black&white #12: Why we’re not 'certified' organic
4 min steep
01 | Agroforestry in action. Tea bushes growing amongst ancient trees in Assam.
Like any other food and drink business that’s serious about their ethical and environmental responsibilities, the organic route has always been an option. In fact, many of our teas and herbal ingredients are actually certified organic but we don't flag it. When it works, organic agriculture is brilliant. Fewer chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the promotion of biodiversity and good working conditions are just a few of the standards that it aims to uphold. But in the business of high grade tea, we’ve found that paradoxically, only buying organic teas and herbals would sometimes mean compromising on the quality, flavour and integrity of our leaves. This doesn’t mean we sacrifice our environmental credentials for a better tasting product. On the contrary, sustainable, ecological tea production is always a priority. But the tea gardens and cooperatives we source from are small-scale, family-run farms that produce tea in the traditional way. They rely on nature, not chemicals – as their predecessors have for thousands of years. They preserve biodiversity and soil health. They command high prices for their tea, earn a good income and pay their workers fairly. Other producers in Vietnam and Laos are using agroforestry methods to grow their tea, which means other trees are grown among the ancient tea bushes. This prevents soil erosion and the need for toxic fertilisers and pesticides. And this unwavering respect for the environment, for their workers and for the ancient practices of tea production, means their tea really is some of the best in the world.
02 | A school for the children of tea workers in Assam's Khongea Estate.
So, why aren’t these tea farms certified organic? Because achieving an internationally recognised organic certification is generally a lengthy and expensive process, with a lot of hoop-jumping. But how else would certification bodies standardise the world's many and diverse agricultural products. However, for the small producers who we use, these standardisations could disturb traditional farming practices that have been cultivated over thousands of years and carefully adapted to a particular region’s soil and weather conditions. It’s the same with wine. Natural or ‘low intervention’ wines are characterised as naturally fermented and grown without chemicals, with a low sulphate content and zero additives – but many aren’t certified organic. As with tea, small vineyards that already adhere to these practices don’t want to pay for the label. Nor do they need to. The product is in high demand with a guaranteed market.
03 | A Pouchong tea farm in Taiwan.
Take Pouchong, that enigmatic green/oolong that inspired me to start a tea business. In 2007, when we bought our first few kilos from our friend whose family owned the tea farm in Taiwan (blog on that here), we were sent a fax within hours of the harvest. There were around 15 grades, ranging from $100 a kilo to several thousand for the top grades. We had to respond within the hour to secure the best grades as the domestic market was so strong. The lower grades were also snapped up and mixed into inferior blends. Was it grown on organic principles? Yes. Was it certified? Of course not. Why would they want to comply with a set of irrelevant rules imposed by a foreign organisation? That was back in 2007 when the organic movement was less established – but many of the best tea producers we’ve worked with since still operate in much the same way.
04 | Hmong tea pluckers, Vietnam.
But where's the joy of discovery? Finding beautiful teas from small-scale tea farms, co-operatives and wild gardens in remote parts of the world. We would limit ourselves in our exploration of flavour, provenance and terroir, and in the range of teas that we bring you. So for us, this isn’t an option.On many of our labels you’ll find the specific farmer or family who produced the tea. On others, we’ll name the cooperative or tea garden. And if you look through our journal, there are blogs with even more detail about the provenance, origin and sourcing of our teas. And if that's not enough info, just drop us an email.