I just got back from a visit to the office in Hong Kong to see Jack, my brother in law who runs it. I also visited some customers in Malaysia and growers in Sri Lanka. It was a great trip and I can’t pretend I was delighted to be back in the cold of London.
Visiting Sri Lanka or India always makes me think more about the differences between the tea industry there and the Chinese tea industry. All three countries produce some fantastic teas - that’s irrefutable. However, when you spend time in Sri Lanka you get a sense its tea industries original purpose – mass production – has made tea available to people all over the world but has also proved limiting in terms of quality. Tea is produced all year round more or less. It's very standardized. Many gardens respond to the monthly or weekly demands of the market in terms of leaf size and taste rather than simply aim to do one thing spectacularly well.
Mass market teas are produced like this in China, although not all year round. However, the uniqueness and beauty of the Chinese tea industry is that there are so many regions and countless extremely high quality specialist producers in each who have been maintained and fostered by the demands of the local market. Of course, there are some producers like this in India and Sri Lanka but it is the exception rather than commonplace.
My life is very much centered around appreciating foreign cultures and I would not be doing what I do now without export of cultures and products. Ironically though, I have become more and more aware that many of the world’s greatest food (and tea) cultures have been maintained and protected by the demands of their local markets. To some extent, the stubbornness and almost dogmatic way in which local markets want something to be made a particular way (for centuries) is exactly what keeps the culture and expertise in tact.
These days, everyone in business (and even in food business) talks about innovation. I think innovation is great, I love to have the latest technology. Simple innovations to the tea industry such as specialist machinery, packing and storage methods have greatly improved the tea quality but many traditional methods still remain, (for example hand firing, charcoal roasting) simply because they are the best way and there are people who demand the best.
When I drink tea I think of how, in this world of technical innovation, our teas are produced by old methods whether it’s the firing of our Big Red Robe and Iron Arhat over charcoal in tiny batches, our Anji Bai Cha is meticulously hand laid out, almost leaf by leaf to wither on bamboo trays, and how many of our pu erh teas are picked from ancient wild tea trees in the jungles of the south of Yunnan Province. It makes the tea taste even better.