teas…but they weren’t that great. A few days later I was trying to find some single-estate teas and I quickly found out that there are very few tea shops who carry this, and if they do it’s usually just one or two teas that are actually single-estate. To amuse myself I tried to find a naturally grown, single estate tea and I was quite unsuccessful in finding a tea shop that sold this. I basically told myself, “Well, if no one else is going to do this, then I will.” I think it’s important that people start to become aware of how their tea is grown and where exactly their tea comes from.
TC: What separates Conundrum Tea from other tea vendors?
JS: I think everything that we do sets us apart from other tea companies. We are dedicated to only selling tea that was naturally grown and we only sell single-origin teas. A lot of tea companies have an organic or all-natural line of teas, but very few companies are dedicated to only selling that type of tea and there are even fewer companies that sell only single-origin teas. I think the biggest thing that sets us apart from everyone else though is our dedication to being as transparent as possible.
TC: How do you source your teas and how do you decide what to sell under the Conundrum name?
JS: We have a group of tea professionals who are constantly traveling the globe searching for new and unique teas for us to sell. We have three main qualifications for a tea to be sold under the Conundrum Tea name. First, the tea has to be grown using all-natural cultivation methods. We want to reward farmers who are already using these sustainable farming methods and we want to encourage other farmers to start using all natural cultivation methods. Second, the tea has to be grown on a single farm. If the tea is a mix of tea leaves from multiple farms, even if they are in the same village, we won’t sell it. Third, the tea has to be really good. That one explains itself!
TC: In September 2015 the BBC wrote an article about the terrible living conditions on Indian tea estates. How do you ensure that your tea is sourced responsibly?
JS: That article highlights a lot of issues in the tea industry that very few people are aware of and issues that a lot of tea companies don’t want people to know about. Every tea drinker should be acutely aware of these issues that surround this great drink. Each farm that we buy tea from has been visited by a group of tea professionals to meet with the farmers, taste the tea, and inspect the farms. This is truly the only way to ensure that sustainable farming methods are being used and that the working conditions at the farms are acceptable. At Conundrum Tea, we want people to be aware of these issues and we think that each tea has a great story to tell and it is a story that should be heard. That is why we are dedicated to sharing with our fellow tea drinkers everything that we know about our teas. We want people to know the exact farm that their tea came from so they can better understand the tea. On our website, you’ll find photos of the actual farms, the actual farmers, and the actual loose leaf tea. At Conundrum Tea, we are dedicated towards transparency and good will towards tea drinkers everywhere!
TC: You work directly with the tea farmers. Do you have any favorite stories that you would like to share about the farmers?
JS: I have not personally visited any of the farms, yet. That will hopefully be changing fairly soon! So, unfortunately, I don’t have any good stories of my own to share. However, I have been told a number of very interesting stories from the tea professionals that have visited the farms. Since they’re not my own stories though I probably shouldn’t retell them here.
TC: What are some of the future plans for Conundrum Tea?
JS: I have a ton of future plans for the shop; whether any of them are viable or not, time will be the judge. There are some very specific types of tea that I would love to add, but I can’t announce them publicly at the moment since I’m not sure when those teas will get added, if ever. However, I do have a short term goal (former long term goal) that will be happening in the fairly near future that I can announce. Every few months, we will be interviewing one of our farms and asking them questions that our tea drinkers have submitted to us! We think this will be a great way for people to ask questions that they normally might not be able to ask and get an accurate answer. We also think it’s a great way to lead us toward our goal of being as transparent as possible. If there’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask the farmer of your tea, this will be your chance! Details of how to submit your question(s) for consideration will be announced in the future (a date hasn’t been set yet) on our website blog as well as on social media.
TC: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers and the tea community?
JS: I would like to encourage everyone to start asking questions about where exactly the tea that you are buying comes from and how it was grown. I think these are very important issues for people to start thinking about and I think you’ll be surprised by how little most tea shops actually know about the tea that they are selling. If you have any questions for me, feel free to contact me at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having gone to the website, I see that “all natural” means organic basically, as ” they do not use chemicals, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers / pesticides to grow their tea.”. I do understand that small farmers cannot always afford to get organic certification however. Is that the case with Conundrum farmers? If so, then we’re talking about “Organic Compliant”. If so, what measures are being taken to confirm that the tea is indeed organic? Has any random testing been done?
This is James from Conundrum Tea, those are some great questions that you have! You are correct, the majority of the farmers that our tea comes from would love to get an organic certification but it’s an extremely costly process and it just isn’t practical for small farms. “Organic Compliant” is another way of stating the “All Natural” label, however the majority of the farms that our tea comes from go way beyond just meeting the organic requirements so we prefer the “All Natural” label instead. Random lab testing has not been done on any of our teas although it is something that we’ve been exploring for a while and we really want to incorporate into the company however it just might not be feasible the small batch teas that we offer. The cultivation methods used by the farmers that our tea comes from is ensured by the best way possible, which is in-person visits / inspections of the farms along with developing relationships with the farmers! The farmers are very open about their cultivation methods and the in-person visits / inspections have proven to be very effective. Thank you for your questions and let me know if you have any more!