Ten years ago, I had a pretty simplistic view of the word “organic.” I figured there was some set of guidelines you had to follow, and *presto* — you could put the word organic on your product. As it turns out, things are much more complicated than that.
When my wife and I had our ranch, we had a neighbor that produced organic pork. One day, they were forced to make an unpleasant choice. A disease was circulating among the hogs in our area. They could inoculate their hogs, but it would cost them their USDA organic rating. Or they could keep the organic rating, and potentially lose the animals — possibly even the farm. In another post on this blog, I told a story of an herb farm near us that gave up their USDA organic rating simply because they couldn’t keep up with the paperwork. There is a daunting amount of documentation required for a small family business to be certified organic.
I learned even more about organic products when I got into the tea business.
I learned that if you take some organic tea leaves and mix them with organic peppermint leaves, you cannot call the resulting mint tea “organic” unless you go through the process of having your facility certified and document everything you do.
I learned that some of my customers will only buy tea that is certified organic — and others will only buy tea if it is not certified organic.
I also learned that there are countries that won’t produce USDA organic tea simply because they don’t want a U.S. government agency telling them what to do. That’s when I found out that not all organic tea is USDA organic. Japan has their JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standard) program, the logo in the center bottom of the header image for this blog post. The European Union countries have their EU organic program. All of these programs were designed to encourage natural and sustainable farming techniques, but they all do so in different ways.
There’s also Fair Trade. In their own words, “Products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated. We help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities.”
In 1997, a group of tea companies grouped together to create a program that was more specific to tea. At first, it was about tea companies working to monitor and certify their supply chains. Eventually, it became the Ethical Tea Partnership. Many of the members are names you’d recognize, like Bigelow, Tazo, and Twinings. Others are boutique brands. All work with the entire chain of people involved in tea production, from the farmers all the way to the distributors.
The ETP certification process is unlike organic and fair trade certifications, but it has elements of both. Provisions of their global standard include:
- No bonded or forced labor. Employees can’t be forced to leave their identity papers with the employer, must be free to leave at any time, and may not be forced laborers from prisons
- Freedom of association. Employees must be allowed to join trade unions and bargain collectively if they so choose.
- A safe and healthy workplace. Tea businesses must provide clean, well-lit, and safe work areas. Workers in potentially hazardous areas must be provided with health and safety training and appropriate protective clothing.
- Safe and hygienic wash stations and restrooms.
- No child labor, and special treatment for workers under 18 years of age.
- Fair minimum wages and on-time payment of workers.
- Reasonable working hours, including a maximum of 48-hour regular weeks, paid overtime on a voluntary basis, maternity leave, and a minimum of one day off in every seven-day period.
- Equal opportunity employment, including equal pay for men and women and a written policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, caste, nationality, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors.
- Environmental management systems, including policies for control and reduction of agrochemicals, and for prevention of soil erosion.
- Water and ecosystem conservation.
The entire global standard document is available online as a 30-page PDF file.
So the next time you’re looking for tea, don’t just look for that USDA logo. Keep an eye out for these other logos as well!
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Pi Lo Chun, a hand-processed Chinese green tea. I brewed this cup for 3:00 using 175 degree (F) water. If you’re squeamish, you may want to taste it before looking at the translation of its name (“green snail spring”) — but it contains no snails; it’s just straight green tea. It has a full body and an earthy flavor, but it’s not overpowering at all. In fact, I’d describe this tea as “soft.” It’s not like a hearty Japanese Sencha, which I almost feel I have to wrestle into submission.
I suppose I should be drinking something organic, or fairtrade, or at least ETP. Mea maxima culpa!
It all started simply enough.
Doug looked at the jars of tea behind the bar one day and said, “This cubbyhole-based system is too constricting. We have space for nine oolongs. If we want to add a new one, we have to drop one of the existing ones. What if we went to a more open system?”
Logical enough. If they are arranged in a linear system, we can drop a white tea and add a black one, and everything fits fine. But that led us to a much deeper discussion. Do our groupings make sense?
The old back bar had teas arranged by style. All of the green teas were together, including the dragonwell, sencha, raspberry hibiscus green, Moroccan mint, and jasmine green. But that’s not how people select a tea. That’s not how we select a tea. When a customer comes in that doesn’t know what he wants, we go through a decision tree.
We start with, “do you prefer straight tea, or something flavored?” If they choose straight tea, we ask if they like white, yellow, green, oolong, black, or pu-erh. If they choose flavored, we ask if they want something fruity, flowery, spicy, creamy, or minty.
So why not set up the shelves that way? Very few of the people asking for a berry tea care whether the base tea is green, black, or oolong. They just want a berry flavor. It makes more sense to put all of our huckleberry teas together instead of having one with the black teas, one with the rooibos, and one with the yerba maté.
We went through our stock and found that if we grouped the herbs and tisanes (e.g., rooibos, yerba maté, guayusa…) with the straight tea, very close to half of our blends were flavored. So we arranged everything so that if someone says they’re looking for straight tea we take them to one side of the bar, and if they’re looking for something flavored, we go to the other.
Having an organization that customers can follow makes it less intimidating for people new to the tea world.
The straight teas are organized first by style, in order of oxidation (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, pu-erh). They are followed by the caffeinated herbs (maté, guayusa, yaupon) and then the caffeine-free herbs (rooibos, honeybush…). It’s nice to be able to point at the shelves and say, “everything from here up has caffeine, and from here down doesn’t.”
Within each style, the tea is arranged by origin, with blends coming first. In the picture above, you can see the black breakfast blends, and jars of black tea from China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, and Malawi. Most of our customers aren’t used to thinking about tea origins, and they’re intrigued by the diversity of sources.
“Where do you get your tea?” is one of the most common questions we get. It’s kind of difficult to answer. We deal with quite a few importers and distributors, but we also like to buy direct from estates and farms when we can; it helps us to be sure of what we’re getting. To answer the question, we included estate names on the labels where we can, and made a map to put between the two blocks of tea shelves.
We’ve had very positive reactions to the map. People say, “I’ve never had a tea from Vietnam. I want to try that one!” Sales of some of more obscure tea are increasing, and people seem to be enjoying comparing tea from different parts of the world. It’s a great way to learn about terroir and regional differences in processing techniques.
When we move over to the flavored side, priorities are different. Few people care about the origins, and virtually all of them are blended from geographically-diverse ingredients. We couldn’t organize those by origin if we wanted to.
On that side, we start with fruity teas at the top, grouping all of the berry together, the citrus together, and so forth. We then proceed down through the spicy teas (with masala chai getting its own section), flowery teas, Earl Greys, mint teas, and on through the flavor profiles. Since caffeine isn’t taken into consideration in the sorting of the flavored teas, we put codes on the labels to help people find what they want: a green O for organic, blue F for fair trade, red C for caffeine-free, brown M for “made in Montana” (mostly our house blends), and purple E for Ethical Tea Partnership.
Is this the perfect organization for every tea shop? Of course not. An herbalist might want to group the teas and herbs by reputed health effects, or by Linnaean classification of the plants. A tea house focused on food might group them by the foods they pair well with. A café focused on tea by the cup rather than bulk sales might group their tea based on what’s best hot, what’s best iced, what works well in a latte, and so forth.
All indications at the moment, though, are that this is going to work well for us. I shall, of course, report back when we know more…
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Lamdong Hoodoo, a Vietnamese black tea. Since I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, I prefer black teas with low astringency, but I still like plenty of flavor. This one definitely fits the bill. A nice spicy flavor and aroma, but no bitterness. I steep it for 2:30.
When you think of tea, Africa probably isn’t the first place to pop into your mind, but Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world. Tea has revitalized their economy, and tea lovers everywhere became winners. Red Lodge Books & Tea works with family owned plantations in Kenya, and was the first tea bar in the United States to serve Kenya’s unique purple tea.
Kenya is known for its black tea, but with their expanding tea economy, the country has expanded into other styles. We tasted some green and white tea from Kenya, along with traditional estate-grown Kenyan black teas and with some fun and different tea you just can’t get anywhere else.
The teas we tasted were:
- White Whisper
- Rift Valley Green Tea
- Golden Safari (black)
- Lelsa Estate FBOP (black)
- Royal Tajiri (black)
- Purple Tea
A quick bit of background on Kenyan tea before we go any farther. As I mentioned earlier, Kenya is the largest exporter of tea in the world, and the third largest producer (after China and India). Largely because of the population difference, Kenya doesn’t consume as much of its product as China and India do. Kenya produces about 345,000 tons of tea per year, but consumes only about 32,000 tons of that. About 9.6% of the world’s total tea production comes from Kenya.
Those are fascinating statistics, but let’s put some human faces on them. When I wrote my first blog post about purple tea in 2011, I was contacted shortly afterwards by a Kenyan woman by the name of Joy W’Njuguna. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2012 at the World Tea Expo, as you can see in the picture below. She’s not actually that short — it’s just that I’m six-foot-five and I’m wearing a cowboy hat, so she does look like a tiny little thing.
CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya or Joy W’Njuguna, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!
I’ve learned a lot from Joy about Kenya and its tea industry. One telling tidbit is that about half of Kenya’s tea is produced by corporate farms, and the other half by independent growers. I have a soft spot in my heart for the independents, since I own a (very) independent bookstore and tea bar. Joy, in addition to representing her own family business, is involved in a collaborative export business that represents a coalition of independent family farms in Kenya. The big producers there are focused on producing very high volumes of CTC (Crush, Tear, and Curl) tea that ends up in grocery store teabags. The independent growers are focused instead on producing high-quality handmade tea that will catch the attention of the rest of the world.
I like being able to put a face to the products I buy. I like being able to show my customers a picture and say, “See these people? These people hand-picked the tea you’re drinking. Not machines. We know where the tea came from and we know what we’re buying.”
Well, that’s probably enough of a soapbox for the day — or maybe even the month. Let’s move on to the teas that we tasted. If you’re like most of my customers, you didn’t even know Kenya produced a white tea. Heck, until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t know either. So let’s start there:
Silver Needle is one of the flagship teas of China. White Whisper is not a clone, but a Kenyan tea made with the same process. The vast differences in terroir make show from the first sniff. It’s richer and earthier than Silver Needle. Even at the 5:00 steep time we used, it’s less delicate. Personally, though, I love the complexity of this tea. Just pay close attention to that water temperature. You pour boiling water over these leaves and you’re going to ruin it.
Rift Valley Green Tea
The first time I tried this green tea, I wasn’t really impressed. Since it’s a pan-fired tea, I followed the general guidelines for Chinese greens and steeped it for three minutes. Next pass, I read the tasting notes from Royal Tea of Kenya, which recommend a thirty-second steep. Really? Thirty seconds? Yep. That’s all this tea needs.
I love the fact that this tea comes from the slopes of Mount Kenya. Some of my best memories of my trip to Kenya when I was in high school center around that area and the day and night we spent at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. What a wonderful place!
Royal Golden Safari
I’ve written about this tea before. It’s one of my favorite black teas. In this session, as in most of my tastings, I got raised eyebrows from people when I poured this and told them it was a black tea. It brews up pale red with just a touch of astringency and appeals to many oolong drinkers. Unlike most black teas, I regularly get four or five infusions out of Golden Safari.
Lelsa Estate FBOP
Next, we moved on to a much more traditional Kenyan black. This FBOP is one of the ingredients I use in Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (my Scottish breakfast blend). The estate in Kericho participates in the Ethical Tea Partnership program, which I appreciate, and the tea has a deep red color and characteristic Kenyan “jammy” notes. The maltiness blends well with Assam tea, and those who take their tea English-style will appreciate how well it takes milk.
“Tajiri” is the Swahili word for “rich,” and this tea lives up to its name. The finely broken leaves mean an intense extraction. If you’re a black tea lover, this one will give you everything you’re looking for — assertive astringency, deep red (almost black) color, and a very complex flavor profile.
Royal Purple Tea
I’ve written so much about purple tea on this blog (here, here, and here) that I’ll skip the background data — although the picture on that slide is new: the tea on the left is a traditional Camellia sinensis, and the one on the right is the purple tea varietal TRFK306/1. The molecular structure in the background of the slide is the anthocyanin. I didn’t have my shipment of handcrafted purple tea yet (and the sample didn’t last long!), so we were unable to compare the orthodox to the handcrafted. I will put up separate tasting notes on that when my main shipment arrives.
I will note that we brewed the orthodox purple tea for this tasting with 170 degree (F) water instead of boiling, as I’ve done in the past. The cooler water brought out more of the complex undertones of the tea and backed the astringency down, making it more to my liking. We tasted this side by side with and without milk. If you haven’t had this tea with milk before, add a bit just to see the fascinating lavender color that the tea turns!
I confess. I was bummed that we didn’t get our handcrafted purple tea in time for this event. I kind of unloaded on Joy about it, and she was good enough to find me something else fascinating and unique for this event: an African chai. The tea (a blend of purple and traditional black) is from Kenya and the spices are all from Ethiopia.
We closed the tasting with this unique chai, and it went over very well. Instead of taking up half of this post talking about it, I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to Nandi chai in the near future.
This was the fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from last month.
As I did a year ago, I’ve gone through the year’s numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular teas. A few have stayed consistent, but there have been a lot of changes, too. These sales only reflect bulk loose-leaf tea sales, as we don’t track the cup sales the same way.
Our top three sellers are all black teas — the same three as last year, although in a different order — which doesn’t surprise me. They are, however, the only black teas on the list, which does surprise me. There is only one green tea, one pu-erh, and one pu-erh/yerba maté blend. Everything else is yerba maté, rooibos, honeybush, and chamomile. That really surprises me.
- Premium Masala Chai (#3 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of masala chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their masala chai from concentrates instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.
- Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (formerly known as “Gary’s Scottish Breakfast” — #2 last year)
This is a nice, strong, kick-in-the-pants first cup of the morning. It’s a blend of Kenya and Assam black tea. Traditionalists would steep it a long time and drink it with milk. I tend to prefer a fairly short steep (2-3 minutes), and I drink it black. This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February.
- Ancient-Tree Earl Grey (#1 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. We carry nine different Earl Grey teas, and this one is consistently at the top of the sales list, although in the last few months Lady Greystoke has been coming on strong. It only missed the top 10 by one position this year, and I expect to see it on this list in 2013.
- Moroccan Mint (#4 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
The popularity of this tea crosses seasons, as we sell just as much of it iced in the summer as we do hot in the winter. It’s a Chinese green tea with jasmine blossoms and peppermint leaves. I’m doing some experiments now as to the best way to aerate it when we serve it, which is typically accomplished by pouring it into the cup while holding the pot high in the air.
- Evening in Missoula
This one wasn’t even on the list last year, and it’s the only chamomile blend ever to make our top ten list. It’s a blend from the Montana Tea & Spice Company, and it has completely blown away all of our other herbals in sales.
- Chocolate Maté Chai (#8 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
Dessert in a mug! This velvety masala chai is made with yerba maté and pu-erh instead of black tea, and the standard masala chai spices are enhanced with cacao nibs & husks, vanilla, coconut, and long pepper. We usually prepare it with vanilla soy milk and local honey. It was also very popular during the summer as a base for boba tea.
- BlueBeary Relaxation
Organic & Fair Trade
Another debut on the list. Yes, that name is spelled correctly. It’s a red rooibos blend named for one of the bears at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. We send a donation to the sanctuary for every ounce of this blend that we sell.
- Carnival Maté (#9 last year)
This is not your basic yerba maté. This yummy south-Argentina style beverage uses roasted maté with caramel bits, marigold, and Spanish safflower petals. I’ve converted a lot of coffee drinkers using this one!
- Hammer & Cremesickle Red
This is a fun rooibos/honeybush blend with orange and vanilla (among other things). I’ve blogged about the name and logo and about cooking with Hammer & Cremesickle Red.
- Blood Orange Pu-Erh
Organic & Fair Trade
This pu-erh blend uses intense orange to balance the strength and depth of the base tea.
Six out of our top ten are organic (up from five last year), and all six of those are fair trade as well. I expect that trend to continue — especially since we’re replacing many of our non-organic blends with organics — and to see at least one ETP (Ethical Tea Partnership) blend in next year’s top ten.
There is only one unflavored tea on this year’s list, and it is a house blend (Gary’s Kilty Pleasure). More of our customers are growing to appreciate the straight teas, though, and I’m hoping to see more of them next year.
We’ve been doing a lot more house blends in the last few months, and we are slowly replacing many of the blends that we buy premade with our own house blends. I’m expecting this list to be at least half house blends for 2013.