Biodiversity Teas (BiodiversiTea) For Sustainability
Is what you are drinking destroying the environment? I bet you have never asked yourself if what you are sipping from the cup is sustainably harvested or environmentally destructive? Here is a short story of my experience in China.
After a stunning ride through the Wuyi Mountains, I came to a beautiful scene of endless rows of tea trees rolling across the mountains. I was going along for the ride with one of my teachers, a Taoist master, and tea expert. We 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. What we saw was 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 into 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 mudslide.
“Mudslide?” I asked, curious as how something like that could have taken place. They said they had just planted new tea trees several years ago and that sometimes a mudslide happens. Wow, I thought, even an organic tea farm can bring destruction to the mountains. Growing up in a green-minded family with a passion for sustainability, I was surprised with myself. I guess I had been so taken with the beauty of the tea mountains, I had overlooked the possibility of negative environmental consequences. The more I traveled through China, the more I noticed how many of the tea farms were teetering on the edge of environmental destruction and how many already had played havoc with the earth.
We live in a day and age when our environment is being needlessly sacrificed in the name of 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. In my mind, even when the tea is labeled “organic”, it doesn’t mean the farmer is observing sustainable 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. Having come across many wild and ancient tree tea plantations, I notice they are different from regular plantations. They are sustainable and they live for hundreds, if not thousands of years. So, what are the differences between a sustainable tea plantation and an unsustainable one? How can you tell one from the other?
First, you differentiate between a 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, confusing and distorting the pure flavor of the tea.
Imagine an agile old tea picker plucking fresh leaves on the side of a steep mountain. We call this monkey picked tea because it takes skill and agility. The old story about monkeys picking tea on the side of the mountain is nonsense. 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. Using machinery changes the energetic structure of the tea.
Some of the teas I source like Wild Rock Oolong 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 using a hot air blower to dry the tea; in the process, the tea loses important flavors, consequently reducing the number of steepings 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 Rock Oolong 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. Compare that to the commercial farms owned by a large company with little or no care for the tea itself beyond viewing it as a means to grow profits. Most of the top executives in such farms do not even know how to cultivate tea.
Recorded History of Wild Tea
• In 1939, botanists discovered a wild tea tree with a height of 7.5 meter (24.6 feet) in Wuchuang county of Guizhou province.
• In 1940, on the Old Eagle Mountain of Wuchuang County, a 6.6 meter (21.7 feet) tall wild tea tree was discovered.
• In 1957, a 12 meter (39.4 feet) wild tea tree was found in Cheshui County of Guizhou.
• In 1961, a ancient tea tree, estimated to be 1,700 years old, measuring 32 meters (105 feet) in height and more than one meter (3.3 feet) in diameter was found in the rain forest of Yunnan. This is the king of tea trees.
• In 1976, a 13 meter (42.3 feet) wild tea tree was found in Daozhen County, on a mountain 1,400 meter (4,600 feet) above sea level.
• Since then, many more wild tea trees have been found on mountains of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou Provinces, many of them more than 10 meters (33 feet) tall.
There are some wild tea trees growing in Yunnan, whose teas are known to make people pretty sick. They are found in a large protected tea forest, with most of the locals giving them a wide berth, except for those who make teas with these leaves to get rid of constipation. These trees are said to be very old, dating several thousands of years in age, and are very tall and wide in girth.
The consumer does not have to worry about these teas because no one sells them commercially. It is only the locals who will use the leaves as a very powerful form of medicine. In my company, our policy is to source only those teas that can be drinkable and grow in a biodiversity environment.
Ancient Wisdom of Ancient Tree Tea
Ancient tea trees are defined as tea trees that are at least 100 years of age or more.
I have found some of the oldest tea trees in the world in my adventures deep into the heart of Southern Yunnan and in the jungles of Xishuangbanna, Simao and Lincang.
In these areas, the tea trees are between several hundred to more than 1,000 years in age. A 3,200-year-old tea tree is found in a village in Lincang’s Fengqing County, in Yunnan, close to the Chinese border with Myanmar, The government protects the ancient tea tree. The tree has a diameter of 1.84 meters (6+ feet) and a height of 3.245 meters (10+ feet). One 500g (1lb+) cake of compressed tea leaves from this tree sold in 2012 for over $40,000.
Every year, the local tribal people, who have a 1,000-year-old history of growing tea, participate in ritual worship of this ancient tea tree. The community hosts a black tea festival with a series of activities including a black tea exposition, a tea trade fair, a tea art competition, and ancient tea tree worship. The locals regard this tree as an important symbol of biodiversity.
One of the amazing things about ancient tea trees is that they don’t need any pesticides or herbicides. They have a natural repellant. In fact, they will eventually die if a farmer sprays pesticides on them.
Currently, a major company in the tea business is conducting a three-year research project on several of the wild and ancient tea trees I am sourcing from to test several hypotheses. They are out to prove the following benefits of ancient tea trees:
• The roots of ancient tea trees have a much more complex system of development and grow much deeper into the earth.
• They flourish in bio-diverse environments where there are many influences from other plants and the local ecology.
• The biodiversity and the natural replenishment of soil nutrients from the natural cycle of birth and death ensure that the soil found around ancient tea trees is richer than the soil in a farm that grows just tea shrubs.
• Wild and Ancient tea tree leaves contain higher levels of polyphenols (catechin/flavonoid, flavones, anthocyanin, and phenolic acids) than standard farmed teas.
This study is seeking to establish what other nutrients are found
in the leaves from wild and ancient tea trees that are not available in standard farmed teas. If the results are positive, the company is going to find a way to cultivate these teas on a large-scale.
Since 1978, when China first embarked on its reform policies, the tea industry has grown at a rapid rate, and ancient tea trees have been harvested at a dizzying pace. In early 2001, the puer market took off. Everyone was investing in puer, not only for gifts and personal consumption but as long term investments because of puer increases in value when it ages. In 2007, the puer bubble burst and the market crashed. Many tea businesses, factories, and farmers went bankrupt. Production screeched to a halt. The market has since steadied, but the unsustainable, industrial approach to tea harvesting continues to this day.
With the worldwide increase in demand for puer and other teas, the industry changed course and gave up quality for quantity.
Today, the large factories that dominate tea production cultivate monoculture tea crops sustained by the use of agricultural chemicals that erode the land, decrease the quality of tea leaves, and poison the people and the land. Vast areas of forest are being cut down to make way for high yielding tea plantations, even though growing plantation tea is a fairly recent practice, by the standards of the tea industry.
Nonetheless, many century-old, big leaf tea trees still exist (there are two primary species of tea trees: small leaf and big leaf). These trees have lived for hundreds, some for thousands of years, in rich, biodiverse environments. Now, these trees are also in danger as a result of unsustainable methods such as over-picking. In 2011, a major drought across Yunnan caused production to decline, but demand was at an all-time high. Many farmers over-picked their ancient tea trees making them vulnerable to disease because, when more than half of the leaves are harvested, the tree is seriously weakened. To make matters worse, it also lowers the quality of the next harvest. The 2012 harvest from areas like Nannuoshan was considered inferior and overpriced.
Along with my tea hunting expeditions, I came across many tea gardens that had empty bottles of pesticides and herbicides strewn all over the ground. There was no proper measurement of the pesticides and herbicides used, which suggests that the farmers were overdosing the tree shrubs with chemicals.
Even when I did find tea plantations that appeared chemical free, I would come across other disturbing signs of environmental destruction. Farmers have told me they were picking from their trees every couple of months. I have tasted teas from such overpacked trees. The flavors and energies of these teas are weak compared with teas from plants that are given enough time to recover between pickings.
The importance of proper cultivation practices is of vital importance for the preservation of ancient tea trees. There has to be a way to guarantee the farmer is not over-cultivating his or her trees.
Another method that cultivators are using to increase the production of ancient tree tea is to cut them in half. This method forces the tree to sprout more branches and leaves. However, there are devastating consequences the ancient tea trees suffer from illnesses and end up dying. Once these trees are gone, there is no bringing them back. It took hundreds of years for them to grow into their current state of. I have not seen any methods of preservation or protection on the part of the government nor by any industry organizations.
For me, tea is not just about business. We (Wild Tea Qi) have a mission to change the unsustainable farming practices in China through re-education programs and through spreading the message. I also hope to educate the consumer as to what is really at stake behind each cup of tea.
If you realize that a beautiful, aged forest is being mowed down so that you can get your daily cup of tea, it is more than likely that you will change your purchasing habits, and buy from those farmers who subscribe to sustainability.
The consumer exercises tremendous influence through conscious buying decisions. Chinese farmers are getting more web-savvy, and are interested in educating themselves on the right choices to promote their businesses. If they notice they are being left behind by those competitors who are practicing biodiversity and sustainable farming, they too will be convinced to make the switch. Chinese farmers clearly are interested in sustainability, but not at their own cost. However, if it earns them extra dollars because that is the way the consumer is buying, they will adopt what is required.
Growing a Small Tea Company The Grassroots Way
Our mission in the tea business has remained the same from Day One. It is to bring those teas that have not been discovered by nor available in Western markets. I have found in my time living and traveling throughout China that the best teas never get exported. So-called “premium teas” available in supermarkets or specialty stores in the West are mass-produced stuff that the true connoisseur would turn his or her nose up at. Even the USDA Organic symbol means nothing anymore as the regulations are so lax and so easily circumvented by the large companies that the “good housekeeping” seal is almost meaningless.
What we have had to do as a company is growing our business from the grassroots level. That is how we began, and this is how we plan to move into the future. We work together with all types of farmers. We prize quality above quantity and cheap prices. To those customers who ask me for cheaper teas, I give them the same answer, “you get what you pay for with tea.” There are no shortcuts.
The Chinese are willing to pay good money for good tea just like Americans and Europeans are willing to pay good money for good wine. Once you have a real good tea like an Ancient Artisan Yunnan Black Tea, you would never want to drink a standard cheap oolong again. Most low-quality black tea is loaded with heavy-duty fertilizers and pesticides.
Also like Oolong tea, I personally don’t even drink 99% of Tie Guan Yins because Anxi, where they are grown, is infamous for using super heavy amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. I know many Chinese who have stopped drinking Tie Guan Yin as it hurts their stomachs and upsets their digestive systems.
I have seen large companies with deep pockets promoting teas that simply should not be drunk. Most of these tea buyers representing these large food companies have never even been to China, yet they label themselves tea experts. Book knowledge is empty without experience. What about the tea farmer who was raised to be well-versed about every aspect of tea cultivation, but is ignorant of scientific terms? Do you consider him a tea expert or a tea master when you compare him to a person who received tea master certification through an online course but has never held
a fresh tea leaf in his hand or even seen a tea tree other than in a pretty photo? Who is the real master here?
Don’t get me wrong. I respect the fact that people are taking the initiative to educate themselves, and I support this type of education completely. I have friends who own these certification companies. My point is not to degrade them nor devalue them. My point is that our new society of tea drinkers needs to look beyond just learning the vocabulary and the scientific terms that every tea professional and lover should have a command of. They should instead dive into the actual experience of feeling the tea and to respect the knowledge of the true tea masters who are decreasing in numbers. These genuine tea masters are not valued for their efforts nor are they appreciated for their artistry, as they are being sidelined by the large companies interested only in selling vast quantities of inferior tea.
I spent countless hours on innumerable tea plantations learning everything I could about growing tea, harvesting, processing, and nuances of the tea culture before I finally felt I had grasped it. I have read many books on tea and reviewed tea courses, but they only touch on one aspect of learning about tea. In my view, mastering the art of tea is about experiencing it with the right teachers.
My point here is there are many tea companies that are marketing junk as gold, and many people are calling themselves tea masters just because they completed an online course. The tea business is filled with charlatans and low-quality teas I don’t take seriously. If you are in the tea business to make a quick buck, go back to drinking gunpowder green as it is cheap. If you are a serious tea enthusiast, then get to know what is truly behind the cup.
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