To make smart choices about tea, you need some heuristics: simple rules of thumb that give you a good enough answer most of the time. A heuristic may not be complete or fully accurate but it reduces the amount of knowledge you need and speeds up your purchase decision. A classic heuristic in poker is: don’t draw to an inside straight. For tea, a common one is that green teas are lower in caffeine than blacks. That’s not actually true, but by and large it’s a helpful simplification of a very complex topic.
From both a business and a shopper perspective, there are three main sets of links in the tea supply chain: (1) Production: growing and making the tea, (2) Logistics: managing procurement, certification, shipping and packaging, and (3) Distribution: marketing, branding and selling it. Consciously or not, regular tea drinkers focus on one of these and evolve their heuristics: brands or tea types to look out for or avoid, how to spot a good deal, or indicators of quality.
Each of the three stages is a set of processes, such as harvesting and rolling (production), auctioning and import inspection (logistics), and pricing and shelf placement (distribution). Each points to a primary focus for heuristics: either ‘which’, ‘how’, or ‘who’. For Production, it’s which tea and for Distribution, who to buy from.
The catch is that it is fairly easy to throw light on the Growing and Distribution stages – the tea itself and how it is marketed and sold – but the middle Logistics link is cloud-covered. It’s all about the question ‘How?’ and the difference the answer makes:
How does the tea get from the bush to you?
This is the logistics of moving the tea through storage, auctions, local trucking. direct sale contracts, export shipping, inspection, packaging, blending, customs, wholesaling, and so on.
The logistics of tea have always been inefficient, fragmented and cumbersome. This is still very much a fragmented industry. The producers are scattered across remote mountainous regions. Production is highly seasonal. Transportation, storage and quality vary widely.
The gap between best and typical practice is wide and a major factor to consider in your shopping. Here’s a broad summary, with the implications for your choices summarized in the left-hand column.
How do you know how fresh your tea will be?
Freshness is the first test of what’s happening behind the cloud cover. Say you are looking at three Darjeelings from the same estate and harvest but a different seller. Before you pick among them, how can you tell which will be more fresh when you get it?
Does that matter? Oh, yes! Does it vary much? Yes, yes and yes – oh, and add “!!!!”)
The rule of thumb here is that tea begins to deteriorate and lose its special flavors and aromas within six weeks and should be consumed within six months of its being harvested. The time for Darjeelings to reach you ranges from two weeks or less (best practice logistics) to around six months (standard practice). That reflects direct grower to seller procurement, immediate storage, vacuum packaging and international air freight versus local storage, multiple intermediaries in auctioning, brokering and wholesaling, traditional bagging for sea shipping (which often involves delays of a month or so at the port) and “hydroscopic” absorption of moisture, fumes and even chemicals along the many steps in local storage and transportation.
The average time for a harvested China green tea to reach the US buyer is one year. When you pay a premium for a superb pre-Chingming spring tea that is harvested on the exact right week of the year, it’s the ‘how’ not the ‘which’ or ‘who’ that matters most. As for Japanese senchas, here’s a heuristic: unless the seller receives the tea from an elite small farmer and sends it to you by air, try a China oolong instead.
The most complicated aspect of Logistics that is deliberately kept cloudy is what a tea actually is and where it comes from. Here are a few quick examples that are likely to surprise you.
“Gathered from the prestigious highlands of Sri Lanka’s Uwa region”, may well contain 20-40% cheap imported machine-processed tea from Africa. The rules on “country of origin” and re-exporting distinguish between growing, packaging and blending a tea. So, it is not difficult to make a tea appear to be from a prestigious source. You won’t see Argentina listed as where most of the US green tea imports come from or Dubai, which packages – but doesn’t blend – 60% of the world’s teabags.
That tin of a premium and special blend carrying the name of a prestigious store, museum, historical name, or British TV series is almost certainly a generic product from one of the often good blenders who will handle the customized tin design and procurement (under 80 cents from Chinese suppliers) let you pick from its menu of Colonial Black, Royal Earl Grey (of course) or whatever and handle all the steps.
Most of the teas you see in a specialty store are exactly the same as those in any health food chain or grocery that has a tea section. Owners buy from wholesalers because they cannot afford the very high unit shipping costs of imports nor have the resources to maintain multiple relationships. They will generally have a few good pedigree teas that are sourced from a grower since these draw customers and provide higher prices. But, alas, in general their teas are ordinary and generic.
These examples are the tip of a giant iceberg and there is no way you can or should want to understand the bewildering details of the global tea supply chain. Back to heuristics. Here are some simple guides and screenings.
1.Look for a supplier that is close to the growers in relationships and geography with direct and fast service links to you, the buyer. That will shift you to buying direct from growers and online tea specialists.
2. Avoid the mall palaces. The high end tea retailers and gourmet stores sell ambience and marketing gloss. Their teas are weak practice in terms of Logistics and prices generally double what you should be paying.
3. Don’t buy blends in tins where the main marketing is prestige, design. The tin is cheap to source and looks really attractive but the tea will be a mass market, standardized purchase from a packager. Prices for Christmas time teas can be absurd.
4. Don’t expect too much from the specialty store. Enjoy the atmosphere, try out samples and chat with a knowledgeable enthusiast owner. This is the bookstore/Amazon transformation once again. Specialty stores can’t match the new online supply chain wizards so must create something special in the shopping experience.
5. Read the ingredients. The ingredient list is legally regulated but the marketing fluff and puff is not. So the package says “Had-plucked from mountain bushes in China’s Yunnan Province.” The ingredients says “product of multiple countries,” “green tea.” Here is the heuristic guide to what the labels tell you by what they don’t state:
Tea is remarkably complex for such a simple looking end product. The topic is almost inexhaustible in its details. This too easily leads to the notion that you need to be a tea “expert” to appreciate it. That’s not at all the case. You just need sound and useful heuristics. Most of these will center on Growing and Production but Logistics is increasingly worth your focus.
If you just want a decent everyday tea then the ingredient list example is enough. The heuristic is: Ignore the name and packaging image and description: look at the ingredient list. If you are interested in finding new types of tea, expand this to include, say: If shipping takes more than 1-2 weeks, don’t bother. This seller may offer good tea but looks weak on logistics. If you want really special teas, the heuristic is: Buy only from a store or online seller with an impeccable record of quality product and freshness, that sources its tea directly from the elite growers and delivers directly.
You want good teas from a good seller. Don’t let bad logistics get in the way of the two.
Featured photograph by Mahesh Bhat