When I got back to America from a year of field study in China, I wondered where all the tea went.  All the small farmers I worked with in China were brewing up cups of tea that were life-changing and breathtaking in quality.  When I went to teahouses back home for my pu’er fix or oolong cravings, I couldn’t recreate that feeling of drinking tea in China.  I assumed that the tea must have started off like the stuff I drank on the farms, but lost flavor through improper storage.  Unfortunately that was only part of the story.

I even tried ordering tea from specialty shops online, some based in China, expecting fresher goods.  I was able to obtain green teas and oolong that had been picked recently and vacuum sealed, but even those lacked the complexity and intriguing depth that brought me to tea, and kept me going back for more.

So why is it that even though the interest exists, it is so hard to find incredible teas in America?  Only recently have I stumbled upon the answer, which I found interesting enough to share with those curious about the business side of tea.

The true root of the issue lies in Chinese export laws.  Most countries have strict laws about what can be brought into their territories.  China is one of those unique countries that has even stricter laws about what is allowed to leave its borders.  First of all, any company sending goods out of China needs an export license, which can only be obtained by the large state-owned or financed businesses.  Small farmers cannot get an export license.  The only way around this is to use a local forwarding service that essentially uses its license to export other goods for a fee.  Even with this service, there is the hurdle of obtaining an inspection certificate.  The only way to get goods inspected and cleared to leave China is to use a courier service that can explain the contents of the shipment to customs in person.

These two simple-sounding laws in effect make it impossible to buy from any tea operation that is not state run or state-backed.  These big tea operations are not necessarily making bad tea, but because of the size of their production, they are cultivating plantation-style on mono-culture farms.  This kind of tea is generally more boring because if it is not wild-cultivated, the plant does not produce the same polyphenols that it uses to fight off disease and survive in nature.  The polyphenols are what give tea its flavor and complexity.  This means, the bigger the plantation, and the more mechanized the growing process, the more simple the tea’s profile will be.

All this adds up to mean that the most complex and valuable tea is very very difficult to import.  It can be done, but it is costly.  The business that wants to import the most obscure and intriguing teas either does so through a big plantation, and limits their options dramatically, or they pay for air express courier service (which can be more expensive than just flying to China and bringing back luggage bags full of tea!).

I opted for the second option, because I didn’t want to go into the tea business unless I could work with my farmer friends in China, and share their incredible teas.  I am satisfied, because even though it is more expensive, I get in extremely fresh tea with each harvest.  I compromise by making a little less money, but it is my belief that the gift of tea should be shared beyond China.  Not only do we get to enjoy better tea, we get to financially support small farmers, and spur innovation, growth and improvement in the tea industry by supporting those who devote themselves to cultivating the best leaf, not the cheapest one.