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

54 Replies

Hi SimpliciTEA – good question, and a long answer!

Just so you know, I run a tea company called minrivertea.com and we’re one of the only small tea vendors actually full-time based in China. So, with the full disclosure out of the way… :)

If for a moment we were talking about French cheese (instead of tea), and I ran a shop selling ‘authentic, hand-crafted, artisan cheese’ at luxury-level prices, then I think there’d be a reasonable expectation from my customers that I was in France at least once a year, visiting my cheese makers, speaking French with them, learning, understanding, and quality controlling all of my ‘exceptional’ products.

Switch back to tea, and I think one of the most remarkable things is that we have hundreds of small retailers each offering 100’s of varieties of tea, from all corners of China, supposedly all ‘hand-made’, ‘direct from the farm’ etc., and yet a tiny number of the owners actually visit China regularly and can speak Chinese. How many retailers out there imply that they have access to incredible, rare and special teas at special prices from secret tea masters, and yet can’t speak a word of Chinese? Most of those retailers aren’t buying in volumes that allow for professional translators, negotiators or permanent sourcing specialists, so if the bosses aren’t doing that sourcing themselves, visiting farms once or twice a year, then who is?

There’s a few companies like mine (mouyateas.com, wildqitea) who are here in China actually on the ground, and a few others that are doing a better job from afar (Life in Teacup, cantonteaco to name a couple I like), but otherwise the mind boggles – if you’re not in China doing that all-important sourcing work, then the likelihood is that its coming from wholesalers, alibaba or similar. It doesn’t mean the quality is definitely bad, it just makes the ‘direct from the farm’ idea a little less reliable.

I guess then the other thing is that “direct from the farm” is in fact relatively meaningless (it’s on my website, so I’m just as guilty as others). It’s actually not hard to find a farm – there are hundreds of farms and most of the time, they’re happy to sell to anyone, especially if you’re paying the right price. It’s even easier to find a huge farm who can make many varieties of tea in a single farm. Your tea could be coming direct from the farm, but its no guarantee of quality.

So as a customer, I guess you have to find a company that is consistently on-the-ground and living/sleeping/breathing tea, and then learn by trial and error who is retailing the most reliable quality tea.

About the specialty vendor should spend time in the producing country at least once a year, I feel I both agree and disagree.

Agree, obviously, one should be enthusiastic about the subject and keep updated about the market trend in order to be a specialty vendor.

On the other hand, if I were a buyer – this is primarily based on imagination and may not reflect thoughts of other buyers, since I rarely bought tea from within the States – but if I were a buyer, this would be what I think:
1. I would love to buy tea from vendors in producing regions, such as your shop, and shops like teaspring.com or yunnansourcing.com, or producer I know in China.
2. There are more and more good, small tea vendors in US that focus on top notch tea. I would love to buy from them. Then whether or not I like the fact they travel once a year to tea producing region would depend on how much the travel expense is reflected by tea price. Traveling to China is more and more expensive nowadays. The flight fare today is roughly 3 times as much as 5 years ago. As far as I know, in the States, small tea business is not that profitable to support too much of international traveling. I close up my store once or twice a year for my vacation in China. I would meet tea people there and visit tea farms. But my traveling is primarily family-orientated instead of tea-oriented. I wouldn’t announce it to customers either that I would go tea-traveling, because the traveling expense is not supported by my tea business and I wouldn’t want people to think so.
But I’m on part-time basis for my tea business (and I know quite a few runners of small specialty tea businesses in the States are on part-time basis too). So the situation would probably be quite different for larger businesses run by full-time employees.

DukeGus said

What Gingko says in part 1. I find it totally correct as a buyers philosophy.

I mostly try to buy tea from companies/people that live in the country that the tea is produced. Though small companies like verdant teas that I have tasted had very good quality of tea, but much more expensive than knowing a person in China and buying top quality tea from him.

Thank you, minrivertea , for clarifying who you are.

I appreciate your valuable perspective.

These comments are especially enlightening: “It’s even easier to find a huge farm who can make many varieties of tea in a single farm.” Wow; very interesting. “Your tea could be coming direct from the farm, but its no guarantee of quality.” That is a very good point. Like with all things, one particular quality—as in ‘direct from the farm’—may add value to the buyer (as it does for me) but it’s not the end-all, be-all. There are clearly other things to consider, too.

You make a very good point, too, Gingko, in your #2 above regarding the fact that traveling to the source adds extra expense (if you are doing it primarily for your business, that is) to providing quality tea. This is too bad: “The flight fare today is roughly 3 times as much as 5 years ago.” Wow.

DukeGus: This is probably as about as close to ideal as you can get: " … knowing a person in China and buying top quality tea from him." It sounds like (from your response elsewhere) you have a good contact in Taiwan. That’s great!

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52teas said

My two cents worth:

The idea that getting the tea directly from the source makes it cheaper is actually a fallacy. I could get tea directly from the source, and pay so much for shipping that it would be 2-3 times more expensive than getting it from the importers I currently work with.

This may sound strange, but it’s true. I’ve looked into it on several occasions. The fact is, my west coast importer purchases tea in quantities large enough to fill containers on a ship, and their transport costs are a small fraction of their total cost. Of course, they have to wait longer than any retailer would like to wait for anything, so they have to plan their purchases and monitor their inventory closely, but that’s what they do.

I looked into directly importing honeybush, and unless you are ordering container-sized quantities, you end up paying more for shipping than you would for the honeybush itself.

good point – a US based tea-friend said he found wholesalers in America selling tea cheaper than he could find it in China! The economies of scale via wholesalers does make sense sometimes.

Do you think it’s just a compromise or balance though? You’re paying less, but you have less control over the actual source, you’re also paying someone else’s markup/profit, and the tea is spending 4-6 weeks at sea rather than a few days in the air.

I think this depends on the type of goods. I’ve bought some high quality herbal tea (such as rose bud, goji, longan) from Canada-based wholesalers and the deal is indeed much better than if I get them from China and pay the shipping. Even in the retailing market of Canada (e.g. Toronto Chinese stores), some high quality goods (herbal medicine, herbs, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits…) are no expensive than what they are in China. I am often amazed by this and don’t know how those Canadian wholesalers did it! :-D

On the other hand, for most teas I handle, the closer to the source, the better price I could get. More importantly, the closer to the source, the better quality I can get (this is more important because price difference in China is much less significant than price difference in the States).

Besides, there are teas that can hardly be obtained from the producing province or even the producing county. And there are teas like Shi Feng Long Jing that one needs to have very special skills or connections to get the best stuff. Example of special skill – chasing the reputable farmer like hunting dogs. Example of special connection – being the buddy of the farmer’s uncle. Yeah I’m kidding, but only half kidding :-p

DukeGus said

If you go and check the shipping costs that most sites from China(I use jkteashop as an examples) you can see they are insignificant.

I mean 1,56$ for 100gr parcel? So I guess in countries like China you could shipping costs is nothing, I don’t know about other countries… Of course buying from people that get like 20kg of tea might be cheaper but I guess that would mainly apply to medium-low quality tea because I guess you can’t find 20kg of highest quality tea very easily :)

52Teas: Thank you for that very illuminating example!

It’s too bad the shipping costs so much.

Thanks for your two cents, Fifty Two Teas!

minrivertea: I agree, it is definitely a compromise: giving up control for a price break.

Gingko: Your Canadian examples are also very interesting. I would not have guessed some things that are made in China would actually be cheaper in Canada.

This makes sense: " the closer to the source, the better quality I can get."

“Example of special skill – chasing the reputable farmer like hunting dogs. ": how funny! I can only imagine …

DukeGus:Wow, those shipping costs get up there, don’t they?

Good point:: “… I guess that would mainly apply to medium-low quality tea because I guess you can’t find 20kg of highest quality tea very easily”

Ahh, the intricacies of selling and buying tea. I’ve learned a bunch from this thread. And, it’s interesting conversation, isn’t it?

DukeGus said

Yeah, tt’s very interesting conversation and I really loved that many people that are in the business shared info, cheers to you all guys!!

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David Lau said

To bring in a different perspective, one could always ask the business where their tea comes from. Where it really comes from. I never have a problem telling customers, or anyone interested for that matter, where the teas I sell come from.

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