Conundrum in the Tea Garden Redux

The night before last, the moon was an incredible yellow-orangy crescent, low-hanging on the horizon. Like you could reach up and pluck it out of the sky.

Surreal harvest moons; crisp air; slanted sunrays that set the riotous trees afire; pungent earth . . . autumn in Michigan.

Which makes me reach for a steaming cup of tea to ward off the chill.

And Vietnam Yen Bai OP (available from TeaHaus), enjoyed in my backyard, is perfect as I greet fall’s colorful approach.

This particular tea—with a lovely hue and a satisfying depth—comes from northern Viet Nam, where the leaves are plucked from wild tea trees and the tea processed in small villages.

Unfortunately, this tea is the exception rather than the norm.

vietnam yen bai montage_sm

Reality Remains a Problem

As highlighted in a previous blog, the tea industry in Viet Nam has some real issues—which the Viêt Nam News once again addresses as tea exports and tea value continue to fall while concerns rise.

To date, export volume has fallen 5.6% and value 4.8% from last year. Although this may not seem like a huge drop, Viet Nam is the world’s fifth largest exporter of tea and tea is one of the country’s main exports—so this translates into a sizable loss.

Again, there are calls for improvements in:  tea quality; food hygiene; pesticide use; cultivation, processing, and distribution; branding; marketing.

Same old problems.

These Are Solutions? Really?

So what about solutions? Sadly, no concrete ones are mentioned in this article. Sure, various sources say:

“there should be an organisation to monitor the use of pesticide,”

attention must be paid to developing tea cultivation,”

“farming methods must be improved . . . including . . . planning of tea plantation areas,”

development of a Vietnamese tea brand . . . and organisation of trade promotion activities was also indispensable” (Viêt Nam News, 9/3/15; emphasis mine).

But things that are being done right now, today?

Well, the ministry “would tighten State management over the use of pesticides and fertilisers, while improve [sic] farming techniques for farmers” and “was planning to grant codes to tea plantation areas to trace the origins of tea as part of efforts to professionalise tea production” (Viêt Nam News, 9/3/15).

And there has been some progress on the pesticide front. In April, Taiwan returned oolong tea to Viet Nam because the tea had too much pesticide residue, but recent tea samples did meet Taiwan’s quality standards. (Most of the oolong tea produced in Lam Dong goes to Taiwan.)

The July 2015 Euromonitor report for Viet Nam said that, for 2014, there was a stable demand for tea in the country, but as living standards rise, people prefer branded to unbranded tea—which means that “manufacturers will have to invest more in brand building and introduce new products with different health benefits to attract consumers.”

According to an (admittedly old) 2012 report in Vietnam Business Forum, organic tea is sold at the same price as other tea within Viet Nam, and demand for organic tea isn’t there. So there is little incentive for tea growers to put in the extra work and money that organic tea requires.

The remedy would be a board to oversee the tea industry, and evidently, in 2012, the “Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Vietnam, which is responsible for the management of the tea industry model and quality of tea products, is conducting research on the initiative to establish a Vietnam Tea Board based on the experience of Kenya, a famous exporter for high quality black tea in the world” (Vietnam Business Forum, 8/28/12). Such a board would vet, license, and train farmers; ensure tea quality; promote organic practices, and so on.

But the country still waits . . .

Obviously Viet Nam is capable of spectacular tea, as my cup of Yen Bai OP attests. But for the country to maximize its potential, the promises and intentions continually touted need to be implemented.

Complicated, yes. Expensive, undoubtedly. But worth the trouble? Definitely.

~”Lam Dong’s Oolong tea meets int’l standards,” Vietnam Breaking News, July 17, 2015,
~”Tea in Vietnam,” Euromonitor, July 2015,
~”Vietnam Tea Industry: ‘Exit’ from the Tea Board,” Vietnam Business Forum, August 28, 2012,
~”Vietnamese tea exports decrease,” Viêt Nam News, September 3, 2015,


Tea Hastens Death—Wait, What?!

Way (way) back in time, my grandmother took me along to visit her brother in Germany (and carry the luggage!). Hazy recollections of selecting loose leaf tea in small shops and then sipping it from delicate tea glasses in my great-uncle’s cozy apartment later prompted me to wonder why we purchased loose leaf tea in Germany to bring home to the U.S. After all, the ubiquitous teabag was well entrenched in American culture.

Death By Tea?!

In looking into this, it turns out that Germany was a relative latecomer to the tea converts in Europe. While the Portuguese were the first to bring tea to the continent, by the early 1600s the Dutch had enthusiastically developed both a love for tea and a thriving trade center. Tea soon reached Germany—but couldn’t dislodge beer as the favored beverage. And the case for tea was certainly not helped by German physician Simon Paulli’s 1635 assertion that the act of importing tea to Europe changed its essence (and not for the better!):

“As to the virtues they attribute to it [tea], it may be admitted that it does possess them in the Orient, but it loses them in our climate, where it becomes, on the contrary, very dangerous to use. It hastens the death of those who drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years” (Tea, p. 45, by J. Shalleck).

Well! That would discourage me!

East Frisians Say What-the-Heck and Develop Their Own Brew

However, other—less dire—opinions eventually took hold and by the early 1700s, tea consumption in Germany increased, particularly in East Frisia, which borders the Netherlands. Since the Dutch were the major importers, the tea would, naturally, enter Germany through this northern region, so it follows that the East Frisians would be more likely to embrace tea.

Even today, East Frisians consume the most tea in Germany, and have developed a unique brew: strong dark tea (a blend that contains mostly Assam tea) poured over rock sugar, with a bit of heavy cream carefully added. East Frisian tea is never stirred, which allows the three distinct flavors—tea, sugar, cream—to individually shine as the beverage is drunk.

Even though I am generally opposed to adding anything to my tea, I tried this at home with TeaHaus’ hearty East Frisian blend of Assam and Indonesian teas, rock sugar, and  heavy cream. Wow! I truly enjoyed this luscious combination! Because the sugar melts slowly, the first cup of tea has only a slight sweetness, which increases during succeeding cups (I’ve heard that basic politeness requires a minimum of three cups of tea), and the rich cream balances the strong brew nicely.

East Frisian tea 2

Tea in Germany Today: Upholding High Standards

Germany currently is one of the world’s top importers of tea, with the May 2014 Euromonitor International predicting that enthusiasm for tea will continue to grow as people discover its many varieties and numerous health benefits. Small shops selling high-quality loose leaf tea are common in the country (and not common here in the U.S.!)—which is why I was bringing tea home to the U.S. those many years ago­, and why Lisa, who lived in Germany for many years, began TeaHaus here in Ann Arbor.

Germany also has some of the world’s strictest regulations for tea safety, ensuring that they contain no pesticides or heavy metal residue. The German suppliers that TeaHaus works with do not buy their tea from auction houses. Rather, they work with the tea gardens themselves, building personal relationships, promoting fair trade practices, and supporting sustainability for both our environment and the livelihoods of those working in the tea industry. Further, of the total annual harvest of tea globally, only the top 0.5% meets their standards.

So now I not only have my answer, but I have discovered Frisian tea.


Help from Above: NASA and Tea

fluffy clouds

And for Today’s Weather . . .

Once upon a time—well before Google, which would have been a great help here—I, a city girl, married into a farm-rooted family.

And as days passed into months into years, I continued to be mystified (well, annoyed) as to why every phone conversation with my mother-in-law began with not just a weather report—but a very detailed weather report . . . to the tenth-of-an-inch rainfall report . . . by the hour . . .

When asked how many tenths of an inch of rainfall we received, my vague “gee, I don’t know, did it rain here today?” or rambling “well I think it may have rained this week but I can’t remember, wait, I think I saw some puddles when I got out of work, but maybe that was last week” must’ve irritated her greatly.

A total disconnect between my world and that of my mother-in-law’s. I mean, really, who cares if we received 0.2 vs 0.3 inch of rainfall??

clouds like waves

Today’s  “Today’s Weather”

Climate change, unremitting drought, the precarious state of our pollinators—I am belatedly realizing how vital these details are for farmers, and ultimately, for every one of us. Including tea growers.

Today’s Weather Report for Tea

Earlier this year, the Darjeeling and Sikkim region had too little rain during the first flush of new growth. Ramifications of insufficient rain can include delayed or stunted leaf growth, which results in less tea and possibly a poorer quality of tea; insect infestations; an impacted local economy; and escalated production costs.

Assam—which produces over half of the total tea in India—is struggling with drought. Dry conditions mean major problems with pests, yet chemical control either cannot be used or must be used in moderation per the plant protection code, which was enacted on January 1, 2015, and which “deals with safe usage of crop protection products and methodologies that would be followed to reduce pesticide residues in tea” (The Hindu, 1/1/15).

Clearly this code is good for the health of those who work in the tea garden, of those who consume the tea, and of the tea plants themselves, yet pest control remains a critical problem.

weird angry clouds

And so, scientists at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TRI) are studying how “to use charged manure/compost with high nutrients, bio-fertilizers integrated with chemical fertilizers to decrease the use of chemicals and maintain soil health, yet sustain and increase production” (NDTV, 8/10/15).

Efforts are also underway to establish insurance coverage for tea growers to cushion weather-caused losses. There are similar protections for coffee, rubber, cardamom, and biofuel trees, among others. But because tea value is highly dependent upon the quality of the tea, judging financial loss is complex. In addition, damage to a tea garden may become manifest over a longer period of time, again complicating the insurance process.

But water, of course, remains essential. Whether supplied by rainfall or by irrigation.

Help from Above!

In the beginning of this year, NASA initiated the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, program, which will, according to its website:

combine low-frequency microwave radiometer and radar to measure surface soil moisture and freeze-thaw state, providing for scientific advances and societal benefits. Direct measurements of soil moisture and freeze/thaw state are needed to improve our understanding of regional water cycles, ecosystem productivity, and processes that link the water, energy, and carbon cycles. Soil moisture information at high resolution enables improvements in weather forecasts, flood and drought forecasts, and predictions of agricultural productivity and climate change.

sunset on water

For the TMI, these data—including detailed information on the location and depth of the moisture in soil—will guide such operations as irrigation. And it seems logical that smarter irrigation will benefit the tea gardens of Assam.

The “societal benefits” promised by NASA’s mission are not hard to find in this case. When tea gardens thrive, people remain employed—which positively impacts people’s lives as well as the economy. And if the plants can remain healthy by natural means, they can fend off infestations—and our environment is in better balance, without relying on harmful pesticides.

And so—with a cup of TeaHaus’ Assam Mokalbari, one of my favorite black teas—I applaud those who are working creatively to use our earth’s limited resources more wisely.

And I’m going to google the weather report before the next phone call.

~”NASA Mission to Rejuvenate Classic Assam Tea,” NDTV, August 10, 2015,
~NASA Missions, SMAP,
~”Plant Protection Code Rolls Out to Make Tea a Safer Beverage,” The Hindu, January 1, 2015,
~”Tea Yet to Find Insurance Coverage against Adverse Weather Conditions,” The Economic Times, April 5, 2015,
~photography by Terry Rheinheimer