The He family in Laoshan inspires us every day. Last time we visited Laoshan, they were doing their first experiments pioneering Laoshan’s first oolong. QingQing’s daughter Niu Niu was only months old, and Laoshan Black was still a new and novel concept. The last time we visited Laoshan Village, the He family’s newest member Niu Niu was just learning to crawl, tasting her first tea leaves and watching her family make their first ever batches of oolong tea.
On this latest trip to Laoshan, the barely two year old Niu Niu greeted us in her big office chair, and showed us her new skill of pouring tea back and forth between cups and pitchers to properly cool the water. She even had the consideration to honor us with a cheers, clinking cups to each guest before she took her first sip of her grandfather’s favorite: Laoshan Black. On her first sip, she took the time to aerate the tea across her palate and describe the flavor she was tasting. At just two years old, she can already successfully distinguish and identify each tea her family makes.
The precocious intensity of Niu Niu and her developed palate took us back for a moment. Then we remembered the devotion and intensity of every member of the He family and her own dedication began to make sense. I know that someday soon, two year old Niu Niu will grow up and we will answer to her as our boss, as the one who directs us on what to share and how to share it. Thinking of this, it is easy to imagine a bright, exciting future for tea.
Indeed, farmers like the He family in Laoshan Village are pioneers, crafting new kinds of tea every year, investing in better and better equipment, organizing their friends and neighbors to commit to organic and sustainable farming techniques. People like Mr. He are working overtime now to make sure that Niu Niu and all the children of today inherit a better world, and that tea drinkers continue to enjoy better and better tea every year.
Arriving in Laoshan in late November, we asked Mr. He if he gets to rest at this time of year. After all, the picking seasons are over and winter is settling into the redion. Mr. He laughed and took us out to the fields. He told us that he has more work to do in the winter protecting his tea than he does in the spring picking it.
His tea plants are all in rotation, getting cut back to the roots every five years. The plants are allowed to rest for two years as they grow, before finally being cultivated for picking again. All the root stock in his fields is over sixty years old, planted by his father, one of the first to grow tea in Laoshan. His plants are healthy because they are cut back, carefully trimmed, allowed to rest, watered with the finest mountain spring water from Laoshan, and nourished with composted soy beans as natural fertilizer. Winter season is all about careful plant care. The work of the winter is only expressed when spring comes and the health of the plants pays off in the flavor and aroma of the tea.
Despite the hard work of farmers like Mr He, the industry’s course is not yet set. There is no guarantee that tea will grow towards a brighter future for people like Niu Niu. It is a struggle every day against encroaching influences from all sides – pricing pressures, urban development, government sanctioned land theft, and volatile domestic demand. Every time we visit China, our resolve is hardened to grow our business so that we can strengthen relationships with more leaders like Mr. He – like Niu Niu – and help them protect their land, encourage innovation in their villages, and support their work so that they empower themselves and believe in their own future enough to practice sustainable farming.
This year, one singular event hangs over the tea industry like a dark cloud. China’s new leadership has a large campaign to crack down on corruption. In the long term, this is an extremely positive development that will yield a more fair playing field for small businesses by stripping away the need for bribery to get licensed. In the short term however, it has had a drastic and catastrophic effect on the industry.
Tea is one of the most common bribes to government officials besides money. It is harder to trace than cash but still carries the status symbol of wealth. The highest end teas from farms across China have always been purchased by businessmen and government officials for interdepartmental gifting. Tea farmers have always counted on steadily rising prices of the most prized teas: their first pickings, wild picked harvests, and hand processed batches. High prices for hand crafting and wild picking have allowed farmers to devote more and more attention to improving their process and finding more ways to push the envelope and stand out.
In 2014, tea was officially named as an illegal commodity for purchase with government money. The effect was immediate. Tieguanyin, pu’er, Laoshan Green, white teas, Wuyi oolongs – every kind of tea has seen lower demand for the highest price range. In the past, the highest tiered teas could easily fetch $1800 a pound on the Chinese market. Suddenly, these high end teas have no buyers. The next tier of tea customer is the well-to-do private buyer purchasing for drinking at home. In general, these buyers simply don’t feel the need for such extravagant displays of wealth in their own home. This means that the top level teas are selling for what the market can bear out, closer to $450 a pound in China. Suddenly this year, tea at every price point is better, as less money buys higher quality.
For the He family, the effect has been immediate. Qing Qing doesn’t see enough sales at the family shop in Laoshan. Verdant currently buys about half the family’s total output, but the remaining half is still sold directly by Qing Qing at her tea shop. While our demand has remianed constant, retail demand has decreased. As a creative solution, Qing Qing’s husband has started a bakery shop selling steamed buns made with Laoshan’s famous spring water and baked using the same wood fire technique used to finish tea. This enterprising family has found a way to balance the volatile market force for the short term.
In the long term, our goal is to raise awareness about the incredible teas coming out of Laoshan Village to the point where we can commit to the He family’s entire harvest, allowing them to spend 100% of their time on development and freeing them from financial worry that comes with their reliance on the Chinese domestic market.
Laoshan and the He family is just a single example of what is happening across China. If farmers don’t have high end teas to count on for sales, their income decreases dramatically. When this happens, their children aren’t interested in continuing the family business, and the family needs to seek other ways to make ends meet. Over time, this could lead to small farms being bought out by large factory operations that don’t need high end product to succeed. There is a very real risk that this could lower the quality of tea irreversibly across China, and eliminate sustainability and truly organic traditional farming techniques. Consumers and farmers suffer if this is allowed to happen.
Luckily, the leaders in tea farming communities like Laoshan are determined people. They are used to hard work, and the more that consumers appreciate their teas, the more they can invest in sustainable farming, crop rotation, developing new processing techniques, and teaching their children the family craft. Our goal is to share the stories of these fighters, and give them new avenues to succeed at doing what they love. The benefits we recieve in return are priceless- trust, and acess to the very best teas in China to share around the world.
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