Our corporate philosophy

If one thing is important to us as a tea merchant, it is the purity and sustainable cultivation of our teas. We spend a lot of time researching and visiting tea gardens. We also talk a lot to the owners to find the best teas in Asia for you.

Although many of our teas are grown sustainably, they are not certified by the EC Organic. We do have pre-certifications of the National Organic Program (NOP) or USDA certifications for some of our teas. But we also know that in the world of high-quality teas, an organic label does not always show the best quality.

Where is the organic seal with us?

Does the lack of organic certification automatically mean that teas are contaminated with chemicals? Why shouldn’t a tea garden that works without chemicals automatically be certified as an organic farm?

To answer these questions, we must first define the difference between traditional and organic teas. Then we explain why organic certification is not always the best indicator of quality. And show you how we personally ensure that the companies we work with grow responsibly.

What is traditional tea?

At the most basic level, traditional agriculture refers to small-scale farming. Traditional farmers use natural methods of pest control, leave the soil rich through biodiversity and grow their crops with natural fertilisers. This is a type of agriculture that precedes the plantation economy, and a skill that many tea farms in Japan or India have been refining for generations.

A tea field for tea growing in Asia

Example: Growing Jasmine Tea

In the context of tea cultivation, “traditional” takes on a broader meaning. It describes not only the cultivation methods, but also the most valuable regions for growing a particular teas. For example,while “Jasmine Tea”can be grown anywhere, “Jasmin Dragon Pearls” uses only the highest quality tea from Yunnan. As the historical home of this style, the terroir of this region is inextricably linked to the taste of traditional and high-quality teas. The small area of this region leads to higher prices for these high-quality jasmine teas, while cheaper imitations multiply elsewhere.

A little excursion into Chinese tea production

Under Mao, these traditional growing areas were organized into communities. The concentration on industrialization led to a widespread famine and forced a return to a more historic agriculture. The traditional tea growing area was divided up and given to families who could prove that they had worked on the land. Each family was given a small farm leased by the government, with a term of 99 or 999 years.

Today, the average size of a farm in China is only 1.6 acres (compared to 400 acres in the US). It is difficult for the average farmer to make a profit on such a small piece of land. But if the farm happens to be in one of China’s traditional tea-growing regions, they’re lucky. The country and its tea are famous. It has a reputation for having the right terroir or hosting the best craftsmen. The tea is bought by government officials, given away to diplomats, and perhaps even sent to competitions and connoisseurs around the world. To avoid tradition is to give up all this and the profits that go with it.

In a country where tradition is revered, the tea farmers living here take their role very seriously. They cultivate old methods of growing and producing leaves. You know that a respectful approach to nature is essential for excellent tea qualities. Long-term thinking also plays a role here. If you treat your country well, you will ensure that your children and children can one day live off this piece of land.

What exactly is organic tea anyway?

Let me be clear: we are by no means opposed to organic farming! We strive to source our teas from organic farms. This makes sense, especially in areas where the use of pesticides is common. In response to the prevalence of monoculture, buying organic products is an opportunity for consumers to make their priorities clear. Bio-certification bodies enforce strict regulations and ensure that “organic” labels actually mean something. In the United States, USDA certification standards include cultivation methods, soil quality, and pesticide use.

But the organic label is not a blanket promise for completely natural farming methods. For organic certification within the EU, the following characteristics must be met:

  • Elimination of synthetic fertilizers and plant protection products
  • Abandoning genetic engineering
  • Only 49 additives are allowed in finished products (compared to the 316 substances in conventional products).

However, the absence of synthetic fertilisers and plant protection products does not have to mean that the finished product is untreated. For example, organic farmers are allowed to spray unlimited copper sulphate on their plants because copper sulphate is of natural origin. However, this makes this substance no less harmless to humans and animals. How dangerous a remedy is often depends on the dosage of the substance, not on its naturalness.

The BIO seal as a marketing tool

Most of the time, the organic label is a marketing technique. When large companies or new farmers invest in the organic label, they earn customers and can demand more for their product. In tea, an organic certification can strengthen confidence in a common brand name or put a young tea farm on the map. The organic regulation works well here, as it encourages these companies to focus on producing a quality product instead of producing the maximum quantity.

In China, most traditional farms are not organically certified. Even if they are generations without synthetic additives or modern methods of growing tea. Their tea has high prices without certification, and they would not be able to produce enough to meet the greater demand. The farms that are ecologically certified are usually newer farms that operate on lesser-known land. These “young” farms strive for organic certification in order to compete with the established reputation of the traditional terroir.

By the way: a great example of the cultivation of high-quality and sustainable teas is the Jun Chiyabari tea garden in Nepal. We love the tea garden so much that we wrote it its own post!

 

Organic tea field

The cost of organic certification

If traditional farms use biological methods anyway, why can’t they be certified? Even if they don’t have to expand their customer base, would organic certification not be a good thing? Certification is intended to inform and educate consumers. In this case, it actually seems sensible to lend the allowances to the companies purely on the basis of organic trade.

Unfortunately, this does not work. The main reason why many farms cannot be certified is the high fees associated with organic certification. After payment of the fees and with the beginning of the certification process, there are inspections, tests and standards that the company must meet. All this comes at an additional cost. Once a company is certified, it must pay additional fees to apply for pre-certification of individual batches. To do this, a percentage of the sales revenue generated by the sale of the teas must be given.

Any imported product marked as “organic” in Germany must meet the criteria for EC organic certification. The certification process in China is just as costly and rigorous. Many farmers forgo certification instead of uprooting the old tea plants that add complexity to their crops. In the United States, organic products have been grown in the last three years without banned substances. In China, the waiting period is two years. But if a plant has tested positive for prohibited materials after certification, the waiting time increases to five years.

The term “BIO” is often foreign to Asians

Moreover, Chinese farmers face a familiar dilemma in a domestic market that is only just beginning to accept organic products. They are reluctant to invest the upfront capital for organic certification without a reliable buyer at the prospect. Due to rising labour costs, organic rice is sold in China at six times the price of conventional rice. Farmers are reluctant to invest so much in a product that may not be sold.

The small size of the Chinese farms means that the crops can be easily cross-contaminated. Even on a certified organic farm, a neighbor using pesticides can contaminate the crop. This leads to failed inspections and additional fees for producers. Antibiotic residues of livestock manure used as fertilisers can also lead to miscontrol.

Given all the fees and strict regulations that certified establishments must comply with, many small, traditional tea establishments avoid the additional burden. Even if they actually meet organic standards. They don’t have to prove what they already know. The original and natural cultivation methods produce the best quality teawithout relying on pesticides.

Even if they don’t, cross-contamination from a nearby farm is still a problem. In Taiwan, for example, tea fields are often surrounded by betelnut trees. Without pesticides, the desired nuts are intercepted before ripening and the harvest is lost. With each spray, the nearby tea plants are inevitably exposed to pesticides. Responsible farmers need to work with their neighbours to ensure that tea is not contaminated by spray during harvesting time.

How do I know if my tea is clean?

Our first line of defense against chemically contaminated teas is also the backbone of our procurement strategy: we go to the farm. During a personal visit we can get to know the cultivation conditions and pest control techniques of the individual farms. For example, we always like to see healthy undergrowth in the tea fields as proof that no herbicides were used.

We have every tea we import tested for more than 300 different agricultural chemicals. Without firm rules, we use the strict EU directives to evaluate the results of these independent tests. This procedure is not required by law. Nevertheless, we believe that it is best for our customers to verify the safety and integrity of our products rather than relying on organic certification.

It is important to me to establish trust-based relationships with our producers. Through independent testing, we ensure that our teas are free of synthetic additives. Also, we are able to source traditional teas that do not taste extraordinary AND clean. In the future, you will not only be able to focus on finding an organic label, but also on discovering complex aromas of traditionally produced teas. We would be happy if you visit our online shop.

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)