Oct 28, 2010

tea and the inner climate of the body

About the photo: Dance of the Han, by Robert Seto. Don't they all look tea drunk? :D

Having a lot of teas in stock makes me feel like a king :D The moment deciding which tea to drink is always a sweet moment. Most of the time it doesn't seem an entirely arbitrary decision. Actually, there seems an inner me who decides which tea I "need". (And occasionally the "need" is "coffee", which can surely be deemed as an herbal tea. Haha.) A good tea doesn't only bring pleasant taste to me, it makes me feel good inside out. For example, today I was feeling cold, not because of the weather, and not due to short of layers of clothes. It felt like having a tiny glacier inside me. That's why I reached for my favorite charcoal roast Tie Guan Yin. Sip after sip, I feel the little glacier inside me is melting and I start to sweat slightly. This makes me feel so strong and alive.

Some people I know have very prominent seasonal patterns of tea preference. I myself have such pattern too. In spring months, I crave green tea, and almost never touch red tea. Then from some day in September, I would start to yearn for red tea from time to time. Generally, I drink "greener" teas during Spring and Summer, and "darker" teas during Autumn and Winter.

But it's not always about seasons. There are summer days when I feel a strong need for "high fire" teas such as Yan Cha. And there are winter days when the heated room is so dry and I crave some Sheng puerh. In some sense, these can all be explained by Chinese medical theories. For example, it's believed that in summer days, people's yang spirit emerges to the very surface of the body, and the core of the body is surrounded mostly by yin. Hence a Chinese herbal medicine doctor would often emphasize the importance of drinking hot/warm water in summer, even more than in winter days. I believe human body is an extremely complex system and general theories, no matter oriental or occidental, traditional or modern scientific, can't summarize the mechanisms of every single body. Therefore, I sometimes vaguely understand why I "need" certain tea at certain time, and sometimes I have no understanding but just follow the senses. Very often, I am amazed that one's intuition often brings one to what's really good and healthy. (I have to admit that to me this is restricted to tea and following my intuition to ice-cream doesn't have such healthy outcome.)

This unknown, ever changing inner climate of the body is also why I never believe it's fair to say one tea is "healthier" than others. There are few things in this world that are "the more, the better". One man's sweet treat can be another man's poison. Nowadays in food industry, it's amazing how many clinical studies on "health benefits" of things are actually sponsored by or affiliated to corporations that sell these things (and very often, by large corporations that sell these things not in their best or most natural forms, corporations that are more interested in selling then in the food stuff itself). Tea is not an exception. Many of these things, including tea, are indeed healthy in one way or another, but probably not at all "the more, the healthier". I do believe one tea can be healthier to a specific person than another tea, and one tea serves a person better at one time than at another time. But I guess tea drinkers have to rely on themselves to discover. Human body is a complex and ever changing system. Clinical studies can hardly tell you what tea is the healthiest to you on a specific day.

So, I wonder if you tea drinkers sometimes feel a changing pattern of desire to certain teas, and what the pattern is like. Does seasonal climate affect your tea drinking? Does weather affect your tea preferences? Are there specific teas that you crave in cold? In a heat wave? On a rainy or snowy or windy day?

If you don't feel such a pattern at all, it's actually very good too. An herbal medicine doctor once told me that people who are not sensitive to seasonal or environmental changes are usually the physically fittest ones.

Oct 25, 2010

2002 CNNP French Export 7581 Brick Shu

Tasting note was recorded on Steepster. And here are a few pictures.

In short, I adore this tea, which had never happened between me and a shu.

Among all the tea categories, puerh Shu is probably the one that I like the least. I occasionally enjoy shu, but had never felt the “magic” as I would find in some other teas. After trying some older shu that everybody else adores but I feel at the most neutral, I’ve kind of settled with the few inexpensive products that I can get along with, and I haven’t been trying a lot of new products recently. Generally my take of shu as a “restaurant tea”, “milk tea” and “tonic drink” may have largely held me back from exploring it as a gourmet tea.

Now here is another shu that’s supposed to be “really, really good”, according to some friends. I wondered if it would taste good to me.

This brick is in a paper box without any information about the production date, which is not uncommon for puerh products before 2005. I got the production date from the supplier, whom I 100% trust. But in general, I believe for products like this one, people should always taste a sample before buying a whole brick or cake. Inside the box is a thin layer of paper wrap, which I had to tear into pieces to get the brick out. The brick is made with Grade 8 leaves, which are larger and older leaves with some stems. Although it was the first time I had pried off flakes of leaves from the brick, I already got a small stone slightly larger than peanut size, which of course is nothing extraordinary for a puerh brick. :-p

I used a 150ml purple clay teapot for this tea. Although the teapot is indeed suitable for Shu, the real reason I used it is that I thought the teapot was already “soiled” by other shu products I had before. So you know my general attitude toward Shu. :-p I used tea leaves of the size of a oreo cookie and had the first several infusions as short as possible (approximately 10 seconds).

Now I want to say this is my favorite Shu so far. But please notice that this conclusion is from someone who doesn’t have much experience with lots of good and expensive Shu (many of them are so rare and legendary that I can’t manage to have them). One the other hand, I would recommend this tea to people who like black tea and/or dark oolong but don’t like Shu, because this may be the “likeable” Shu.

I like this tea first of all because it doesn’t have a hint of over-fermented (Wo Dui) taste. Nor does it have the un-offensive but rather hollow taste I often find from a Shu. Secondly, I was glad to have got some kicks from this tea. (To me, “kicks” means prominent aftertaste, especially a taste rising to nasal cavity and back of the throat.) Besides it has all the nice characters of a shu and yields many soupy and sweet infusions.

This is why I really love this tea. Would I call it a gourmet tea? Yes and no. Yes because it tastes great and it’s rare. No because look at those leaves! It’s typical of a puerh brick to have coarse leaves. After all, originally puerh brick is supposed to be enjoyed by nomads and boiled on campfire. Its charm is not elegance but unruliness. For us modern geeks, nomad life is an intriguing fantasy. Next time after my lamb chop meal, I am going to enjoy this tea and dream of the life on the prairie! :D

Oct 21, 2010

Huo Shan Huang Ya (霍山黃芽)

Huo Shan Huang Ya (Yellow Bud) is one of the teas that have longest history but changed a lot throughout history. The name of this tea was recorded in history of Tang Dynasty as one of the tribute teas. But the tea people drank in Tang Dynasty was dramatically different from what we have today. In Ming Dyansty and Qing Dynasty, this tea won national popularity. Most loose leaf green and yellow teas we have today follow the processing methods developed in late Ming to Qing Dynasty.

Production of Huo Shan Huang Ya was discontinued between early 1950s and early 1970s. The production started again in 1971, when there were still a few tea farmers in their 70s or 80s who knew how to make this tea. Since the discontinuity of production was only 20 years and the resumed production was under direction of people who had the expertise, we can assume the tea we have today is quite similar to what this tea was like in Ming Dynasty. However, it's also worth noticing that the processing method of this tea was adjusted in mid-1980s to make it more similar to a green tea. This was due to market demand, according to the book 中国茶谱. In some sense, making a yellow tea greener can be called a betrayal of the tradition, because yellow tea is very unique and doesn't have to be made greener to be valuable. But as we know, such betrayal of tradition happens from time to time with a market incentive. In recent years, yellow tea has received more and more attention and in a process of revival. In America, I've heard more and more tea drinkers talking about yellow tea too. Currently, market demand on yellow tea is increasing. Both Meng Ding Yellow Bud and Huo Shan Yellow Bud, although still often made greener than they should be, start to have more and more traditional style yellow tea products, again, with a market incentive. Sometimes, in tea or other fields, it's easy for us to blame producers for chasing market profits and giving up traditional values of their products. But in fact, without consumers caring about traditions and without intellectuals advocating for traditions, how can we account producers for all the loss of traditions.

This is the first time I've had this tea. I got it, again, from my group shopping organized by a tea lovers' group in China. This product is a "greener version" of this yellow tea. Currently in market, greener version of this tea is still more commonly seen than the traditional yellow version. But this year some friends of mine got some yellow version this year, which makes me feel hopeful to get some in future years.

Although a green version, this tea has a honey hint flavor unique to yellow tea. The liquor is less green or bright than that of a typical green tea.

Unlike green tea, yellow tea is an oxidized tea. Unlike oxidation in red tea or oolong, the oxidation of yellow tea is driven by hot and humid environment after its enzyme loses activity. Oxidation in red tea and oolong is mainly driven by the enzymes in tea leaves. The unique oxidation in yellow tea causes its unique flavor.

Like many other great things, yellow tea was very possibly created by accidents. After the "kill green" step in green tea making (when enzymes are killed), if the tea is not cooled and dried soon enough, tea leaves will be oxidized to certain degree and become yellow (similar phenomenon can be seen if cooked vegetable/beans are kept humid and hot in a sealed container for a while). Once this happened and gave the tea enjoyable flavor, people started to intentionally let it happen to make yellow tea.

An alternative hypothesis is that yellow tea was created before green tea. And later one, some people improved the processing procedure and eliminated any delay that may cause oxidation. Hence green tea, an un-oxidized tea was created.

So there is no final conclusion yet whether yellow tea appeared in history before or after green tea. But this makes me think that traditions of tea making are complicated. With small adjustment in the procedure, a yellow tea can be made greener, and a green tea can be made yellower. Then it's really hard to say which way is THE tradition, the original tradition or the newer tradition, the most classical procedure or the reformed/refined procedure.

Oct 18, 2010

Tong Cheng Small Orchid (桐城小蘭花)

I don't know how many Chinese green teas there are. From books and articles, I've read about probably 200-300 specific kinds. From time to time, I bump into a tea that's not recorded by the books I read (such as the Orchid Fairy Twig). Also from time to time, I see information about some tea that I've never tasted. Then I would put it on my wish list and hope someday I can taste it. But there are always more teas on the wish list than what I have time to try. This tea caught my attention because my friends recommended two suppliers who are actually not sellers but were just selling their family tea once every year. In both families, the tea is made by the retired parents from tea plantations they no longer cultivate, as a result of a policy called "returning agricultural fields to forests". This policy is applied in some provinces in order to restore forests, as in the past a few decades Chinese forests were severely encroached by agricultural fields. So the tea trees of these two families are currently growing in wild conditions, and the parents harvest leaves in spring just because "the leaves are there". I had the ambition of getting some of this tea for Life in Teacup store, not because of its "organic conditions" (although organic is good and important, it's not officially tested on this tea), but because in my past experience, some "wild" teas taste great. But eventually the tea was sold out fast and I ended up only getting a small bag to share with family and friends.

Tong Cheng Small Orchid is a close relative to Shu Cheng Small Orchid (舒城小蘭花), which is a historically famous green tea from Anhui. But with so many teas in market, even famous teas may not get a large share of the market. Shu Cheng Small Orchid is available in Chinese market, but not in large amount. Tong Cheng Small Orchid is much less seen.

Dry leaves.

In this brewing session, I accidentally threw in too many leaves. But this tea tastes great in high concentration, without any bitterness. This tea is called "Small Orchid" partially because of its "orchid aroma" and partially because its open leaves in water look like small orchid flowers. I always have difficulty describing tastes of green tea. In Chinese tea jargon, the highest praise on a green tea is "orchid aroma". But then this is different from the "orchid aroma" of Tie Guan Yin and some other oolongs. I would say this tea has typical green tea type of "orchid aroma" and it has the taste of high elevation (it's from approximately 800m above sea level). But I know it's not effective description :-p

The seller is proud of the tea's taste but is so humble about the tea processing. A few times she mentioned to me that "it's just a farmer's tea" and that her parents couldn't afford the time or energy to carefully make all the leaves into perfect shape. The dry leaves don't look as well trimmed and pretty as many other green teas, but still I think they are so lively and beautiful. Then once tea leaves started to expand in the glass, they were brilliant! In Chinese green tea drinking, enjoying the view of leaves is a big part. Many top notch green teas are made in the most fastidious way and almost all the tea leaves are of same size with perfectly intact blades and buds. These tea doesn't have as perfect leaves. But I've found these little wild leaves not a bit less beautiful.

If I may assume Tong Cheng Small Orchid originated at approximately the same time period as Shu Cheng Small Orchid (Tong Cheng and Shu Cheng are two cities some 50 miles apart, and the two Small Orchid teas are somewhat similar), then Tong Cheng Small Orchid was invented in late Ming Dynasty (16-17th Century). Then it's another one of the currently existing oldest green tea varieties in China (most teas with even earlier origins changed to deviate from their original processing methods). Tong Cheng is a city of literati. Probably half of my favorite Qing Dynasty essayists (essay is a "hottest" literature form in Qing Dynasty) are either from Tong Cheng or mentored by Tong Cheng scholars. Therefore I feel it's my great luck to have this tea, the exactly same luscious liquor and same elegant dancing leaves as enjoyed by my favorite essayists hundreds of years ago.

Oct 14, 2010

Honey Aroma Tie Guan Yin from Wu Yu Tai

The other day I planned to write about this but ended up writing why I like Wu Yu Tai. Now I am starting again.

Wu Yu Tai is the tea store my parents adore. It used to sell mainly green tea and jasmine green tea, with some red teas and several oolongs. After Tie Guan Yin and Yan Cha became popular in North China, Wu Yu Tai started to sell more oolong products. When I was younger, I had a lot of green tea from there. But I didn't pay much attention to their oolongs.

Once (2007, I think) I got this Honey Aroma Tie Guan Yin Grade 2 rather randomly when buying other teas in their store. I tasted it once and thought the flavor was a little too dark and heavy (probably the vacuum pack held the "fire taste" of the tea for longer time). Then the tea was left in my cabinet for over a year. When I tried this tea again, I suddenly fell in love with it. The leaves don't seem to be from very high elevation. The spent leaves are not as thick, and don't look as handsome as some higher grade tea leaves. But still they are nice leaves. The flavor is very warm with an aroma that I would indeed compare to honey. Its flavor seems darker than its liquor color. I always think the color of the little vacuum wrap perfectly reflects the flavor of this tea.

Later on, after I started getting a series of traditional style Tie Guan Yin from a favorite supplier of mine, I've noticed that some roasted Tie Guan Yin seem to have greatly improved flavor after resting for months. I didn't figure out why, and to me it's always a guess that which Tie Guan Yin would turn better this way.

In recent years I've found my so far favorite series of charcoal roasted Tie Guan Yin and think they are averagely better than the Wu Yu Tai Grade 2. But still I think this Grade 2 tea has some unique characters. Since I liked this Grade 2 tea, I had been wondering what Grade 1 would be like. In the past 2 years, I passed by Wu Yu Tai for several times, but didn't get the Grade 1 tea either due to other distractions or the store I visited ran out of it. But eventually I got a can of it this past summer.

First infusion.

Seventh infusion.

Spent leaves.

This one is actually significantly different from the Grade 2. It has very prominent aromatic fruity flavor which in the Chinese tea jargon is described as "honey peach aroma". The flavor reminds me of an old style Tie Guan Yin from the year of 2001, just stronger. Still the leaves are not of the highest grade of Tie Guan Yin, but they are definitely from high elevation and they look very much alive even after 10 infusions. 

What touches me the most about this tea is, although this is the first time I've got it, I know it has been around in the past decade. Wu Yu Tai sells a lot of modern green style Tie Guan Yin nowadays, but it never gave up this traditional style product. This tea was there before Tie Guan Yin ever got popular in North China, and it has been there throughout all the time when most tea drinkers adore modern green style Tie Guan Yin. That's when we use "classic" and "timeless" to describe a traditional business.

The tea is sold in Wu Yu Tai for 120rmb ($18) per 100g. About this tea and a few other teas from large Chinese sellers, some people asked me if I could sell them here. I don't have the plan to sell them, because their wholesale scale in China is at the level of xx kg. It's way above me. Besides, working with brand name products is not my major goal. But I do help people buy directly from China at Chinese local prices (shipping is still steep so it only works well when price and shipping balance out). I believe most great Chinese teas have never been introduced to the western world yet (while major exporters and importers are busy dealing with cheap tea of roughly $1 per pound), and there should be more channels. With today's communication and financial technologies, there surely can be and should be more ways for people to get their tea.

Oct 12, 2010

2005 Jing Mai Princess Bu Lang Blank Label Sheng

This is back logging. Original taste note is on Steepster.

It's wrapped by a blank piece of white cotton paper. I asked why, and the seller said the production was more than expected and the factory was out of printed formal wraps. At that time, the printing industry in Jing Mai was still primitive and couldn't respond promptly to emerging orders that were out of the plan.

I've seen other puerh products with blank labels too. Some of them are pretty good. Generally they are sold under market average prices, and only reputable sellers with solid customer base would carry them. Most people would feel more comfortable with a tea in a more formal, printed wrap. I have some puerh at home with blank wraps, for drinking at home only. I store some other puerh cakes as future gifts to girlfriends, uncles, aunts and possibly "business" friends. None of them has a blank wrap. They are not necessarily better than those with blank labels, but they look more brilliant as gifts.

Many times I heard this from different people, "don't let the words on a puerh wrap influence you too much". And I think it's good advice. Many terms such as "ancient tree", "thousand-year-tree", "pure / consistent material (纯料)", or names of famous tea producing areas, all of them could have flexible interpretations when showing up on a puerh wrap. Everybody knows this. But still, most people would prefer a wrap printed with anything to a blank one. It is like saying don't judge the inner quality of a person or a thing based on its appearance, while in fact most of the time we are all influenced by the appearance.

Something else interesting about this cake is, according to its inner label (it does have one), it's one of the 9999 limited edition cakes made by Lan Cang Jing Mai Princess Bu Lang Tea Factory, for the 2005 event of Horse Caravan Puerh Tribute. The event gathered 120 horses, 43 horsemen and more staff. It took them more than 5 months to carry a lot of puerh tea from Yunnan to Beijing. The event was organized in memory of the first puerh horse caravan that carried tribute puerh to the mandarins in Beijing, which happened approximately 300 years ago and was virtually the start of a glorious era for puerh. To my understanding, these cakes with blank wraps were those left behind in Yunnan, not those taken up north.

Oct 7, 2010

Concept Tea (4) - Zen Patriarch's Tea (二祖禪茶)

This is a new green tea variety inspired by historical legend of tea made by the second Zen Patriarch, Hui Ke, in the 6th century. Therefore the tea is named after the Zen Patriarch. This tea was invented and produced in Tai Hu County of Anhui Province, which is the cradle-land of Chinese Zen, as well as source region of many historically famous green teas.

The tea leaves are from the earliest harvest of spring. They are very small and don't look as handsome as leaves of many other famous teas. 

When brewed in the glass, the leaves expand and look very alive! For an early spring green tea, it has surprisingly rich flavor. I hadn't expected such small leaves would yield so much flavor.

The manufacturer told me that, with supports from local government as well as Buddhism community, workers in this tea plantation were determined to make the best tea they could. The tea was grown in the pristine mountains of Tai Hu County with eco-friendly cultivation. I think, it's great when people make tea with a religious mindset, with respect to the nature and faith in their work.

Production of this tea started from 2004. This is the first year I've ever had this tea. It's rarely seen in market, even in China. I always look for new teas to taste. But I know I can't have all of them. Life is so short and there are so many teas to experience. I would have otherwise neglected this tea, but I was lucky to have obtained a small pack of it, along with a few other rare teas, in a group shopping opportunity in China! It's one of the tastiest green teas I've got this year. Still I don't know how this tea can stand out among numerous famous green teas in market. But I believe if the manufacturer remains religious about their tea making and carry forward their eco-friendly cultivation, they have great expectations.

I would like to include it in Concept Tea because it's one of the newest tea varieties with its root deep into history.

Although the idea of this tea is based on a legend in Zen history, it is not just a story. Zen and tea culture have intermingled with each other since both of their earlier stages.

In the 6th century, Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China. He is regarded as the first Patriarch of Chinese Zen (and he was the 28th Zen Patriarch from India, the source of Buddhism). One of the many legends about origin of tea is, when Bodhidharma had his famous nine-year meditation, chewing leaves falling off a nearby tree helped him drive away sleepiness. The leaves turned out to be tea leaves. This is just a legend, without exact historical records.

According to historical records, in mid 6th century, the successor of Bodhidharma, Hui Ke took shelter in Southwestern Anhui (today's Tai Hu County) to hide away from religious persecution. It was in Southwestern Anhui that Hui Ke carried forward Bodhidharma's Zen practice and developed Zen into a major branch of Chinese Buddhism. Hui Ke's successors, the third and fourth Zen Patriarchs, as well as many famous Zen masters in later generations, all spent significant time of their lives teaching and practicing Zen in the mountains of Southwestern Anhui. This is also a very important region in tea history. The culture of Zen-Tea originated right here, during Hui Ke and Seng Can (the third Zen Patriarch)'s life time.

There are stories among Zen students about Hui Ke invented a way of processing tea for his students. The tea helped the students keep alert during meditation, as well as making them smarter. These are just stories, without specific historical records. However, it's very possible that the stories were from real history, considering Southwestern Anhui is one of the best green tea regions of China throughout history.

The historical records of Hui Ke's successors using tea in their Zen practice to some degree re-enforce the stories of Hui Ke making tea. It's well documented in Zen history that the third Zen Patriarch, Seng Can integrated tea culture in his Zen teaching. And later on, Tea appeared in more and more historical documents of Zen, as well as Zen poems. In his teaching, Seng Can wrote this Zen poem to his student Dao Xin (who later became the fourth Zen Patriarch): 华种虽因地,从地种茶生,若无人下种,华地尽无生。(Before a great tea germinates from the earth, someone has to put the seed in the soil. Even the richest land couldn't possibly give rise to a plant, if the seed was not put in the soil from the beginning.) This is Seng Can's interpretation of Zen. My understanding of it is, we must cultivate to harvest, study to learn, and hold a strong will to reach the enlightenment. It is as simple as some of our daily work, and it can be as hard as making a great tea.

Oct 5, 2010

2005 Bu Lang Silver Tip Sheng Cake

This tea has a black currant type of flavor, dark, heavy and warm. It's a tea that I would enjoy very much in winter days. The aftertaste is fresh, fragrant and very long lasting. There is a hint of smokiness which I almost enjoy.

The full title of the tea on the wrap is Bu Lang Mountain Ancient Big Tree Puerh. The manufacturer told me the leaves were from hundred-year-old trees. Strictly speaking, trees of 800 years old are defined as "ancient trees" in China. But practically in the market, not all puerh titled "Ancient Tree" is from tea trees older than 100 years. Besides, in some regions of Yunnan, people traditionally call tea plantation with hundred-year-old trees "ancient tea plantation".

Leaves of this tea are quite adorable.

I don't drink puerh most of the time. I generally don't drink new puerh, and drink 2-3 years old puerh very rarely, mainly for tasting purposes. Recently I've realized that some of my 2007 tea is "ok" for me to taste - to me, younger tea is not "ok" because of its strong cooling power. I found this 2005 tea (although under very dry storage all the time, in Kunming and then New England) very enjoyable with great warmth in it. This just makes me realize the year 2005 is already 5 years away from us. Puerh is a strange thing. When your tea gets more mature and more amicable to drink after years of dormancy, it doesn't just bring innocent joy. It makes you realize another big chunk of time has elapsed.

Oct 4, 2010

Yong Xi Huo Qing (涌溪火青) - not another gunpowder

Another nice surprise of this year. I got a small pack of it from a group shopping for green tea. I wouldn't have otherwise noticed this tea. It's a historically famous green tea. But for some reason, maybe due to its "gunpowder" kind of appearance, a spherical-shaped green tea wouldn't catch much of my attention.

The dry tea leaves are curled. I had never seen such beautiful and shiny curled green tea!

I wasn't sure how to brew this tea. But it doesn't look like a tea hard to deal with. I put newly boiled water in the glass mug, and then put in some dry tea grains a few minutes later.

The tea leaves dance and expand beautifully in water. Many of them sink all the way to the bottom. Some of them float around while expanding. The bottom of the mug looks like a growing meadow when all the tea leaves slowly expand and tremble.

The leaves are from earliest harvest of spring. Each curled tea "ball" turned out to be two leaves and a bud.

It's a wonderful tea, with a sweet floral taste and yield more infusions than average green tea.

In China, this tea is both famous and under-noticed. It was invented in the 17th century or earlier and indeed one of the oldest tea varieties. There are other teas with deeper historical roots, but many historically famous tea changed throughout time. Today, not many teas are made in the same way as they were 400 years ago, but Yong Xi Huo Qing is. The tea is not commonly seen even in Chinese market, partially due to its small annual production.

Oct 1, 2010

Discussions on organic tea (2) organic certification in China

Discussion (1) is here.

Why I am interested in learning about organic certifications in China -
For various reasons, I don't often buy certified organic tea. My purchase preferences often lean toward tea sources with good agricultural integrity and solid quality. Most of such sources are not certified organic and don't even have the intention to get certified. But still, I believe it's important for tea professionals to stay keen on movement of organic certification. I believe it benefits producer, consumer and the entire market if organic certification is further improved and popularized. After all, certification is the ultimate way for a consumer to know if a product is really "organic", aside from visiting the farm in person (which may still not provide as much information as would a certification institute).

China's current government organic certification standards were made in 2005, closely following the standards of US and European Union. But so far, the organic food industry of China is still at "training" stage and needs to be improved in various aspects.

For tea sold in international market, obviously Chinese certification is not enough. Currently, most high quality tea in Chinese export goes to European countries, Japan and US. Therefore, many Chinese tea manufacturers are working on obtaining organic certifications from these import countries. On many organic products, a commonly raised question among consumers is, How do we know it's really organic? Most of the time, the consumers would turn to the organic certification. Well-established certification institutions (such as USPS/NOP) promise us that they inspect facilities and products based on the same set of strict standards, no matter where the facilities are located or the products are from. There is always criticism on even the most authoritative organic certification institutions. But I guess, if we want any market rules at all on organic products, these well-established institutes are our best bets.

Some international organic certifications frequently seen in China - 
Here are some of the most influential international organic certifications frequently seen in China:
1. USDA National Organic Program. 
It's well accepted in US and many other countries. 

2. Organic certification by JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standards). Japan is not a large importer for Chinese tea overall, but it's one of the largest importing countries for Chinese tea products of highest quality. Therefore JAS certification is important to many Chinese companies targeting on higher end export market.

3. European Union organic certification.  

All above are certifications authorized by government agencies or international government union (EU). In Taiwan, MOA is a good example of organic certification given by a reputable international NGO.


MOA organic certification is not regulated by government laws. But MOA International is one of the earliest and most reputable NGO in Japan that advocates organic farming. MOA certification is well accepted in Japan and some other Asian countries. Japan is one of the largest export market of Taiwan tea. Localization of MOA in Taiwan makes organic education and certification more convenient for Taiwanese tea farmers and consumers. Therefore MOA has become the most popular organic certification for tea and some other food products in Taiwan.  

Challenges and potential problems of international organic certifications on Chinese tea products - 
1. Most top notch tea is from family-owned plantations or small factories, many of which, for various reasons, are not likely to apply for organic certification in near future. 

2. Many high quality tea products are not universally packaged on site of production facility. On one hand, this can make the organic certification of a loose leaf tea product less visible to consumers. On the other hand, this makes it more challenging for consumers to find out specific organic certification information of a product. When I buy tea in China, if a manufacturer claims their tea is certified organic, I always ask them to show me the certification document. The certification code on such a document can be used to trace certification information (such as expiration date, address of the plantation, total area of the certified fields, category of the product and legal representative of the plantation, ) with the institution that issues the organic certification.

3. International organic certification rules may have potential conflicts with the social economic structure of China. I didn't notice much of this until recently, when reading about OCIA International's organic certification issues in China. It was considered a conflict of interest by USDA that OCIA uses their Chinese cooperating agency, which is affiliated to Chinese government, to inspect state-owned farms for organic certification. Before reading about this, I hadn't thought much about problems of this kind. But now the OCIA case has made me realize that it's probably one of the largest potential problems of international organic certification in China. The political system of China is entirely different from US and most other tea import countries. All the lands are state-owned and therefore all the farms, to a larger or smaller degree, are state-owned. To completely eliminate the conflict of interest issue, it's basically necessary that all agencies dealing with USDA/NOP certification are independent from Chinese government. But then it can be a problem that where these agencies should be from. People don't perfectly trust their governments. But as the concept of organic certification is fairly new in China, it will be challenging for local manufacturers to trust a private sector that, without government endorsement, represents a foreign certification agency. Of course such problems will not block the market trends. In spite of all the itches and complaints, US companies will still keep importing Chinese organic products, and Chinese manufactures are still willing to go through all the troubles to obtain USDA organic certification. But the political barriers may further discourage some smaller-size tea companies to obtain international organic certification.