Where does your boba tea come from? Sustainability of tea

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In high school, there was a pearl milk tea shop right across from my campus. During my freshman year, blown away by the freedom of being able to choose what we did during our time after school, a group of my friends — we called ourselves the four musketeers — would walk across the street to Tapioca Express — we called it “TapEx” — every single day, without fail, to purchase bubble tea with pearls and some spicy fried popcorn chicken. This routine was blissful, an era of spending our parents’ money on more than 100 plastic cups, plastic wrappings, plastic straws and plastic bags and slurping down sugar water in the parking lot outside of the Chinese supermarket. 

I think that’s why in college, I don’t so much have an obsession with boba. Instead, I love the tea itself more. Tea is very simple. At its core, it only requires a cup, some hot water and dried leaves. Freshman year of college, in images, looked a bit like my hot water kettle, hot leaf juice sloughing around my table, tea leaves stuck in my teeth — I was too lazy to acquire a filter. It seemed that the knowledge of the problematic elements of single-use plastics such as cups and straws had entered campus consciousness, and I remember the surge of reusable boba straws and the nearly $2 premium on drinks that came in glass cups. 

It was not until my senior spring semester that I thought to ask the question, “What about the tea itself?” Is my tea sustainable? Was it farmed with sustainability in mind? Who farmed my tea? How did the tea get to me?

This semester, I’m leading TeaCAL, a DeCal about tea, and we were recently awarded the Student Environmental Resource Center’s Greener DeCal fellowship, a fellowship intended for DeCals that aren’t traditionally in the sustainability space but can have their curriculum modified to include sustainability efforts. Tea, incidentally, is an interesting space through which to understand sustainability in agriculture and supply chain, specifically in land use, labor, cultivation and delivery. 

All tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis, which, based on farming, drying, oxidizing and storing practices, divides into five different types of tea: white, green, oolong, black and pu’er. If you’ve ever been to Asha Tea House on University Avenue, you will notice that its teas are named by their origin and processing: For example, High Mountain (高山), Iron Goddess(铁观音) and Big Red Robe(大红袍)are all oolong teas with vastly different tastes and aromas from Taiwan, Anxi and Wuyi, respectively

Tea, incidentally, is an interesting space through which to understand sustainability in agriculture and supply chain, specifically in land use, labor, cultivation and delivery.

Tea originated in Southwest China, consumed by some as medicine and by others as an energizing drink, as early as 2737 B.C., according to legend. Even though we now may see tea as simply a beverage to be consumed, tea was once party to Britain’s colonial legacy over China, India, Sri Lanka and even the United States (ex. Boston Tea Party). In 1685, while Britain’s demand for Chinese tea was ever increasing, China’s Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi banned the sale of foreign products in China, resulting in a widening trade deficit. Taking advantage of India’s land for the production of opium, by the late 1700s, in order to balance its debts and the trade deficit, the British East India Company sold opium into China through smugglers, causing 4 million to 12 million of a population of about 150 million people to become addicted. 

In 1839, the Chinese, after sending an unanswered plea to Queen Victoria to stop the continued sale of opium, seized all boats smuggling opium and sank 1.1 million kilograms of opium. This marked the beginning of the Opium War, resulting in the first of many unequal treaties between China and the West, which legalized the opium trade, ceded Hong Kong, opened specific trading ports and demanded reparations for war expenses. Even these terms did not satisfy British demand for tea; the British government supported the cultivation of tea in India and further spread tea to Sri Lanka, where many Indian workers were brought by the British to cultivate the fields. Tea played a major role in shaping geopolitical relations between Asia and the West. 

In Sri Lanka now, about 4% of the land is dedicated to tea plantations and 5% of the population works in the tea industry. According to BBC, a tea picker is required to meet a daily quota of 18 kilograms, which earns a daily wage of 600 Sri Lankan rupees, or SLR, as of 2018, an increase from 500 SLR six years prior. Appreciation of the currency, however, has nullified the effect of this increase. Workers still live in housing structures built by the British in the 1920s, with little access to electricity and running water.

Ceylon tea refers to tea grown in Sri Lanka and certified by the Sri Lankan tea board — Ceylon was Sri Lanka’s colonial name. Ceylon black tea is the most famous, owing to Sri Lanka’s particular climate, which produces sweet and light tea. SolidariTEA, a Berkeley Benefit Corporation that sells tea blends, produces its Black Rose Ceylon sourced through fair-trade worker cooperative Equal Exchange from the Small Organic Farmers’ Association — an organization of small organic farms.

Traditionally, the tea that accompanies boba is sourced from Taiwan and China. Chinese tea accounts for more than a third of global tea production, and more than 80 million Chinese tea farmers and their families depend on this crop’s growth and sale. Of these farmers, 15 million are small-scale, family-based organizations with little ties to major corporations or cooperatives. 

Ali Roth, owner of Berkeley’s Blue Willow Tea, a tea wholesaler and shop that specializes in single-origin teas, considers “physical sustainability and social sustainability” when making purchasing decisions. She travels directly to farmers in Asia to source her tea, and these travels have crystallized her concerns. 

“Some of the practices of estate-style tea production … basically clear-cuts huge amounts of land and is largely the result of colonialism,” Roth said. “The people doing the work get paid nothing and have little say in the operation of the company.”

Instead, Blue Willow sources mainly from “small farms, cooperatives and collective farms … all over China and Japan. People work the soil themselves, and (farms) usually get passed down through the family.” 

In Southern Taiwan, Roth sources from a mother-son tea-farming duo who built a factory now shared among tea farmers in the area. 

Resource pooling is also prominent in Japan; Roth pointed to an organization in Kyushu called Kagoshima Tea Market Place, which allows farmers to, “as a unit, sell their tea and improve each other’s visibility.” The convivial atmosphere is extended to buyers: “Whenever I go down there, we all have big dinners together and hang out on each farm,” many of which specialize in different cultivars and never hesitate to recommend other farmers’ goods, Roth explained.

Peter Christy of Far Leaves Tea, a Berkeley tea shop founded more than 20 years ago, emphasized that “building relationships” is key to his business. 

“It’s hard to get all the way to the farm. Half (of our tea supply) are blends that are consistent, mostly from Germany, from a vendor that does certified organic. As far as the single-estate teas, they’re different every year. They come from different places every year,” Christy said.

We can trace the path of one of the Far Leaves founder’s favorite teas, the Dong Ding Oolong. First, the oolong is grown in the high mountains of Taiwan by individual farmers. Then, a wholesaler with whom Far Leaves has worked for many years aggregates the tea and ships it to Far Leaves. Finally, Far Leaves packages the tea in metal tins and sells them to American consumers through the Berkeley shop or its online store. 

Robert Vincent, CEO of Teance, a tea shop that began nearly two decades ago in the East Bay, explained that the shop is not an expert in the field of sustainable agriculture, but that it participates in the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis, which “keeps the conversation going” about sustainability, culture, flavor and more.

“When we bring the tea in, we’re focused on the quality of it and how it compares to other teas,” he said. “Our purpose is to source the best tea we find and sell it at a price that supports the tea farmers that we work with and allows us to sustain ourselves.”

“Our purpose is to source the best tea we find and sell it at a price that supports the tea farmers that we work with and allows us to sustain ourselves.” — Robert Vincent

Individual farms will send samples of the year’s harvest, and based on quality and taste, Teance will choose to purchase the tea. For example, Teance has a long-term relationship with Mr. Dai, a tea farmer from China’s Anhui province who represents his community; Mr. Dai’s main wares are high-quality Dragonwell green teas, which have sold well in stores. 

There are many factors in considering quality, Vincent noted.

“The quality of the product is dependent on the weather,” he said. “The closest comparison is the wine industry — vintages vary based on the weather conditions of the area. It’s the same with tea, particularly when you’re dealing with high-quality whole leaf tea.” 

I would be remiss not to mention the major corporations that shape the tea industry. Most notable is Unilever, a company that buys more than 10% of the world’s tea supply with brands such as Lipton, Tazo and Pure Leaf. In 2007, Unilever committed to sourcing tea sustainably, and its website notes that by the end of 2019, “90% of all our tea was from certified sustainable sources.”

The page continues with further laudatory segments about Unilever’s commitment to protecting the land, reducing pesticides and engaging with small farmers. While these steps are important, critics have revealed that part of Unilever’s success in achieving its metrics could be attributed to the fact that Unilever itself sets and defines success in each of these endeavors. 

For example, many smaller tea farms, which are often considered the most sustainable, don’t have certified organic status. Roth of Blue Willow elaborated: “A lot of my best teas, from the best brewers, don’t certify because it’s cost prohibitive. They grow organic and will get their teas tested in labs (to confirm), but we can’t use the word ‘organic’ in the label.” 

Vincent of Teance concurred: “Certified organic … can be a bit of a misnomer. Most of the producers we deal with are not willing to do that, because they don’t produce in the quantities that make sense. (Getting certified) can in some cases double or triple the price of tea. However, in many cases in China, these (sustainable) practices have been there for centuries.”

The three tea shops interviewed all expressed their concerns with changes in business due to the coronavirus pandemic and associated shelter-in-place order. Blue Willow has had to lay off employees, and Teance has been able to keep employees on reduced payroll. All have lost revenue and face concerns for the upcoming months of continued business slowdown.

“Fortunately, we have our website, and we’ve had requests for curbside pickups,” Christy said, which has kept the business going for Far Leaves.

Both Roth and Vincent mentioned challenges with applying to government programs. 

“We’ve applied for the payroll protection program loan, and to be honest, that whole process has been very frustrating,” Vincent said. 

Roth noted that the uncertainty of the next few months makes it hard to make business decisions.

“April and May is when I make most of my purchases for the year, (and) I have no idea what kind of numbers I should be preparing for,” she said. “I’m spending all of my money on really good teas, hoping people will still want to buy it.” 

For a small silver lining, Roth said, “The community support is really where it’s at. People have been emailing, sending messages on Instagram, texting, sending tea to friends across the country (via the online store). We also have a virtual tip jar for those on unemployment.” 

In my time facilitating TeaCAL, I’ve learned quite a bit about tea and its effects on people. In the stories and experiences of my classmates, I’ve heard how tea is interwoven into our experiences with others. 

In class, we asked students to meditate for 10 minutes before drinking tea. Then, with our minds clear, we tasted tea, mostly from China and Taiwan. Students sat in groups of five, each with their own Chinese tea set. While class often began in a contemplative silence, it always grew into peaceful chatter about tea and, soon after, about our lives. Our new friends would say that this class was the highlight of their week. 

Their comments always made me feel a bit like Uncle Iroh from “Avatar: The Last Airbender”: “Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights.”

Contact Shannon Hong at [email protected].