If you daydream about your ideal tea, the images that float to mind will mostly relate to “natural.” They will invoke some combination of freshness, aroma, healthiness, bushes in mountain mists…
Now, back to reality. You’re in the supermarket or tea store or you’re online looking for some new teas to try. Some extra images now pop up: chemicals, additives, pollution, artificial colorings, and contamination. How do you bring together the natural ideal and your practical options? What should you look for and what should you avoid?
Here are some quick answers. They may surprise you a little. The ideal assumes that natural means good. The actual is that in agricultural production and marketing it just means found somewhere in nature. You want to make sure you get the good found in nature. Legally, sand is a natural additive; that’s not good.
“Organic” is closer to real nature, but it’s too often an indicator of a large checkbook; many of the best organic farms producing small amounts of superb teas can’t afford the costs and bureaucracy of certification.
So, you need to watch out: don’t take the labels as given but be sure you have a sense of the three main determinants of natural goodness in teas: (1) How the bush is grown, (2) The leaf itself, and (3) What’s added to it.
How the bush is grown: The obvious and increasingly pervasive de-naturing of the leaf comes from chemicals it absorbs from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Here, there are many problems. This is, of course, no different from most areas of agriculture. Cheap food means mass production means pesticides.
It is hard to offer comprehensive recommendations on how to address this. The simple answer is buy organic teas. Alas, it’s simplistic, too. The problem is that “organic” is a label that is exclusive rather than inclusive. The burdens of cost, administration, reduced crop yields, testing and inspection involved in obtaining organic certification penalize the small farmers who, ironically, are the main producers of true organic tea in China. For many, it is just not worth it.
The term “biodynamic” seems more applicable a term than organic farming. Biodynamics was a movement founded in the 1940s that took on some cultish spiritual elements. But it captures the logic of the organic methods pragmatically applied by the new generation of tea estate and garden owners and managers. In essence, it creates a closed system of recycling and conservation, built on a holistic understanding of the natural environment, community role and respect for its traditions.
These broader principles of organic production are being supported and incented by a number of programs that aim at improving the living of the communities. It provides them guaranteed markets and a price supplement that is designed to be spent on social needs. Fair Trade is the best known and, in Europe especially, the one that consumers most respond to.
The Ethical Tea Alliance and Rainforest Alliance are leading and responsible players. Many of the companies participating are forming long-term cooperative relationships with ethnic tribes and villages. They help growers afford and implement biodynamic methods and bring the teas to market directly, with no reliance on the complex webs of auctioneers, wholesalers and other intermediaries.
This makes reputation the key factor for biodynamic tea farming. It’s useful to keep in mind the incentives, not just the problems: which producers and marketers gain from making natural goodness the base of their business. Look out for some combination of Organic/Fair Trade/Alliance as a signal, though not a guarantee, of the natural.
The best sellers want to get away from the commodity trap, where they can’t differentiate their teas and are constantly squeezed on price; they want their brand to stand for something distinctive. The alternative is to be just another ingredient in another tea bag blend. The top estates and pedigree names are moving in the same direction. That’s an accelerating trend in Darjeeling, and a bedrock for the top teas of China, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere. Alas, the reverse is true for most of the low-end bulk tea bag business.
The leaf itself: A whole market has been built on herbal teas as an alternative to caffeinated tea. Indeed, “herbal” and “natural” have become equivalent. Natural here doesn’t automatically equate to good. The flood of publications by scientists, physicians and journalists suggests that the dangers of natural herbal teas are widespread and more than occasional.
“Dieter” teas are notably dangerous, as are ones containing such ingredients as star anise, comfrey, aloe, senna, peppermint and oleander. They can become toxic in combination with each other, medications and laxatives and through oversteeping and high dosages. There have been far more product recalls and court cases for herbal than true tea.
What’s added to the leaf: Tea stands out from all other drinks and foods in how easily it absorbs and blends with other substances. This is the base for the many flavored teas that are increasingly popular. What is not obvious is that the “natural” additives cover some strange ingredients. Legally, the term means that they contain something that can be found in nature. Laboratories blend “natural” and “synthetic” chemicals to create a wide range of flavorings.
This results in misleading but legal marketing. To take just one instance: It takes 200 kilograms of fruit from Calabria, Sicily, to make one kilo of the real and rare bergamot essence, used in the best Earl Grey blends. This is definitely classier than aromatized concentrated Earl Grey additive, with ingredients of “natural flavoring, propylene glycol and ethyl alcohol.” (The promo material boasts that “This flavor is true to the tea!” That may well be accurate, alas.)There have been far more product recalls and court cases for herbal than true tea. Click To Tweet
The most natural tea is also the best in terms of flavor. That is not surprising. All tea is natural unless it is altered along its path from the bush to the cup. The elite growers that produce artisan teas in the best terrain and climate are going to do nothing to alter it but let withering, rolling and maybe roasting and steaming bring out all its natural chemical interaction. They certainly won’t add anything other than fresh flower and fruit essences. And you won’t see an ingredient list like this storehouse of additives, preservatives and colorings: “glucose/fructose and/or sugar, natural flavorings, citric acid, green tea, sodium hexametamorphate, ascorbic acid, phosphoric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, honey, calcium disodium EDTA, caramel color, dimethylpolysiloxane color.”