Trade as the Mother of Invention

Saint Emilion Grand Cru

Wine from the Saint Emilion region of France.

We are passionate about culture, history, and how many products and values are shaped by the interaction between people around the world.  This includes tea, and how it has shaped and been shaped by history and culture over thousands of years.  We referenced how the notion of terrior relates not only to tea but to wine and other products as well.

On a recent trip to France we were struck by yet another facet of history.  The notion that global trade, and the requirements associated with shipping products around the world have led to many of the great products we have today.  During our tour of wineries with TéléPro Tour in the Saint-Émilion region outside of Bordeaux, our guide noted that while wine has long been traded with England and others.  Over time, innovation led from clay vessels to wooden barrels and at one point someone noticed that the wine shipped from France to England tasted significantly better after shipment.  The difference forever changed wine production as producers determined it was the wine aged in oak during transport that produced exceptional flavors and aromas.  As a side note, the standard 75 ml bottle we see today came from the fact that the 225 liter barrel makes exactly 300 bottles if the barrel is full.

Men working on the Tea Horse Road carrying large bundles of tea.

Tea Porters by Ernest H Wilson, CC BY 2.0

For tea, much like wine, it was the necessities of transportation which led to the development of Pu-erh.  As early as 1600 BCE the road between China and Tibet and other locations was long and arduous, travelling over treacherous, high terrain.  It was used to transport goods for trade including sugar, salt, tea, horses, and of course culture and ideas.  Tea became important to the people of Tibet and similarly horses became important to China for military use.  Thus tea and horses were commonly traded via this road giving us the Tea-Horse Road by which it is known today.  This nearly 1500 mile journey would have taken a very long time to traverse and efficient transport of goods was a must.  So tea leaves began to be packaged into cakes.  This packaging allowed tea to be compressed and stacked for easier transportation by both man and horse.  Like wine, it was discovered that the tea actually had new flavors and aromas after the trip then at the beginning.  It turns out that time in the heat and humidity during the long trip along the tea horse road substantially changed the tea resulting in something like the pu-erh enjoyed today.

Tea bag.

Modern Tea Bag

Like aged tea and wine barrels before it, tea bags were also developed by accident as a result of trade between people separated by distance.  A far more modern development the tea bag was created by Thomas Sullivan of New York.  Upon receiving tea, Mr. Sullivan began to package teas in small silk bags in order to send small samples on to his customers.  Not realizing they should take the tea out of the bags some customers simply immersed in water.  When they reported back to Mr. Sullivan that the silk was a bit to fine, he realized the opportunity, switched to gauze and the tea bag was born.

Yet again, we find ourselves fascinated with tea, how it has been impacted throughout history, and has contributed to global culture.  Are there other analogous inventions you might be aware of, tea or otherwise?

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Terroir of Tea

Tea Plantation

A Tea Plantation somewhere in Alishan
By Alexander Synaptic (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

Terroir (ter-war) is used to define the characteristics of a place (soil, water, altitude, latitude and climate) that effect the taste of a final agricultural product.  Wine is the main agricultural product defined by terroir.  The French really drove the use of terroir in describing agricultural products with its regulations requiring use of region in labeling of French wine. For example, wines produced in the Bordeaux region of France are classified by a sub region in relation to where they are to the Garonne River – Saint-Estèphe, Paulliac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.  These classifications were originally made in 1855 and have been adhered to since then because they have helped the producers to distinguish their products from each other, define quality and drive up prices.  Tea can also be defined by terroir; the only problem is that the producers of tea are not always using this to their advantage.  India is one exception – Assam, Darjeeling, Kangra, Dooars, Terai and Nilgiri teas are all named after the region in which they are grown and marketed in a fashion that helps the consumer associate the region to the flavor of the final beverage.

So what conditions does tea need to grow?  To its advantage, the tea plant is a very versatile perennial, so it can grow in a variety of soil types.

Photo of Dragon Well Plantation

Dragon Well Tea Plantation – Hangzhou
By Dave Proffer (Flickr id)
CC BY 2.0

However, for optimal production the soil should be acidic, between 4.5 to 5.5 ph., loose enough to allow the 6 foot tap root to burro down to its preferred length, and contain a good mix of nutrients (Nitrogen, Magnesium, Calcium, etc.) that the tea plant uses to grow.  Like other plants, it will strip nutrients from the soil necessitating replenishment via some manner of fertilization.  The Japanese use grasses to re-fertilize their tea plants, which influence the taste of the final tea and is credited by the tea farmers for the complex flavors of their teas.

Five hours of direct sunlight is optimal, however, less light disturbs the chloroplasts in the tea leaves, creating more aromatic oils and slowing growth.  This is why high altitude teas are considered the higher quality tea, they get between 2-3 hours of sunlight, creating more aromatic oils.  Those oils create the complex flavor of those teas.  More than five hours and plant will continue to grow, but the flavor will be dramatically different.

The tea plant likes lots of water, but doesn’t want to sit in it.  Plants need at least 50 inches of rain annually and 70-90% humidity.  By definition the water and humidity requirement put the plant in the sub-tropic to tropic zone, and while it can handle some weather variation it cannot survive prolonged dry seasons or freezing.

Latitude effects terroir through the length of the growing period.  The closer to the equator (think Kenya and Argentina), the longer the growing period.  In Kenya, tea is harvested year-round while it is only harvested twice a year (spring and fall) in most Chinese regions.  Tea in Taiwan is harvested five times a year between April and December with the July and August harvests continually ranked as the finest.

Photo of Munnar Plantation

ST831850 – Munnar tea plantation
By fraboof (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

So how does one use terroir when purchasing tea?  Look for where the tea comes from, and if possible search for single origin teas from one tea plantation.  This will allow you to identify the flavor unique to the tea produced in that region, for instance Assam tea is consistently malty in flavor.  Dongding Oolong produced in the Nantou county of Taiwan is said to gets its unique award winning flavor from the constant fog in this mountainous region.  There are many black teas from China associated with the provenience it is grown it.  A Yunnan black tea tastes very different from a Fujian black tea.  So treat your teas like wine, know where they come from, learn their flavors and enjoy comparing them.  It makes drinking a cup of tea a truly special experience.

What do you think?  Can you taste the terrior in your tea?

@HillaryColey

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