Traditional Tea versus Commodity Tea

Our tea is exceptional. We sell traditionally- made teas crafted by experienced tea artisans. Not commodity tea grown by big business.

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Traditional tea versus commodity tea. This is today’s choice for tea drinkers. For our customers who are particular about their tea, read on.

What is commodity tea? It is tea grown by large companies in newly-planted tea fields in areas of the world not usually associated with tea growing and that have very little tea making history. Conversely, traditionally-made tea uses well-established methodologies and techniques to do what tea farmers and mother nature do best together – make distinctive tea. Traditional tea-making utilizes the terroir of each place ( soil, geography, climate, weather, etc) and local tea bush cultivars to show a tea garden’s best flavor advantage.

IMG_3291smThe process of traditional tea-making utilizes hundreds of years of knowlege and experience in the crafting of fine tea. No two tea producing countries manufacture finished tea the exact same way, and for that we are thankful. It is differences both great and small that give tea a national identity – and many regional differences, too.

Our teas come from China, Japan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Taiwan where traditional tea is made by tea farmers and workers who are in harmony with the seasons of the year. They craft teas of exceptional beauty and elegant flavor. We select tea from small family tea farms, small village production, and tightly controlled tea co-operatives. In these gardens, the ability to make great tea is a point of pride for the tea makers, and generations of the same family carry on tea making traditions established by previous generations.

Traditional tea farmers/producers must be in tune with nature and understand the vagaries of weather, soil conditions, how to maintain healthy tea bushes, and how the keen senses of a skilled tea maker or master (sight, smell, touch and hearing ) influence the outcome of the finished tea from start to finish. The livelihood of each family or tea village depends on a knowledge of nature and the ability to wrangle with problems and situations that arise during the harvest times. For these people, tea is their life and their life is tea. This accounts for the care and respect they accord their tea.

IMG_3483smBTraditional tea production is sustainable on many levels.Traditional tea uses time-honored methods of pest control (such as encouraging the presence of birds in the tea gardens and environs and the introduction of plants that discourage the presence of certain pests) and organic farming practices ( soil enrichment, worm production and natural fertilizers made from food sources and manure). A traditional tea garden does not make use of copious amounts of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

A traditional tea garden is almost always small and is often broken up into patches of tea bushes located here and there. The elevation is high, away from the pests that plague low elevation tea gardens. The garden is comprised of mature tea bushes (which produce the best teas) that are well-adapted to their environment. In such tea gardens local varieties of tea bushes or tea trees will have been growing in that place for decades. This means that the roots of these tea bushes will be well dispersed under and throughout the soil, allowing healthy soil to nurture the bushes through the roots. Local tea bush cultivars add complexity and individuality to finished tea and keep the diversity of taste alive and well from region to region.


teabagsIn comparison, commodity tea ( or industrial tea, agro business tea, etc ) for the most part, is just that –it is intensively grown and is frequently-harvested leaf that is grown for high harvest yields, not for distinctive flavors or unique qualities. This tea is grown for wholesale packagers of commercial grade tea, flavored tea blends and bottled tea drinks. The goal for industrial tea producers is low production cost and abundant yield, a combination that rarely results in premium quality tea.

NOTE: There is now in our modern world a new sub-category of Commodity Tea, which is tea that is grown in smaller holdings or family farms or co-ops, and is then grouped with other leaf  and manufactured in shared facilities; or is processed by a village tea factory or private enterprise. The goals for these tea factories are to provide the most modern, hygenic, often organic (which needs to be kept separate) and consistent leaf tea possible. Similar to regional olive mills, cider presses, dairies for cheese-making, or local meat-processing plants, these small tea factories are at the cutting edge of being modern facilities using traditional methodologies. We do support this type of manufacture, even though it technically falls under the ‘Commodity’ category. Especially now with the need to keep organic teas separate, and to be able to trace tea lots from grower to shipper to vendor, these tea factories are often best able to provide this provenance and quality control, and therefore serve a valuable position in the flow of tea manufacture. These small, premium tea factories are found primarily in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and throughout South Asia. However, they are the exception in this broad category of ‘Commodity’ tea manufacture. They are not the agribusiness that we speak of here that is prevalent in Africa, South America and the south Pacific. END OF NOTE

Commodity tea is grown in large industrial tea gardens in flat, low-lying agricultural areas in non-historic tea producing countries where tea growing is a relatively new industry. The techniques used are standardized and mechanized – typical of agribusiness agriculture.

Tea gardens such as these exist throughout most of Africa and parts of South America. Whereas most English and Irish tea companies once used China, India, and Ceylon ( Sri Lanka ) teas in their blends, these tea sources have been replaced in the last 20 years by teas grown in newly-planted tea gardens in unusual, non-traditionally-tea-growing places. Part of this switch is based on simple supply issues ( there is not enough traditional tea in the world for large companies to use, even if they wanted to pay higher prices ) and price issues ( these new modern teas can be grown and harvested at a far lower cost than traditionally-made tea.

Because there is no rich soil for the plants to depend on (the acreage planted for these tea harvests is often land that has been recently clear-cut, or is ‘spent’ from decades used growing other cash crops or grazing; so large amounts of commercial fertilizers (and possibly pesticides too) are required to maintain bushes such as these. Because of these artificial growing conditions, the roots of these plants frequently mass together in a ball just under the surface of the soil, which means that what is nourishing the plants is the applied chemicals, not the soil.

There is no sustainability in this scheme – without the continued heavy application of fertilizers there is no ability for the soil to sustain the tea plants. And, there is little diversity among the tea bushes – the plants are often clones of one master type or are genetically the same. So, there is no effort made to ensure layers of flavor or subtle differences in these teas. Uniformity and ease of production are paramount.

And lastly, commodity tea has no history, culture, inherited knowledge, high-elevation location, cooling clouds and mist or moisture-laden weather, seasonality, or other historical or cultural elements that are part of traditional tea-making culture. It is business-grown tea, pure and simple.

Commodity tea is not the type of tea that we want to drink or sell to our customers. But it is the reason that we are committed to selling traditional tea and supporting the efforts of artisan tea-makers who produce delicious, awe-inspiring tea.

So, given the choice, which tea do you want in your teacup?