Steeped in controversy

Pub date February 28, 2007
WriterK. Tighe
SectionFood & Drink

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These days everyone is a gourmand, and caring about the earth is so cool it’s made even Al Gore popular. The time is ripe to give a fuck.

But all this focus on artisanal and organic products is complicated. What’s easiest for the consumer to understand isn’t always correct. Stickers can’t always be trusted. And — certified or not — nothing holds a candle to family tradition.

It’s true for tomatoes. It’s true for tangerines. And, according to Winnie Yu, director of Berkeley teahouse Teance, it’s especially true for tea.

That there is controversy or politics involved with tea is nothing new (Boston Tea Party, anyone?). But the most recent debates have centered around two primary issues: the practice of using lower quality teas in tea bags (versus loose leaves) and the consequences of labeling tea as organic.

But before we get into all that, first the basics.


The beverage as we know it is said to have been discovered when tea leaves blew into the hot-water cup of early Chinese emperor Shen Nung. Cultivation started simply enough, under the fog on steep hills, where harvesters engaged in the art of fine plucking, or gently twisting the buds of Camellia sinensis at precisely the correct moment of the correct day. This knowledge was a biorhythm, pulsating in the bones, passed from one generation to the next.

But it wasn’t long before this Chinese medicinal crop changed everything. The British East India Co. — originally chartered for spice trade — spread opium through the region just to get its hands on the stuff. This bit of naughtiness made it the most powerful monopoly in the world, prompted wars, and left legions addicted to another intoxicating substance: tea.

Smuggling rings, high-society occasions, and ever-increasing taxes spiraled around the precious crop. The long journeys from China to Britain led to the glamour of clipper ship races, but below deck fighting the rats was another problem altogether. One piece of tea lore explains how cats were employed to catch the rats, and after an entire shipment of tea (already stale from the journey) was infused with cat piss, it was discovered that the pungent bergamot oil, popular at the time, masked this stench quite nicely. Earl Grey was born.

Next came Thomas Sullivan, New York tea merchant, good-time guy, and miser to the core, who decided to send some tea samples to faraway clients. Instead of packing his gifts in tins, as was common at the time, Mr. Tightwad decided to use some silk baggies he had lying around. The people who received these pouches assumed they were to dip them into boiling water and throw away the debris. Sullivan had unwittingly invented a no-mess solution to tea. The orders came pouring in. A few years later the Lipton tea bag was born.


Eventually, it was learned that smaller pieces, or finings, brew more quickly than full leaves. But when leaves are broken into finings, the oils responsible for their taste evaporate. This leaves a bitterness that can only be countered with cream and sugar. And the tea farmers in China kept on keeping on, despite the series of near-triumphs, well-intentioned buffoonery, and colonial rebellion that resulted in the western side of the tea-drinking world forever asking, "One lump or two?"

According to tea connoisseurs, this is when the fine crop began its slide down the slippery slope into pure crap.

Far from an obsolete issue (or a localized one), bagged tea — both its quality and its form — has sparked a very modern worldwide debate.

In Sri Lanka as recently as Feb. 12, D.M. Jayaratne, newly appointed minister of plantation industries, instructed tea researchers and relevant authorities to investigate whether premium teas exported in bulk are being mixed with cheap tea.

And on the less quantifiable front, contemporary tea drinkers such as Yu consider bagged tea to have all the sophistication and allure of boxed wine. Properly enjoyed tea is not only an intoxicant but also an art. "It’s like music," Yu explains. "The notes have to be appreciated at their own time."

Tea bags pilfer quality by design, but something bigger may be lost between the staple and the tag: how about a bit of ceremony in a racing, relentless world?

"Tea is a spiritual product, as well as for consumption," says Yu, who has made it her mission to bring fine tea and tea education to the Bay Area. "It was a medicine for 2,000 years before it was a beverage."

Her Berkeley tearoom — a serene, beautiful environment flecked in copper and bamboo — allows you to connect with the leaves, the culture, the moment, and the community. "Drinking with 3,000 years of history, you don’t feel alone," Yu says.


Meanwhile, at the 40th annual World Ag Expo in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-February, cannons thundered, Rudolph Giuliani waxed poetic about alternative fuel, jets split seams into the sky, more than 100,000 people gathered from 57 nations, and a small group of farmers met to contemplate the agribusiness plunge into the emerging organic industry.

During a seminar with Ray Green, manager of the California Organic Program for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, these farmers had before them a daunting question: organic at what cost?

When it comes to tea, Yu has an answer. The cost is large: to consumers, who mistakenly think their certified-organic tea bag is superior to the noncertified (but tastier and ecofriendlier) independent variety, and to small farms, which have to compete with the certified giants.

Artisan tea shops such as Yu’s depend on strong bonds with small farmers. But most quality tea farms opt out of the bureaucratic mess of US Department of Agriculture organic certification because the fees are too high and the other costs are too great. For example, USDA certification can require land to lay barren for up to five years. According to Yu, it’s nonsense to ask a family farm to participate in such a thing. "These hillsides have had tea growing on them for hundreds of years," she says. "It is very precious to have a tea tree."

Many new farms are certified under European and Chinese regulations — which are both significantly stricter and cheaper than their United States counterpart — but still have to compete with big corporations willing to jump through the USDA hoops.

At his seminar Green said, "Some of the farmers that left conventional agriculture 10 years ago because they just couldn’t compete on economies of scale are now finding that the same companies they were in competition with 10 or 12 years ago are now competing against them in the organic sector."

Consumers want to choose certified products because they think they’re doing the right thing. But doing so doesn’t necessarily help anyone but the big corporations that can afford certification.

"Organic isn’t an issue if it’s always been organic," Yu says. "Fair trade is not an issue [for Teance] because we buy from family farms."

Yu works with family farms like the ones with representatives sifting through the advice and cautionary tales of the World Ag Expo, the farms wondering how to stay afloat in the wake of impossible competition. As their corporate counterparts lurk in low valleys, sifting the scraps of their mass harvest into nylon bags before slapping a USDA organic sticker on attractive packaging and trumpeting health consciousness to the uneducated consumer, the folks on the hill are still doing what they’ve always done.

It’s clear that as consumers become more informed, the demand for quality product increases. With this demand comes profit, red tape, and a departure from the salt-of-the-earth spirit that gave birth to the organic movement.

"The ritual is authentic, healthy, artful," Yu says. "You can’t find that in a tea bag."

So what is the San Francisco tea lover to do? At the very least, you can support your local gourmet tea peddlers. From Chez Panisse to El Farolito, the Bay Area is uniquely qualified to appreciate the culinary good stuff. We like it slow, whole, and artisanal, and fine teas deliver. *


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