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Single-Origin Teas Highlight The Diversity of Tea Culture

Apr. 25, 2018

Single-Origin Teas Highlight The Diversity of Tea Culture

By Alex Zorach, Founder and Editor of RateTea.com

If you go into any supermarket in the U.S., you will find row upon row of neatly-packaged boxes of tea bags.  Many of these are flavored teas, a base of black or green tea (usually low-quality, which the flavoring masks), with added flavor extracts and, if you're lucky, some whole herbs, spices, or flowers in the mix.

If you buy a basic black tea, it is usually a blend of teas from different regions, finely broken and mixed together. The tea might come from India, China, Sri Lanka, or perhaps Kenya or Indonesia.

If you were to sample single-origin teas from each location, you'd find that each tasted unique, even if they had been produced by similar methods. You'd also find that teas harvested at different times of year can taste different. Sometimes the same harvest of tea even varies in different years, owing to changes in weather.

Companies like Lipton and Tetley combine teas from plantations in different countries, to maintain consistent characteristics of their blends. As the flavors change seasonally and from year to year, the companies need to keep changing the proportions to keep their signature flavor.

The diversity is "blended out". The shopper gets a uniform product: predictable, dependable, lifeless.

ratetea Slow Food tea aisle

Much of the expertise in this process lies with the blenders. The price you pay for that box of tea bags largely goes to packaging, blending, and marketing, with less reaching the people who grow and process the tea. The economics favor a "race to the bottom" which pushes for increased yields achieved through large monocultures that are environmentally unsustainable. Uniqueness of flavor becomes a liability rather than an asset.

 

But there is another way, a model based on embracing the diversity, and that is to focus on single-origin, single-harvest artisan teas. Through my work on RateTea, I aim to highlight this diversity: all teas are classified both by region of origin and style (encompassing production method). For example, "English Breakfast" is a style of tea, and some of these teas are blends, but others may be single-origin teas from Sri Lanka, Kenya, or even Indonesia.

 

Tea has a long history; in China it has been consumed for thousands of years. China alone has astonishingly diverse traditions of tea production. Under the broad umbrella categories of black, green, white, oolong, and dark teas (all from the same plant) there are countless varieties, some of which have been developed to mimic the scents of specific flowers or fruit (without added flavoring extracts!).

 

ratetea.com Slow Food landscapeTea Plantation in Kemuning, Central Java, Indonesia

 

Popular cultivars and production methods have spread to multiple areas. In a new location, the unique climate immediately shapes the tea's flavor, and over time the traditions of processing evolve independently, leading to further changes.

 

Taiwan now produces oolongs that originated in mainland China; Japan invented countless types of steamed green tea, and the Darjeeling district of India did something completely novel with black teas.  Kenya has an even younger tea industry, but has become a hotbed of innovation, often spearheaded by small farmers.

 

When you buy single-origin loose-leaf tea, a greater portion of the price you pay reaches the producers. Part of this is because you're not paying for packaging, but an additional factor is that greater skill resides with the producers, including both growers and those who process the tea (who, on many small family farms, are the same people). Better tea fetches a higher price, giving producers a path towards economic empowerment.

 

ratetea.com Slow Food tea pickerA labourer plucking tea leaves at Amluckee Tea Estate in Amoni, Nagaon district of Assam, India. (Photo by Diganta Talukdar - CC BY 2.0)

 

If you are looking to explore geographic diversity in tea, you can visit RateTea's section on regions. Countries of particular interest are China and India, where we often list county- or district-level detail.

 

To learn more about the different types of varieties of tea, you can visit the pages on styles. We separate "style" from "region" to unambiguously describe teas that are produced in a tradition or by a method that originated elsewhere, as is the case with many Chinese teas like Keemun, which originated in Qimen county of Hubei but is now produced in at least four different provinces as well as Taiwan.

 

If you are not used to drinking loose-leaf tea, I recommend starting with a tea infuser; this one, which can sit inside a mug or some teapots, is my all-time favorite and is a good lifetime investment.. Once you start drinking loose-leaf, single origin tea, it is hard to go back!

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