Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

About Me

The first time I saw tea gardens I was in northern Taiwan.  As a graduate student in anthropology I had come to a village to study young factory women and the effects of regular wage-earning on their lives.  Until the appearance of light industries, young women from families with modest incomes often saw their brothers continuing in secondary school if tuition would have unduly stretched the family budget while their own schooling came to an end.   After all, as the saying went, “daughters belong to other families;” daughters are raised only to be married off and out of their natal families, whereas their brothers would carry on the family line.  With income from their factory jobs, however, young women were no longer a drain on their families but were adding to the household’s income.

I spent the first half of one year living in a village near the market town of Sanhsia.  There I spoke with elderly women who recalled picking tea in the nearby hills in their youth.  This was an area settled by people who had come across the straits, emigrating from tea producing regions in Fujian.  Young men also picked tea, and so this type of seasonal work had a social component too.  By the time I was in this part of Taiwan, it wasn’t always easy to find workers to pick tea; year-round wages from factory employment had drawn many young people away to nearby towns and company-owned dormitories.

Some years later I saw tea gardens again, this time as a tea buyer, a position I held for about twenty years.  In trips to tea producing countries I have been fortunate to be joined by colleagues in the specialty tea industry, whose opinions, tasting notes and sensibilities, and observations during our journeys have added much to our experiences.  (When I use “we” in these posts, I refer to my fellow tea travelers.)

Like the members in these small groups, I have thoroughly enjoyed and value the tea education process.  While misadventures might be euphemistically altered afterwards to become just another story (like the time we were stranded in the middle of the countryside with a flat tire, no passports with us, and very little cash), the rewards of making sometimes taxing journeys have been ample.  (We’ve have our share of luxe moments as well, often made more delightful for their unexpectedness.)  For myself, I find that pleasure in a good cup of tea increases as I accumulate more information about the subject.  I am aware too that the more I have learned, the greater the realization of how meager my store of knowledge remains.

The proliferation of material about teas – in books, on websites, from tea cafes, and mail-order purveyors – is a real sea change and evidence of growing sophistication about tea in this country, accompanied by an earnest desire to learn.  Speaking with customers, teaching tea seminars, and meeting new tea enthusiasts at trade shows have underlined to me the need to fill gaps that still exist and to continue to spread the good word about tea.

In my view one area that warrants attention is tea quality; how is a consumer to judge it?  Whether ordering from a tea salon or buying tea at a local retailer, how does the consumer assess what s/he is offered?  And here I think we are fortunate in what teas can tell us.

With wines, the styles and range of flavors are wonderfully broad, but the grapes have already been pressed.  With coffee beans, even a non-expert like me can see that there are different shadings in color.  Beyond that, given my lack of expertise, I can offer little.

Teas are a different story.  There is great variety in leaf form, colors, aromas and flavors.  Some differences are immediate to even an untutored eye, as in distinguishing a Green tea from a Black tea.  Dry leaves come in an wide array of shapes and sizes, and the wet leaves are sometimes even more telling, if only we’d take the time to look.  I never cease to be awed by the fact that one plant, Camellia sinensis, can produce such a myriad of finished products.

There is a common misconception that Green teas, Oolong, and Black teas originate from different plants.  Given the disparity in how some of them look, this error is easily forgiven.  And this is precisely what makes tea such a fascinating subject.  As we drink or buy tea, it is definitely worth a brief pause to consider how one plant can end up looking like green spears, or tiny grey pellets, or curls with downy white hairs, or bold dark spidery leaves, or very fine twists, with brews ranging from the color of straw to the deepest amber.

Although I have made tea related trips to India, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan, and even though I count not a few Ceylon Blacks and Darjeelings among personal favorites, China is the tea region I know best, and my blog will reflect this.

So, I began with a time when my focus was on factory women and only tangentially on tea gardens where the mothers and grandmothers of these young women once worked.  Later in my career my attention turned to teas and only marginally to the men and women who worked in picking and processing teas.

On my most recent trips to China, I saw or heard more about migrant tea workers, following the season from region to region.  In groups that number from a few who may board with the families of farmers who engage them to several dozen and even hundreds of workers, they not only cross provincial borders but dialectal and cultural ones as well.  Room and board are provided, and with some safety in numbers, these young workers venture out to new places, new sights.  Even though it’s mostly the countryside and small county townships they experience, their world has been broadened a bit more with each season’s tea harvest.

An appreciative scrutiny of tea leaves tells a great deal about the quality of the tea and how it was made.  Some knowledge along these lines should evoke more than images of scenic verdant landscapes, and perhaps turn our minds to include stories about the workers, not only the pluckers and their formidable task, but the teamasters – whose skill and sure hand result from years at crafting and working the leaves to meet their vision.

It’s a great thing to see so many people in this country taking up tea.  Younger people in China are also caught up in a resurgence of interest in fine quality teas.  The demand for tea workers is large and becoming harder to fill, and so for those who are willing, their job prospects look good.  I still look forward to sitting down someday with these workers for nice long chats.

(Lydia Kung holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University and is the author of “Factory Women in Taiwan” and articles that have appeared in tea trade journals.)

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