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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, she said, 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.

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 what we hoped would become our newest partners. And 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 your small purveyor of organic, Fair Trade tea.

It’s a mind-bending amount of paperwork and its 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 before

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 a bit of a challenge. Our crack of dawn puddle jumper flight took only an hour, but it saved more than eight hours of what would have been a very indirect drive just to get to the small-for-China city of Lincang, which was 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.

Over the course of a 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 out way 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 (mostly) 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 it gone on — 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 all distant– 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.

That we were there are all represented a victory of will over circumstances. After we had made all the reservations and done all the ticketing, a peculiar incident took place in the area, involving a lone Burmese aircraft crossing the border and blowing up a Chinese farmhouse. The Chinese military swept into the area in response, taking over the small, local airport, and trucking in thousands of troops. A call from the central office a few days prior to our arrival we were told that it would be possible to meet with people in the city, but not the farmers. We simply said yes, yes, we understood, but that we had to go to the farms ourselves. Impossible, we were told again, and we’ll see, we replied.

The day before we stood talking to the Wa tea tenders in their fields we said again that we appreciated the concern, but that we were certain it would be safe enough, and that we had to go– with or without them. Our entire time in the area, the most dangerous thing we encountered was a large army vehicle stuck in the mud, blocking the way.

We told the field workers that it was our custom, before discussing particulars with the office staff, to make sure that the people working in the countryside were properly treated by the company. Were they paid suitably? Were they paid on time? Were they treated fairly? 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 suspensionless 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.

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