So we started off last evening’s tea tasting by confessing that this was going to be as much a conversation about organic and biodynamic teas, and where they actually fit in the tea story – ours personally, our customers’, and where they fit in within the context of tea, from daily tea to speciality tea.
Iwan and Carissa spent the summer picking grapes in Germany, on a natural vineyard, lots of bugs, wildlife, and the resultingly amazing different wines, that had nothing added – not even yeast, and nothing taken away – seriously clean farming. I joined them after the harvest and got fired up about how this method of farming also applied to tea. After my trip to Japan, I was already getting more into the idea that we should be moving towards organic farming, but really knew very little about it. So we started off last night confessing our ignorance, and hoping that the people who had come along, might be there because they’re interested in organic and biodynamic farming, and could add to our knowledge.
Tea as a crop is thousands of years old, originally growing as trees in forests of tea trees probably in Yunnan, and families would tend to their own trees, picking leaves, and making their own tea, mostly for medicinal purposes. In fact, the story of the origin of tea as a drink is of the man who sat down after battle, boiled some water, and a leaf fell from the tree into his hot water, hence the first cup of tea! The story of how tea came to be a worldwide drink has many versions, one being that tea plants and seeds were smuggled out of the country, and eventually were grown in other countries. The British were a significant factor there and established huge plantations in India and Africa with commercial production of tea in India beginning with the arrival of the British East India Company, at which point large tracts of land were converted for mass tea production.
So tea went from being a wild plant, living in a biodiverse environment, where the geography, climate, other plants, in other words, the terroir, resulted in a very different drink each year, and on different sides of the same mountain, to a monoculture, where consistency and volume were the main requirements. In order to achieve the maximum crop, tasting exactly the same from one harvest to the next, it was necessary to eliminate all those things which create the difference. The only way to do this is by controlling the environment.
We started by welcoming guests with an organic chai from Assam, which we buy direct from a small farm. The next tea was Russian Caravan, overall a fairly consistent, generic tea blend, which we have tended to buy from a wholesaler in our usual quantities, so we assumed that this was produced in a fairly standard way. We had also managed to source an organic Russian Caravan, so served them together, so guests could compare – in general, people preferred the organic.
We then moved onto another of our direct trade Assam teas, a whole leaf Assam from the same farm. We found this farm while searching for small growers and co-operatives, who could prove that they were providing their pickers with good pay and living conditions. We were impressed with the transparency of this farm – they even have an Airbnb on the farm, and you can get as involved as you want with the farming. The farm has always been organic, and farmed according to Ayurvedic principles, which we found as being similar in motivation and techniques as biodynamic farming. The Assam from this farm is certified as being organic, but they also supply us with a Darjeeling from a farm which farms organically but does not have certification. Part of the issue is the cost of certification, which prevents small farmers from achieving this, even though it is likely to increase the saleability and price of their tea.
We then tried Da Wu Ye, an oolong from a tea grower who we contacted via various social media platforms. Again, we have no certification, but they market their tea as being organic based on the fact that the village is far from any areas of pollution.
Taking our teas full circle to the way tea was originally grown, we moved on to Pu-erh teas, initially drinking a Sheng Pu-erh, from my personal collection. This was a raw Pu-erh from 100 year old trees, which I get from a tea subscription from a tea explorer who has invited me to visit Yunnan with him when he goes to source teas. This again has no formal certification, but the trees are wild, growing in inaccessible areas. One of the teas we drank is described as orchid-heavy, so clearly influenced by the other plants growing in the area.
We talked of many other teas and the impact of being farmed organically on the flavour, particularly matcha, where the flavour is often negatively impacted by being shaded but with fertilizer not being used, and of teas grown in the UK, with the difficult conditions for tea growing.
If you want to try more oolongs and Pu-erh teas, please book for the tea tasting at the end of February.