SustainabiliTEA: What Makes Sustainable Tea Sustainable?
Have you have asked yourself if what you are eating on your plate or sipping from your cup is destroying the environment?
Most people remain unconscious of this fact. And although there’s a lot of buzzwords in today’s marketplace, it all boils down to a single simple question: what makes sustainable tea actually sustainable?
Sustainability is relevant for our modern times of massive climate change happening everywhere on the planet. Tea – as much as anything – has been adversely affected.
Now I would like to share my one short experiences in China. After a stunning ride through the Wuyi Mountains, I, along with one of my teachers, a Taoist master and tea expert were going to try the fresh spring harvest of organic Huang Yin Rock tea, which is the “sister” to the famous Tie Guan Yin, otherwise known as Iron Buddha or Goddess of Mercy.
As we rolled into our destination, I noticed one of the mountains was totally and completely shaven of vegetation; only just bare earth. It was an eyesore, made all the worse because this particular peak was ringed by lushly green hills and mountains. When we went to meet the farmers to sample the fresh harvest, I asked them, “Why is there a mountain top that is completely bare? No trees and not even tea?” They explained that there was a mud slide.
“Mud slide?” I asked curiously. How something like that could have taken place? They said they had planted new tea trees several years ago and after sometime this mud slide happens. I was shocked, even an organic tea farm can bring destruction to the mountains.
I guess I had been so taken with the beauty of tea mountains that I had overlooked the possibility of negative environmental consequences. We live in a day and age when our environment is being needlessly sacrificed in the name or profits and progress. As I have now traveled through a good part of the world, I have found significant environmental destruction due to unsustainable farming practices, say nothing of strip mining and other industrial practices.
I think back to the wild tea trees producing the Phoenix Mountain Oolongs and the wild tea trees in Wuyishan that bear the tasty Wild Bamboo Forest Oolong I love so dearly. These tea trees coexist peacefully with other native flora and fauna and even seem to help each other in ways that we cannot fully fathom. They are sustainable and they live for thousands of years.
A crucial factor is looking for tea trees that grow in harmony with the local ecology. When mass plantations are grown, they wipe out the entire forest and everything growing there. The tea loses it’s maximum potential as tea is a highly absorbent plant that will imbibe the aromas around it. That is why so many modern teas are dull in flavor compared to a tree grown in a biodiverse environment.
You must also differentiate between a mass-produced commercially farmed tea and single origin teas. Single estate teas grow on one single estate. This means that you are assured all the leaves in any bag of single estate tea that you purchase, are of the same type and quality and are derived from the same harvest. Contrast this with factory produced farmed teas that typically mix teas from different batches and harvests and even different grades and countries, confusing and distorting the pure flavor of tea.
Imagine an agile old tea picker plucking fresh leaves on the side of a steep mountain. I only source teas that are grown high up on the sides of remote mountains and which are handpicked by the local villagers and families that have been harvesting tea for years. Commercially farmed teas generally use large machinery to cut the tea, which changes the energetic structure of the tea.
Some of the teas I source like Wild Snow tea is hand rolled and roasted over hot charcoals, giving the tea a unique rich taste. To save money and time, commercial farms are leaning on machines for all stages of processing. They will even stoop to use a hot air blower to dry the tea; in the process, the tea loses important flavors, consequently reducing the number of steeping you can get with a single scoop of tea leaves.
The tea plantations that I source from are taken care of by true tea masters. For example, Wild Snow tea is cultivated by generations of the same family on the same mountain, using techniques that have been passed down for 800 years. A whole village of tea farmers, processors and cultivators cares for the Wuyi Mountain Rock Oolongs I buy. These teas sustain the villagers life, their families and because their tea cultivation methods support sustainability this promotes over all sustainable tea.
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