Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to take a short leave of absence from my day job so I could study Chinese and drink excessive amounts of tea in what has become my home city: Taipei, Taiwan. At the end of the semester, armed with my intermediate-level Mandarin, I hired a motorcycle and set off on an adventure to some of the remotest tea-growing regions in the country. My goal was to get the good stuff, just as it was coming down the hill.
Not only did I find such a tea field, but I was also invited to learn how the tea was made, to eat with the laborers and get wired on betel nut, and to stay in the dormitories with the tea-picking ladies. At 5 a.m., the alarm went off, and I caught a lift up to the fields to catch a majestic sunrise. It wasn’t until I got back to the house that I realized I’d forgotten to take my phone (too bad for my Instagram!). Nevertheless, the memory remained. I returned to the city motivated to turn my passion into my purpose by starting a tea company. No business plan. No market analysis. Just some inspiration and a desire for more experiences like these.
Right now the hubbub surrounding direct trade is focused on coffee and cacao beans and dominated by talk of certification and the relationship between quality and price. Yet there is a dimension to direct trade that often gets ignored, and that’s the value of getting your hands on first-person information that can both educate and entertain the customer. That’s why we do direct trade.
Don’t get me wrong: many traders—the middlemen of the tea industry— are master tasters and quality experts. But beyond being able to determine if a tea tastes good or not, they often have few substantive things to say. The real expertise comes from the makers, who have immense knowledge of their natural surroundings and the right way to work with tea. They take a given batch of unprocessed leaves and vary the levels of insolation, oxidation, and fixation, depending on seasonal variation, the climate of the week, and the aroma and texture of the leaves as each step of the process begins and ends.
When you do direct trade, you get an education straight from the source. The veil is swept back, and
It’s a shame to see tea distanced from its origin and commodified. Going to the source, getting acquainted with the landscape, and reinstating the human touch unlock new levels of appreciation.
It’s no secret that the amount of marketplace tea touted as originating from this or that famous mountain substantially outstrips the mountains’ harvest capacity. Tea is extremely difficult to authenticate, and given the population of buyers unschooled in the trade, there’s a lot of temptation among those in the supply chain to upgrade a given product to the next category. The elevation of a “high mountain tea” of 1,000 m becomes 1,400 meters, then 1,800 meters by the time it reaches the customer. The old game of “telephone” comes to mind.
The fewer hands a tea passes through, the lower the chance its provenance will be modified to suit the agenda of the seller. When it comes to authenticating a product, there really is no substitute for visiting the fields and factories and tasting the tea straight from the maker’s hands.
From all the managers in the fine foods industry our team has been fortunate enough to meet, it’s evident that two things are key to a successful product: treating producers well and having control of the supply chain so that information flows smoothly from source to consumer. Quality products are made by resisting the urge to cut corners and thinking about cumulative benefits over time, rather than taking the path of least resistance and getting product to market as soon as possible. All industry experts are painfully deliberate when sourcing product, and this requires them to do direct trade.
There’s an expectation for purveyors of quality products to go above and beyond the physical product itself. Artisan tea is special because each tea has a story of terroir and tradition, of cultivar and craftsmanship. The story becomes accessible only by knowing the who and the where, the maker and the land.