Sourcing Chinese Tea – 4 Things you should consider

Chinese tea has been a key part of Chinese culture since leaves supposedly fell into Emperor Shennong’s boiling water in 2737 BCE, but its popularity has been slowly heading West over the past few years. Chinese tea is well known for its health benefits, and has a keen following in many circles, but there is much to consider when looking to source Chinese tea. Let’s take a look at 4 key things to consider.

Does your tea meet your country’s import requirements?

Like much agricultural produce, the plants that are used to make tea are often treated with pesticides and fertilisers in order to prevent damage or increase yield. These chemicals can be toxic in large doses and so countries often put in place strict limits on the amount of pesticides permitted in each kilogram of tea. For example the EU will only allow tea that has less than 0.5mg of pesticides per 1kg of tea, with even the slightest breach of this limit being refused entry.

Tea is thoroughly checked and monitored before it is allowed to be exported from China in an effort to prevent quality issues that have occurred in the past, so this should not be much of an issue when sourcing from most reliable suppliers. This may, however, become a problem when sourcing teas from other countries that may not be so strict on their export rules and regulations, or from shady tea suppliers within China.

Chinese tea

Chinese tea has strict export regulations.

Is your tea compatible with tea bags?

There are many types of Chinese tea, each with their own properties regarding taste, smell and health benefits and so each has a different way to prepare. This is important to consider when looking to sell Chinese tea’s to countries and cultures that are used to the functional tea bag. There are some teas that will fulfil their potential from within a tea bag, however the majority of Chinese teas are best suited in their loose leaf form. If you are looking to source such loose leaf teas, it would be wise to consider stocking products that will make drinking such teas more convenient. Examples of such products include:

  • Strainers – these often come in the form of hollow balls with a wire mesh allowing the tea to infuse with the water. These are cheap, affordable and sometimes come in beautiful, or fun, decorate designs.
  • Filtered tea pots – These teapots come in several forms, with some using a wire mesh at the spout, whereas others use a sieve like feature under the lid. This allows the tea to infuse and is more convenient for group tea drinking.
  • Specialised cups and flasks – these are often filtered or have sieve like features and are very convenient for every tea drink. Such products can help make loose leaf tea more appealing to those that usually prefer teabags.

Sourcing such products, as well as tea, could improve your chances of success as the inconvenience of loose leaves floating around a cup can put some consumers off loose leaf teas.

Is the tea organic or fair trade?

The appeal of organic and fair trade products has gone beyond their natural and ethical intentions to becoming a marketable property in its own right. However organic and fair trade accreditation is not as straight forward in China as it is in other countries.

The most obvious issue is that fair trade is linked with co-operative payment structures and worker rights, something that does not benefit from such freedoms in China. This means that a fair trade certificate may be misleading, as some Chinese workers will not get the pay or rights that are suggested by the suppliers’ status. There are also issues with smaller farms and suppliers finding the certification process to costly or complicated and as such go unrewarded, despite implementing fair trade policies.

Organic certification has its own issue in that many suppliers are not recognised as being organic despite their best efforts. Like free trade certification, smaller farms and suppliers may have trouble getting accredited when they are in fact an organic farm. On top of this, the low levels of pesticides regulated in the export tea industry in China means that even teas that are not organic are not far off.

Chinese tea

Some Chinese teas are organic despite lacking certification

Are you buying from a producer or a supplier?

There are thousands of tea producers in China, in fact it is estimated there are between 70,000 ~ 100,000, so there are no shortage of producers. However as many of these producers are on a relatively small scale, with some consisting of village cooperatives, they often sell to a supplier who obviously sells it on. This can mean that you will be charged a higher price for a lower quality tea, and can limit your control over the production process as you are effectively dealing with a middle man.

One of the key disadvantages of buying from suppliers is that their good quality tea maybe be mixed with poor quality tea in an attempt to achieve a higher overall selling price. This is less likely to occur when dealing with producers as they are likely to receive most of the payment and therefore be more conscious with regards to the quality of their crops and products.

Other things to consider

When you are sourcing tea you should remember that certain regions of China produce certain types of tea, for example Pu’er tea can only be called Pu’er if it comes from certain parts of Yunnan.

You should also be careful when looking to source Da Hong Pao tea, as it is an uncommon, and premium tea. This makes it very appealing to wealthy Chinese, and thus makes it a big target for knock offs that might fool anyone other than an expert. When sourcing such premium teas it is recommended that you, or an adviser, have first hand experience of the tea in question.