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Sourcing: How do you know a tea retailer gets their teas direct from the source (or the farmer)?

While contemplating a few concerns I have about the tea I buy, a question occurred to me, one which I have seen surface from time to time in the discussion boards: is it possible to be able to tell if a tea retailer is simply buying tea from another retailer (like Rishi) and then re-packaging it and selling it as their own tea? I know it happens (I know for certain that one local cafe does it, but at least they don’t seem to hide it). For many people, buying tea that is repackaged may not be an issue, as it makes it available to them in venues where they may not normally get exposure to that particular product (which, in a sense, adds value to the customer, in terms of availability, or market/product exposure).

I have noticed more and more coffee shops selling tea. I can think of at least four locally: a national chain—Starbucks, a local chain of cafes, and two independent coffee houses. If the coffee house buys, repackages, and sells tea from another tea retailer to people whom may not otherwise get exposed to it, I say, “Great!” The more people that find out how great tea is, the better! I think this is called, ‘re-branding’. In the tech business (maybe even in a broader sense), the store that resells the tea would be the equivalent of a VAR (Value Added Reseller). There are good cases for this, if the VAR can actually add value to the product they are repackaging. Sometimes, I imagine, that simply means giving greater market exposure to that particular product.

The thing is, for many reasons, I do not want to buy tea without knowing where it comes from (the less hands it goes through, the better, right?). To clarify, I don’t mind if the tea retailer I am buying the tea from purchased it from some representative (or agent) of the farmer in China, or wherever. But I don’t want to buy from some shop that bought it from, say Rishi (nothing against Rishi, btw. I respect that they are getting tea out to more people by taking on the role of supplier), whom bought it from the representative (or agent) of the farmer in China.

All this to say, my guess is hoping that the tea has passed though as few hands as possible comes down to building trust with a tea retailer who claims that they buy direct.

Thoughts?

54 Replies
Roland said

I’m still very new to tea, but work in a coffee roastery in the UK – so I know a lot more about that side of things :) Increasingly, the coffee world has moved towards providing a lot more transparency about it’s sourcing to customers (who the farmer is, how it’s been imported, when, etc. ). I think that’s something that’s not so prevalent in the tea sellers I’ve come across, but does happen and will (I hope) happen more in the future.

Incidentally, we supply tea to coffee shops who we roast coffee for. All our loose leaf tea comes from a tea supplier we work with, and there is never any rebranding by us or by shops – there’s a lot more benefit to them (and us) by being open about working with a great tea supplier rather than trying to rebrand it.

Thank you for your response. It’s great to hear from someone in the ‘inside’.

I’m glad to hear the coffee industry is moving toward more transparency in its sourcing. Hopefully their decisions will help to raise the bar in the tea industry, too. One can only voice one’s wants, encourage transparency by buying from those who provide it, and hope others will follow suit. : )

That’s an interesting bit about coffee rosterys supplying tea to coffee shops. I just assumed (as I know is the case with one coffee shop locally) that most coffee shops got their tea from a tea retailer. I am not certain I understand you when you state, “… and there is never any rebranding by us or by shops …”. Does that mean the packaging for the tea the coffee shop sells has the name of the company from whom you source your teas? If so, that is great to hear!

Again, I really appreciate hearing from someone at the ‘source’ (haha! The English language with its multiple meaning of words makes it easy for a little confusion, or silliness, to ensue.).

Roland said

From the perspective of a coffee shop, it’s not a big jump from buying coffee from someone to buying tea from the same company. We have close relationships with the shops we supply, and it isn’t just browned beans we help with – equipment, training etc. are also a part. I think that’s part of why shops might look to us for help sourcing great teas.

To come back to your question about rebranding – this is exactly our attitude. We know coffee – we don’t know tea. We’ve found a tea retailer who we feel does a great job, and we partner with them. All loose leaf teas (wholesale or direct to retail customers) are sent out in the packaging for the tea retailer.

Thank you for your reply.

I am glad to hear your company believes in nurturing close business relationships; even though it can take considerable time and effort, in my experience it’s worth it in the end. I am also glad to hear the tea is sent out to your customers in it’s original packaging.

It’s good too, to hear that Coffee can work hand-in-hand (or shall we say, bean-to-leaf) with Tea. Life for me is much about seeing the win-win in every situation.

Roland said

Close relationships can absolutely bring huge advantages. I don’t want to bore about coffee instead of tea, but for example, it’s absolutely true that our close relationships with coffee farmers have allowed us to discover some incredibly interesting and tasty coffees and to learn a lot about the impact of processing/plant varietals/etc. on flavour.

Thank you for starting the thread and thanks to Gingko too – it’s very interesting reading. This is the first thread I’ve commented on, but I look forward to talking more about tea and less about coffee in the future ;)

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Usually there is no way one can know exactly. But theoretically, tea direct from source should have the best price among teas of the same type and same quality – maybe not absolutely the best since different sellers have different level of operational costs. But it should be among the best. Otherwise, buying form source is no longer that meaningful to a consumer. If a tea direct from the source is of low quality, then it’s nothing special to buyers. If a tea direct from source is of higher than market price, then unless it supports some very special charity or cause, it’s nothing special to buyers. So I think ultimately buyers have to judge a tea by its quality prior to any other background information (unless it has to do with social/environment justice that buyers would like to pay for).

Talking about coffee, our current household coffee is from Guatemala. It’s roasted in Houston, TX and shipped from there by a contractor of the coffee plantation, so it’s quite convenient for us to buy. My husband discovered this plantation on his bicycling trip and he literally biked into the plantation, saw around and tasted the coffee – he has poor taste of coffee, if I may say so :-p but even he could tell it was good :-p So this is how we know our coffee is directly from the plantation. But it’s a rather rare scenario. After all, what’s the chance, even for a traveler, of bumping into a coffee plantation and spending the time to see around. But we like our current coffee much better than our previous purchase from Trader Joe’s (whose coffee we already liked a lot) and the price is almost the same. So we think even without my husband’s visiting, we would still believe it’s a direct trade coffee because of its quality and price.

Thank you for your response. I feel honored to get such detailed responses from those with an ‘inside view’!

What you posted is very interesting, Gingko. Much of what you said was what I suspected, but I had no experience or data to back it up. It certainly makes sense that the closer to the source you are, the less expensive the tea should be. But, as you allude to in your response, I suspect price is not the only indicator of the number of hands the tea has passed through. Take Verdant Teas, for example. Their teas are what I consider to be on the pricy side, but my understanding is that he works directly with the farmers (for some of his teas, at least). I have also heard that it takes more work, hassle, etc., to work directly with smaller farms in China than it does to work with the larger government sponsored tea gardens/estates/farms (or whatever you call them). I’m not saying the extra effort it requires to work with smaller farms directly translates to a higher price, but I could see how it could (especially if it takes considerably more time and effort).

My understanding is the last two sentences of your first paragraph are a reference to fair traded teas? That certainly seems to be a tricky topic. I am willing to pay a fair price for tea, but how do I know the increase in price (over non-fair traded teas) does not simply go to lining the pockets of the tea retailer? I am guessing that is why there is a kind of certification for fair trade (as there is with organic), such that some independent organization provides legitimacy to the claim that the product is what it advertizes it is (Fair Trade, organic, etc.).

I loved reading about your husband’s discovery of the coffee plantation. That’s about as ideal as I would hope to get: to first hand be able to see and experience where the product is being grown and/or manufactured. And it certainly substantiates your theory that lower cost oftentimes means the you are closer to the source.

SimpliciTea, you always raise interesting topics! :-)
I didn’t have any experience with tea from Verdant Tea. But since you mentioned it, I took a look at their website. My impression is, they are one of the small number of North American tea sellers that offer some unique teas. For example, the teas from Laoshan and Songyang, those are good teas that are relatively less known. Usually if a seller has already gone that far to source unique teas, there is good chance that they offer tea of very high quality. A direct-trade high quality tea may have much less profit margin than a mass-production low quality tea, although the latter is less expensive on price tag.

When I mentioned “social justice”, I didn’t specifically refer to fair-trade. But it could be an option. A buyer may choose to buy an expensive tea, and it can be good deal as well as the buyer is aware of what costs the extra price, whether it’s high quality, or advocating an important cause, or a good shopping environment, or good customer service.

I’m glad you like the topics raised. : – )

It’s too bad that the high quality teas have a much lower profit margin, as it doesn’t seem to encourage selling high end teas.

Regarding “social justice” I have to say, the closer I look at the tea business, the more complex it seems—in that looking for teas with the lowest price is not always the way to go (at least for me). Dealing with either you at Life in Teacup, or David at Verdant Teas for example certainly has its rewards, in that it makes buying the tea more meaningful than buying it from some unnamed employee in some mall.

What really amazes me is that in any business, the people ‘manning the front lines’ rarely really know what they’re selling. It seems like it’s too easy for me to ask questions they can’t answer, and furthermore, they usually aren’t able to bring anything meaningful to my experience of buying from them. That’s why I buy almost all of my tea from smaller online shops like yours (although haven’t bought anything from you yet, I hope to come this summer when my current stock is low).

It seems you are always willing to chime in with relevant and meaningful information and/or insight to many of the discussions out here. Thank you for being willing to step into this conversation. : D

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This also reminds me of a phenomenon in the tea production area of Hangzhou, the hometown of Long Jing. When tourists go to tea production districts such as Long Jing Village or surrounding villages, they would probably see a lot of “salespersons”. All of them would claim themselves local tea farmers and invite tourists to their homes to taste and buy teas. Some of them are real farmers, but some of them are hired salespersons who would take a big cut of the sales price (some say it’s as much as 50%). If you go with the first type, you will go through some tasting and bargaining, and buy tea made by local families. If you go with the second type, you will go through some tasting and bargaining, and buy tea, hopefully, made by local families, and your final price contains 50% or so as commission to the salespersons. Then you can expect to pay a lot more than the price of the first type.

So even when you are right in the tea producing region, it’s not always clear whether a tea is directly from a farmer or a cut is taken by a middle man. Besides, it’s not always clear whether the tea is from local. So one can only rely on the quality and price of a tea to judge it.

It’s true for tea and a lot of other things. I’ve seen a lot of “made in USA”, “made in Italy” sort of things actually made in China, and only transported to the States or Europe to put on labels or the last few buttons. If it’s $50 jeans, I’m ok with it. But some designers’ manufactures do this and sell their products for unbelievable prices that I would never want to pay. Some people would pay such level of prices for “made in Italy” but not “made in China”. But seeing all this just makes me think, how do we know where it was made, by the label?

Again, wow! I LOVE hearing stories about how things are actually done in China!

The hired salespersons take as much as 50% of the sales price, huh? Interesting. I wonder though, hiring someone else to do what the farmer could potentially do shouldn’t necessarily increase the price of the tea. I am sure it’s more complicate than this but, the way I see it, if the farmer represents himself, he is getting all of the profit—rather than sharing it with someone else. And if hiring someone else means less time/effort on the part of the farmer, and potentially more sales (if the salesperson is more skilled at selling tea than the farmer is), than having someone represent him wouldn’t necessarily translate to a higher price charged for the tea, since he’s simply paying someone else to do the work he would do (and get paid for).

If I were a potential buyer, would it be possible for me to actually go to the farm to verify that the person is the direct source, rather than some middle-person, or a hired salesperson? Or, after outright asking them if they are the actual farmer, and if they claim they are and happen to know enough about tea farms, I would think that I could ask them enough questions to determine if they are the actual farmer. I don’t know, just thinking.

I don’t think I have ever heard that story of companies being able to label things as “Made in the USA” after taking a product made elsewhere and making some basically trivial modification/addition to it while in the USA (as in adding a button or two to a piece of clothing). Amazing. This story just reminds me of how important for me as a consumer building trust with the manufacturer is, or at least looking for some kind of credible certifying organization that puts their stamp on the product. I prefer cultivating more direct relationships with the manufacturers/suppliers/tea retailers than to rely on some third party to authenticate things for me, though. It is interesting conversation (if this can be considered a conversation, that is!) and good food for thought.

Thank you so much, Gingko, for sharing your experiences and your insights with us! : – )

Will said

Yes, you can verify that the person is actually a tea farmer, but how do you verify that the tea you’re buying is actually from their farm? This is where trust and relationships (over a period of time) become important.

DukeGus said

I thank you too for the information Gingko, can’t wait to read all the thread!
Simplicitea you always start amazing topics!!!

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Long Jing is actually a jungle :-p It could be quite complicated. For example, you may get teas in two families, both for $200, but the two teas might be of two different quality grade, then the lower grade on has greater profit margin. Some salespersons are hired because they know how to sell a tea for a very high price. Some farmers have to hire them if they are not located on a high traffic street and need someone to attract tourists to their homes. There are also better salespersons and worse ones. So in recent years, most tea professionals would suggest tourists not to buy tea on the tourism site and buy tea in a reputable tea store instead. It’s a little paradoxical, though, visiting the tea producing site but buying tea away from it :-p

Yeah its too bad buying in a store is what’s recommended. But then again, most tourists probably aren’t very knowledgeable about what their buying. If I ever get a chance to visit China, I may very well take my chances by visiting the farms and try my luck there (I guess I would have to learn the language first though!).

DukeGus said

“If I ever get a chance to visit China, I may very well take my chances by visiting the farms and try my luck there”

It would be a dream for me too, going to China and mainly drinking tea, not so much buying very big quantities… It’s sad that people here in Greece have no idea what tea is and like 99,99% of them just drink random bagged tea(mainly lipton brand……)

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Excelsior said

This brings to mind a question I have about the sourcing of teas.

Are there instances where Tea Estates will set aside some of their best pickings and only allow a few special customers to taste them?
I’ve spoken with the Manager of Mariage Freres of Japan and the General Manager of Mariage Freres of France and have received the same answer “yes.” They stated they are willing to purchase exceptional teas at a higher price and in larger volumes than other tea retailers. Therefore, many estates will reserve their best picking only for Mariage Freres to taste. I had thought I was only the few, among their large customer base, wilingl to pay 30+ Euros for their premium Darjeeling teas. Yet in Japan, they will sell out in two weeks and will contact France for more supply. So they do sell large volumes of tea, even at their high price points . Mariage Freres France will purchase enough of the 1st flush Darjeelings to supply all of their stores in Japan and France for a full year. They sell over 25 straight (unflavored) 1st flush Darjeelings. Some from estates I have never even heard of except from Mariage. . What happens to the remaining tea when the new 1st flush for a new year arrive? I have no idea and it never occurred to me to ask that question. Maybe they are sold off to other retailers to sell as their own brand.

I ask about the special allotments because their 1st flush teas are exceptional in flavor, taste, aroma, and quality. I often order 1st flush teas from other online tea retailers yet I continually find myself disappointed. The 1st flush Darjeelings from Mariage Freres never disappoint. There are commonalities in thel flavor/flavor/aroma/taste among all the Mariage Freres 1st flush Darjeelings, yet they are all unique in their own ways. I have tasted many of their 1st flush teas, Moondakotee, Namring, Namring Upper, Castleton, Bloomfield, Margaret’s Hope, Jungpana, Puttabong. Even when comparing 1st flush (MF) Castelton to 1st flush (T) Castleton Moonlight, or 1st flush (MF) Margaret’s Hope to 1st flush (U) Margaret’s Hope, Mariage frères teas are in a different class, a class all by itself.

As for the price, the Mariage Freres teas are considerably more expensive, and while the less expensive flavored teas are offered by many retailers in the US, their premium high prices straight teas are not. Therefore, there no reviews on their premium 1st flush Darjeelings on this site, or Tea Chat, or Rate and I have a single review on any site on the internet. You will find though, reviews on their flavored teas.

So I repeat the question, will some estates reserve their best pickings only to allow a few select customers to taste them? It may be hard to believe but trying teas from so many other various retailers online, in Japan and in the US, I do believe the answer from Mariage Freres Japan and Mariage Freres France.

Sorry to be off topic.

I think what you said about Mariage Freres and what SimpliciTea said about Verdant Tea in terms of their being expensive both refer to the absolute price. But when compared with tea of the same quality level, they are not necessarily expensive. A very obvious fact that sometimes escapes from people’s mind is, the $3 per box teabags from supermarkets are really expensive, because each box contains only 20g of chopped tea leaves that may not worth even 5 cents.

cteresa said

That was a very interesting post, thank you! I drink tea from a different league, but I also have a great fondness for MF, everything about their teas feels right to me and like they do take their tea very seriously.

I am a cynic, and will give you my opinion, in any business where you sell things, there are always clients which are special : ones which are willing to pay better, do not delay payments, have been clients for a long time and likely will be for much more time again or preferrably all three of these. Also I do believe if clients are pro-active about buying on trust on seen and imposing different quality procedures, might make a difference. So yeah, i got no problem believing that in any business, some clients are more special than others.

Excelsior: That, is a very interesting question you bring up: do some farms/sourcing-agents give priority to some tea retailers over others?

Gingko: I agree with your teabag example. My understanding is that people buy those for any number of reasons; I am guessing a few are: tea bags are convenient, those who buy them haven’t experienced how rewarding it is to take the extra time and effort to brew loose leaf tea, they aren’t aware of other options (that was me until recently).

cteresa: I agree with your last statement, and I would use a different word than, ‘special’, where you do (which I bring up below).

This brings up an interesting point for me, namely that there are some people/companies who deserve ‘special’ treatment. When it comes down to it—as many of you have brought up—the reason they ‘deserve’ it is because of their prior actions; they, for example, consistently demonstrate responsible actions in their business dealings. It never ceases to amaze me how, the way things in my classroom are run, seems to mirror, the way things are run in the adult world—or the business world. The concept that some people deserve special treatment has been something I’ve struggled with for quite awhile in my teaching career (over 15 years).

So, I would like to offer up a little side story to help illustrate my point. As a teacher I have finally come to feel comfortable with treating some students differently than others. I do not treat them differently based on their sex, race, age, or socioeconomic status. I do, however, differentiate based on their actions and their need. To me, that’s not only fair, it what makes for a thriving society. When some coveted opportunity comes up in the classroom (for example, running an errand for me outside of the classroom, like making copies) I choose some students over others based on their actions that relate to the task at hand—mostly on their very recent actions (for example, knowing where the copy room is, being able to move about the school without getting sidetracked, etc.). When I explain up front what I expect of them, and what the consequences for their particular actions will be, I find that—although I occasionally encounter expressions of momentary disappointment from those students who weren’t selected—in the end everyone is satisfied.

So, bringing this back to Tea, as cteresa mentioned, those companies who have the cash, do not delay payments, who have been clients for a long time, have integrity in all of their communications, etc., deserve ‘special’ treatment. Although, I would rather say something like, they ‘earned’ certain privileges, based on merit, or their past actions (just like getting a drivers license in the US: driving is a privilege, which can be taken away as a consequence of our actions).

Well, it makes sense to me, anyway. : )

Excelsior said

Is it a matter of “deserve” or “earning” the right to receive special treatment? I would like to rephrase what I wrote earlier. Perhaps it is more of a mutual trust relationship. Possibly, even a very strong friendship. Why? Because a friendship based on trust, understanding, honesty will go beyond just simply earning or deserving. It will outlast lifetimes as Mariage Freres, founded in 1854, has over 150 years in the tea industry.

I buy tea from Mariage not because they deserve or have earned anything. I buy tea from them because of the relationship/friendship I have developed with their staff. I know I can trust the advice and suggestions and I have yet to be disappointed on my expectations of the tea I buy at such a high price.

To answer your question you have asked on another post, yest they have steered me away from certain teas on a number of occasions. Most recently they steered me away from 2011 FF Ambootia and Happy Valley. They commented that both are excellent with their Summer flushes, yet he suggested the 2011 FF Jungpana SFTGFOP1 which was less expensive than the afore mentioned teas.

Thank you for your reply.

The written word (and the nature of the time-delay in responses on blogs) is both incredibly powerful, and yet so limiting in terms of it’s ability to truly convey one’s thoughts and feelings. When I was writing what I wrote above, I myself was questioning the validity/accuracy of what I was writing; but I was unable at the time to ferret out what it was I didn’t like about it, so I kept it as is. I agree relationships are at the core of what’s important (not only in terms of who to buy tea from, but in Life). I see trust as something that can be earned, and something which is fundamental to building relationships. For example, I personally don’t give freely of my time, money, etc. to just anyone that asks. I give it to those that have earned it. Of course, building trust usually happens in very small steps over time, because those on either sides have to take risks before anything can be earned. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg: which one comes first: do you first just blindly trust, or do others ‘earn’ your trust, first? Without getting too philosophical, I see it as BOTH/AND. Now, I understand you may not like the word, ‘earn’, in this context, but based on what you have written, I think we are in agreement.

And thank you for answering my question. Especially when someone sells lots of products (i.e. 500 teas), those businesses that are willing to admit not everything they sell is right for me helps ‘build’ or ‘earn’ the trust I think we are both here writing about. : )

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This is an interesting conversation, and one that doesn’t get brought up enough.

To answer your question Excelsior, yes, many factories have “forward contracts” with bigger tea companies. The large company “X” can pre-purchase the entire harvest for a given season from garden “Y” before the tea is even produced. I don’t know too much about Mariage Freres, but most of the time, this is done by companies that are not interested in the best quality. They are more interested in having an exclusive tea. If they buy all the first flush from a given estate, no one else can say that they have this tea as well. It is mostly a marketing strategy. If they were really concerned with quality, they would choose their teas every season based on samples from the producers. That being said, if you like their first flush, no reason to change – stick with it!

As far as the general question of direct sourcing, it all comes down to trust. There is no way to be sure that something has been sourced as directly as possible. Price is not a true indicator because quality, type, and seasonality are so varied. The best thing to do is talk to the merchant. Do they know exactly where this tea is from? The season it was harvested? Have they been there? Even if they can answer these kinds of questions, it doesn’t mean anything is for certain. Ultimately you have to trust them and build a relationship with them that you feel good about. This goes for buyers too. It is difficult(near impossible) to visit every garden you want to buy tea from every season in a given tea producing country. Therefore, most of the time, the buyer needs someone on the ground they trust. This contact can then visit the different gardens and make decisions about the best teas that season. The buyer can then visit this contact person every year or two to strengthen this one relationship instead of relationships with 50 different farmers. This is especially true in China. I don’t know of any importer that buys all of their Chinese teas directly from each individual farmer. Having that trusted contact in a tea country is why you buy from a shop you trust. This is also why tourists buying tea in the hills outside Hangzhuo don’t always get a great deal, that salesperson isn’t trying to foster a relationship, they’re just trying to make a sale.

And just my 2 cents about fair trade; the nature of tea production and the price of high quality tea makes fair trade certification mostly meaningless. The only place it may make a difference would be in large scale commercial production of low quality tea for the mass market(i.e. bad tea bags). If you are drinking high quality tea, you need not worry.

Uniquity said

As to your first point, Davids Tea has one of those sorts of teas. I believe it is the Nepal black? They purchase the entire field (theoretically) so only they can carry that exact tea. They charge quite a bit for it, by Davids’ black tea pricing standards.

I very much agree with you on your opinions of fair trade certification mostly meaningless in top notch tea.

I also know some farms previously held hostage by middle men, mostly due to transportation problems (such as in the Mountainous region of Anhui and Jiang Xi). But modern technology has helped a lot, both in giving farmers power to reach more buyers, and in making buyers better informed. I think that’s the overall trend.

Mao Mao Lao Shi: Thank you for your insights and wisdom.

What you stated above supports what I have basically come to around this particular issue (of sourcing): building trust through various avenues over time (direct contact with the seller via email or over the phone, references through reviews or word-of-mouth, etc.) seems the best way to not only get access to the freshest and highest quality teas, but to create meaningful exchanges between buyer, seller, and farmer (and anyone else in-between).

I like this too: “This is also why tourists buying tea in the hills outside Hangzhuo don’t always get a great deal, that salesperson isn’t trying to foster a relationship, they’re just trying to make a sale.” Very good point.

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Will said

You don’t, but the price:quality ratio will probably be a partial clue. Also, vendors who have a social, linguistic, or cultural connection to the area they’re buying tea from will probably have some advantages in buying teas from this area. Markup varies, and some buyers are better negotiators than others, so there’s a lot more than just how many hands a tea has passed through that influences the final cost.

Developing trust and relationships with your tea vendors is also important. There are exceptions, but I tend to be skeptical of vendors who talk about “their” tea farm in (insert tea producing country here).

I buy tea from several vendors who I’m pretty sure do not always buy direct from the farmer, however, I buy from them because their teas are consistently excellent, and because I trust their taste in tea.

I share your skepticism about saying “their” tea farm, especially when it’s about Chinese tea – because no foreign companies can own tea farms in China, and most of the best tea is not even from farms owned by Chinese companies, but from farms owned by families/village co-ops. It’s not that I don’t believe the tea is directly from the farm, but I feel a bit uncomfortable about the egoism in the claim. I think it would be more appropriate to call the farms “their contract-bound/partnership tea farms”.

There are exceptions (but very few). For example, the 101 Company, an American company that has long-term land lease in Yunnan to produce puerh, I think it’s ok for them to call the land “their farm”. It’s leased, but it’s under their management. A lot of other cases where the tea vendor is much less involved in cultivation/management can’t be called farm ownership. But oh well, I guess different people just have different definitions/standards.

Will: I like this: “… so there’s a lot more than just how many hands a tea has passed through that influences the final cost.” I agree. And I am with you on your last statement, too. It’s not all about buying direct.

The common theme in all of these responses seems to be the necessity of building trust; trust in taste, quality, freshness, organic, fair trade, the best price, you-name-it. It’s about knowing what we value in a tea retailer, testing the waters by engaging a number of them, and finally placing trust in the ones you like the best. It takes lots of time, but it seems to be worth it in the end, doesn’t it?

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david said

We are currently working on our tea business and have been in discussions with various farms and providers out of Asia. After having discussed with over a dozen farms/farmers and had multiple discussions with our direct connection in Asia who knows the landscape, it’s pretty obvious within tasting a couple of their teas who is being honest and who isn’t when compared to pricing.

I also echo the others on here, the price:quality ratio will be evident. Personally, at the end of the day, quality>everything else.

Do you have any specific examples of this: “… it’s pretty obvious within tasting a couple of their teas who is being honest and who isn’t when compared to pricing.” Not the names of sources, just details like, one particular grade 3 Dragonwell lot of tea at cost X from source A had very similar quality as source B’s grade 3 Dragonwell with a much higher cost.

david said

Dragonwell is very tricky. You can find dragonwell in Asia from $10 a kg to $200 a kg. From there it’s all up to your taste. Some “grades” are not very representative of the quality. For example I tried a $200/kg dragonwell and then tried a 3rd grade of another farmer/source and it was much better. It really all depends on your taste.

Thank for your reply.

btw, I am curious, can you tell me what, and where, is that in the background of your avatar?

david said

Thanks …

What a beautiful church!

david said

it’s amazing.

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Excelsior said

Mariage Freres was established in 1854 which is around the same periods as when the first Darjeeling Tea Plantations were established.

Having been in the tea retail business for over 100 years, they should have long standing relationships with numerous tea estates and developing trust being in the industry for so many years. With the history that they have, with the sheer volume of the tea they buy, as a returning customer year after year, as a tea retailer that has brand name recognition in Europe, Asia, and North America, it would make sense to treat them as a “special” customer. So maybe the do get preferential treatment and have access to teas not offered to other retailers. They always have FF teas offered by only a handful of retailers, FF Bloomfield, FF Namring, FF Namring Upper, FF Moondakotee, FF Sivitar, FF Singbulli, FF Balsun, FF Mullootar, FF Gielle, FF Springside, FF Orange Valley, FF Monteviot, FF Nurbong, FF Poomong, FF Chamling and teas from well known estates, FF Marget’s Hope, FF Castleton, FF Jungpana, FF Arya, FF Ambootia, FF Happy Valley, FF Risheehat, FF Puttabong, and so many others.

They may not visit each vendor yet I know they have large teams of tea experts, professional tea brokers, tasting as many teas as possible, to purchase the best teas from each season. I once asked the manager in Japan if he had tasted all 500 teas they carry. He replied he has. He also replied he personally tastes hundreds of teas each year, as with all teas in any estate or farm, their taste will change based on the many variables that willl affect the taste of the tea each year. He will only recommend teas he has tasted and the teas he felt were worth of the Mariage Freres Brand Name.

I often complain about their prices, yet as I purchase 4 shipments of tea each year for personal consumption, they are worth every penny of their high price. Their online customer service department is top notch and the teas always arrive within 7 days from the date of purchase. France to California.

How amazing that the manager of Mariage Freres in Japan tried all 500 teas! Has he ever steered you away from a particular tea?

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I just thought of something else. Buying directly can be defined as buying directly from who produces the tea (farmers) or buying directly from the region (e.g. from first hand dealers). I know this man who gets top notch Lu Shan Yun Wu from its producing region. He gathers several pounds of harvest from each of the half dozen plantations he visits. I think buying from him is quite “direct” even though he is not a tea farmer. A Chinese retailer told me for this specific tea, he would rather buy from this dealer than from farmers. First because he knows this man well and admires him. Secondly, each farmer provide only a few pounds of first-day harvest tea, and quality and quantity could both vary from year to year (for example, last year most new tea buds were frost-killed in quite a few plantations). But this dealer maintains a fair standard for price and quality, which helps minimize the fluctuation of quality on the retailer’s end.

Some teas can only be obtained directly from the source (either from farmer or first-hand dealer). When I visit online tea stores, sometimes I see teas that are only offered by few (less than 5) vendors in this country. By the nature of these teas (small production, rare, and/or lack of market hype to drive high traffic/high profits), I would know wholesale importers and exporters wouldn’t be interested in these teas and the vendors must have some direct connection to get them.

You bring up a good point in your first paragraph. “I think buying from him is quite ‘direct’ even though he is not a tea farmer.” And you give a great illustration as to why it makes more sense to buy from him rather than from the actual farmers, too.

Do you have an example of a tea you mention in the second paragraph? I guess you are saying that the tea is so hard to find you know the tea retailers gets that tea direct from the source?

Generally if a tea is a high quality tea, and is not offered by more than 5 vendors in the country, you know that the tea can’t be from a generic wholesaler or a generic exporter from its home country. Not all those teas are that hard to find, but there are virtually a few to several thousand commonly consumed tea varieties (made from different cultivars or eco-types, not including flavored tea made from the same base tea). Generic exporters and wholesalers would only cover the best known ones and most profitable ones. The rest are up to those who care to obtain.

Thanks for your reply.

What you posted makes sense.

I checked out the Lu Shan Yun Wu you offer on your website (which I guess is the very same tea you refer to above). Wow, I realize everything is relative, and I’m not saying it’s not worth the price, but that tea is EXPENSIVE! I’d have to get tons of re-steeps out of it to justify my buying it (like about 20). Still, I do like that you off a 8 gram sample size for not much more (per unit) than the standard 25 gram size. And it definitely looks like a beautiful tea!

DukeGus said

I think the closest to the farmers I(and most people living in far away countries from China/Taiwan/etc) can get is what Gingko describes. First hand that is. I wish I could get directly from the farmers but I’m so far away and it’s not like I could every find money to travel to china to get tea or anything similar…

Nevertheless, it’s that way for me. I mainly buy from a beautiful woman in Taiwan and she sends me pictures of many stuff like where she buys, farmers, plantations etc. I guess having a proper relationship with the person you buy is the best thing, both because you can get much cheaper and higher quality tea and you know what person you are dealing with. If the person really loves tea and his job you can tell! And they should be able to provide photos of the farmers and other stuff like that.

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