Dispatches: Yunnan Tea Sourcing

Willie Sutton frequented banks because that’s where, he observed, they kept the money. They raise the tea in China, and that’s why we headed down south to Yunnan — we were looking for more tea.

It had been a very, very, long wait. There was, we understood, an exciting tea company in Yunnan Province (one of China’s most verdant areas, and its most ethnically diverse) but for years we had been waiting for their Fair Trade teas to be certified organic, and for their organic certified tea farms to finish the process of joining the Fair Trade Organization. All our teas, I had explained to the friendly people in the central offices of the tea company in Kunming, had to be both — not just one or the other. Miss Cao said she understood, and that they were working on it, but these things take time. And from our many years spent in China, we understood. Certain things (bureaucratic matters, especially) take a lot of time in China. Want a road built, or a bridge or a building? Poof — it’s done. Getting the permits so the construction can actually start? Ah, well, that’s another matter altogether.

But now we were winging our way from Beijing to Kunming, a matter of three and a half hours or 1700 miles, depending on how you look at it.

The sleepy, sprawling, almost rustic Kunming we knew in the spring of 1999 had disappeared beneath the new, shiny, skyscrapers and multi-laned ring roads and highways, now inhabited by several million more people.

Kunming Market


William (our youngest) and I settled in, then went out for a day armed with cameras in search of the older parts of Kunming, and we found it in good measure.

Markets were a double collage: there were stalls and shops offering, well, everything — minerals, beads, beans, tea of all types, traditional clothes, modern clothes, shoes, carved wooden anything-you-can-imagine, toys, binoculars, hats, combs, glasses, rice, vegetables, paintings, power tools. And walking along the aisles between the shops were the people — all shapes and sizes and ages and from all over. Yunnan is home to more than 25 ethnic groups, in addition to a majority Han population, and Kunming attracts both national and international tourists in great numbers.

But we had come to Yunnan for tea, and so the next day we headed over to the main offices to meet with the people we hoped would become our newest partners. What a day it was — we met the biologists and chemists and agronomists whose work it is to help develop new strains of the tea plant and to fine-tune the optimal soil and water environment in which the plants grow.

We met the translators (tea being a very, very, international business) and the tea masters, the people whose work it is to make sure that tea shipments go where they need to with all the appropriate documentation required by both the exporting and importing nations, the proper documentation for the shipping agents so that the tea can move seamlessly from factory to truck to depot to ship to wharf to storage through customs to truck to truck to truck and finally to us, your small purveyor of organic, Fair Trade tea.

It’s a mind-bending amount of paperwork and it’s work we are so glad someone else is willing to do! We met the President and other managers of the company, and after a marvelous dinner banquet were sent back to our hotel to get some sleep.

A very early flight awaited us the next day. The topography of Yunnan that makes it so suitable for growing tea makes the getting from here to there challenging. Our crack of dawn puddle jumper flight took only an hour, but it saved what would have been a more than eight hours drive just to get to the small-for-China city of Lincang, which was to be the starting point for our trek into the Yunnan countryside to visit the farms that produce the teas in which we had a keen interest.

Wa Tea Pickers

Over the course of that very long day which took the head of the company and his translator and us (and a very capable driver) to the Chinese border with Burma, we motored in a robust, four-wheel-drive truck to a series of five small mountainside farms, all tended by members of the Wa ethnic minority (a people whose geographic distribution falls in roughly equal portions in northern Burma and southern Yunnan Province).

Although we speak Mandarin Chinese reasonably well, we did need to go through the translator to talk to the men and women, who worked the terraced tea fields and primary processing plants. Growing tea had been the occupation of the Wa in this area for so long, they couldn’t tell us how long— for generations, at least.

The beauty of these small tea plantations is remarkable– wide, seemingly endless rolling fields of deep green, rising to meet a crystal clear blue sky. The only sounds were all in the distance – the infrequent car or truck, maybe the hum of a blower motor in the processing plant, a tea worker shouting across a field at a colleague. Our entire time in the area, the most dangerous thing we encountered was a large army vehicle stuck in the mud, blocking the way.

Tea Guys

When we met with the field workers we told them that it was our custom, before discussing particulars with the office staff, to make sure that the people working in the countryside are properly treated by the company. Are they paid suitably? Are they paid on time? Are they treated fairly? Yes was their answer to each of these questions.  All these matters and more were discussed and answered satisfactorily–which was a relief. We really wanted very much to do business with this firm and their co-ops, but satisfied workers was an essential part of any forward movement.

Over a day and a half, we talked to farmers in five different plantations — looking at the tea plants, asking about their families, drinking tea in the shade of the processing buildings, watching tea leaves being dried on room-sized tables.

And we spent long hours in our oversized suspension-less jeep thing over hundreds of miles of back roads, talking with the head of the company, in a way that isn’t possible in an air-conditioned conference room with a clutch of other people. When we returned to America with our tea samples and notes from the trip, it was easy to decide to move forward and the larger challenge was which teas to bring into the company lineup. (That would be our Yunnan Black and the Shou Pu’Er.)

 We maintain frequent contact with our friends at the company in Kunming, and we look forward to a return, when possible, to the fields managed by the Wa chanong (tea workers) to thank them for making it possible for us to provide such nice teas to our customers half a world away.