Serious Eats: Drinks

Verdant Tea: Selling Tea from Farm to Cup

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

We don't talk about tea the way we get to talk about coffee, at least in the U.S. In coffee, the idea of terroir has become something of a given. We seek out fresh beans and fresher roasts. We've started to care about the farmers who grow our beans, how they're treated, and how they treat their crops.

Tea, by comparison, gets stuck on the shelf: dried, stable, static.

David Duckler and his small team at Verdant Tea are looking to change that conversation.

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Laoshan White, Laoshan Black, and Summer Harvest Laoshan Green.

Verdant Tea is a three-person company based out of Minneapolis. They sell a tightly curated selection of specialty Chinese teas that are a little unusual even by tea nerd standards. It's a list based on farmers the company has good relationships with; since they have friends in Laoshan, for example, they sell a lot of Laoshan tea.

What they do sell is fascinating stuff, the kind of tea that gives you pause and makes you think, wow, this really tastes like something! Coffee isn't the only brew that can evoke taste memories of blueberries, chocolate, and caramel—when good tea is handled right, it can take on just as wide a palette of flavors. And unlike coffee, which is brewed once and then discarded, quality tea leaves like Verdant's can be re-steeped again and again to expose the different flavors and textures present in the leaves.

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The flavors we picked up from our tea samples were on the subtle side, but the texture and aroma were anything but. Brewing a cup of Laoshan Summer Harvest Green makes the air smell like there's biscuits in the oven, and the brewed tea feels so buttery and creamy on the tongue that it's almost like there's milk right in there—the beverage equivalent of trying Haagen Dazs for the first time after only eating Breyers. You don't come across this kind of texture every day; what makes this tea so different?

When I asked David what he and his company did differently, the gist of his response was impressively simple: they treat tea like an agricultural product, not a commodity. They work with tea farmers in China the way that chefs deal with farmers at the farmers' market. That means dealing with farmers personally, not through a broker; moving tea from harvest to sale fast, within the same growing season; and it means actively seeking out farmers growing their crops in the best way possible, with organic methods, not pesticides.

Verdant Tea is an unusual company because it shows what you can do when you treat tea like an actual plant, not a commodity or luxury good. So what specifically does that entail? And how does that work differ from other tea companies? I talked with David to find out.

How do you find your tea? I came to tea not as a businessman, but as a researcher. Along the way I made many deep and lasting friendships. We and the farmers are friends first and foremost. They sell us their best tea because we are friends, and because when your field is only 14 acres, and you carefully hand-pick every leaf, all of your tea is "the best."

How is tea different from other luxury import industries? The high end tea industry is not like coffee or chocolate. Because the farmer supplies the finished product, not the raw material, they reap the full rewards of their work. These farmers don't need help—they aren't the underprivileged workers being "saved" or uplifted through selling. They are our equals—in fact, I think of the farmers as my boss. I am working really hard to help people begin to think of the tea farmers I work with in the same way they consider local artisan beer brewers, or cheese producers.

What's the process of moving your tea to market? The tea is fresh because we buy tiny quantities on a relative scale. Instead of ocean freighting several tons of tea for next to nothing, we buy the whole 15-20 pound harvest of a farmer for that picking. As soon as the tea is finished drying, curling, etc., it is hand-packed in little vacuum-sealed 250 gram bags and air shipped to us. We can have a new harvest up for sale on our site one week after it is picked because we are a small company that moves quickly. Nobody else in the industry works at the breakneck speed that we do to get fresh tea in. We sell spring tea in the spring, summer harvest in the summer, and autumn harvest in the autumn. When we run out of a tea, we are out.

Why is it so difficult for consumers to find organic tea? What challenges do organic tea farmers face? You don't see a lot of [it] because it is very difficult to get the export licenses and documentation to work with such small ventures. Nearly impossible. I have the dumb luck of wonderful connections in China, and here at home in the logistics business that help me get the farmers certified for export. Normally Chinese export law forbids this kind of small-scale tea buying directly from farmers. The laws push importers into working with factory farms and brokers. I spend an immense amount of money on licensing and administrative fees, and expediting for the privilege to work with my friends.

So why is it worth it? If you grow tea near pine trees, it tastes like pine. If you grow it near orchids, it tastes like orchid. Many farmers even commit to a diet of rice and vegetables during the harvests so that there are no smells on their hands that could influence the tea. When you spray a tea with pesticides, you can taste it. You cannot lie about organic farming with tea. The leaf tells all.

But you don't advertise your tea as certified organic. Many of us are realizing that organic certification is only a first step to true connection with the food we eat and drinks we drink. It is a good first step, but problematic in its variable standards, lack of accessibility to small farmers, and ease of being gamed. The next step is to go straight to the source. That is what I am trying to do. I want people to feel even more confident in these teas than the trust that an anonymous sticker can provide.

You can learn more about Verdant Tea on their website.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

Tea samples provided for review consideration.

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