black&white #28: Guest newsletter: the tea-buying season
4 min steep
Hello – Alice here, Canton’s Operations Director. This week I’m giving Jennifer a break and talking to you about the exciting, hectic and sometimes slightly nail-biting time of the year known as the Spring tea-buying season…
On the 5th April 2022, Chinese people around the world celebrated the Qing Ming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, a traditional festival and public holiday where people celebrate, commemorate and show respect to their ancestors by sweeping their tombs. It’s also an important marker for us in the tea business. While the festival itself doesn’t have anything to do with tea (though of course tea is drunk as part of the celebrations), it signals the start of the year’s new harvest season. Qing Ming, for example, literally means ‘clearness’ and ‘brightness’ to reflect the warmer weather and changing of the seasons. As such, any teas which are harvested before the festival are highly prized and usually very expensive, mostly due to scarcity. These teas are known as having Ming Qian harvests (i.e. pre-Ming Qing festival) and are usually high grade green teas like Dragon Well and Anji Bai Cha.
Alice and Edgar tasting Ali Shan samples in Taiwan.
Spring is the most crucial time of the year for us as the majority of our teas are highly seasonal. Because buying season only runs from April to June, we only have a very small window to taste and select the majority of our teas for the coming year, while making predictions about exactly how much we’ll need – which can be tricky if we’re supplying new trade partners or there are disruptions to business like COVID or Brexit.
We’re also in stiff competition with other high grade tea buyers from all over the world. It’s often a race against time. Some teas like Pouchong are in such high demand that by the time the samples arrive with us from the farmer, the batch has already sold out. When Mr Feng’s samples arrive from Taiwan, we have to drop everything, taste them straight away and send back our selections as soon as possible. To avoid missing out on the best leaves, myself and the team have to select all our teas over just a few months. We start with First Flush Darjeelings and Chinese teas in April, move on to Taiwanwese oolongs in May and then Second Flush Indian teas and shade-grown Japanese teas in June. SF Assams and shaded Japanese senchas in June. Samples are delivered from all over the tea-producing world from trusted farmers, and are tasted against each other and against the previous year’s batch to make sure we’re not only buying the best, but also maintaining good consistency. It’s an exciting time of the year, it’s also really critical for the success of the entire year and the company as a whole – we can’t mess up!
Unlike larger tea companies, we usually taste samples
When it comes to teas from China, Taiwan and Japan, we tend to buy from the same gardens every year. We’ve been working with them for many years and we know the quality is consistent. And they continue to sell to us because we always pay the fair market price and never try to negotiate down. So rather than getting samples from lots of different producers and choosing between them, we usually get samples of different batches from the same garden to choose between – which is very different from how the big tea industry works. It means we’ve developed close relationships to our suppliers over the years, ensuring we often get to taste and buy the highest grade leaves the garden has to offer.
Our close relationships to suppliers mean we get to taste
But there are always surprises, challenges and headaches. Every year, for example, we tend to have a ‘problem tea’. It might not be the quality we expected – usually because of a harvest or climate issue like lack of rain – or there might be a sudden increase in price. We’ve spoken before about price fluxes – in 2018, the Madagasgan vanilla that we use in Canton Chocolate Noir briefly exceeded the price of silver. Chinese tea prices can also fluctuate wildly as demand for the high grade teas we buy is mostly driven by the domestic market, and if a tea suddenly becomes very popular in China, prices will go up. A few years ago this happened with the Silver Needle white tea we were sourcing from Fujian Province. Its popularity exploded, driving prices up and causing farmers to start using pesticides to increase yield, and we were forced to switch our Silver Needle supplier to a garden in Yunnan. Last year, Honey Orchid became the tea à la mode, and we had to increase our budget in order to maintain the quality.
But the biggest challenge of the past couple of years has been the cost of shipping, which spiralled a whopping 500% after the Covid-19 pandemic, and will likely get worse as a result of rising oil prices. We’re doing our best to keep high grade teas at a reasonable price – but it’s an incredibly hard balancing act. Supporting smaller, independent businesses who can’t achieve the economies of scale that corporations and larger businesses can has never been more important.