While the conventional tea trade has continued along its well worn path of vast tea plantations housing and employing thousands of workers to supply the world with most of its tea; a quiet revolution has been going on. Small, specialist tea companies have been springing up all over the world run by passionate tea enthusiasts who take a human centred approach to tea trading. They develop personal relationships with the producers they buy from, visit them regularly, convey their story to remind tea buyers and drinkers that tea is a precious and delicate beverage with as wide a range of characteristics as wine – equally influenced by its terroir from the hills and plains of a wide swathe of countries. But does treating tea itself as more valued translate into tea workers and farmers gaining better value from the trade?
In THIRST’s TEA Talk on 25th March 2021 we heard from two UK-based specialist tea companies, Postcard Teas and Comins Tea who shared their experience and philosophy to explore the question, can specialist tea be a force for good, a force for change in the wider tea sector?
Listen to the full session or read a summary below:
Photo: Mr and Mrs Hsieh who farm just over 1 acre in Ming Jian, Taiwan. Courtesy of Postcard Teas
Food writer and Postcard Teas manager, Jonathan Nunn, kicked us off with a thoughtful, brave and honest assessment of the image of speciality tea versus the reality. He acknowledged the fact that though it tries to set itself apart, speciality tea is part of the same global trading system as mainstream tea that is rooted in colonialism. And despite its intense focus on quality, provenance and land – sometimes the workers who produce the tea remain invisible to tea drinkers (a bit like the THIRST logo – you have to look twice to see the human face behind the leaf). Jonathan questioned the “savioiurism” image behind some speciality tea – and suggested that the best way that speciality tea could be a force for good would be for its passionate adherents to add their voices to the chorus of workers’ voices from the grass roots, and help ensure that they are heard. (Jonathon will publish the full essay on his food newsletter Vittles shortly.)
Timothy D’Offay, founder of Postcard Teas, took up the theme of provenance. He showed how, by focusing on the provenance of tea, we can give the recognition and respect due to the tea maker. I was struck by his use of the term tea “maker”. We often talk of tea workers and tea pluckers – but by using the term “makers”, Tim was highlighting the skill and craftsmanship that goes in to creating speciality tea. Jonathan had rightly challenged the idea that small farms necessarily mean better conditions (just as Michelle later questioned the assumption that large tea estates necessarily means worse conditions) – but Tim felt that small tea farms could be more democratic, more productive and have greater diversity of crops than estates. Tim also shared an enlightening algorithm that Postcard Teas uses to assess the share of the price of a cup of tea that goes to workers… (infographic coming soon!). Better still, he puts this breakdown on the packaging of his tea. But using the algorithm on other – very expensive – teas starkly revealed the incredible gaps between tea prices and workers’ wages. Despite the challenges, Tim believes that change can happen – especially through the mechanism of “communal capitalism”.
Michelle Comins – co-founder of Comins Tea told us how her company’s approach to ‘purpose driven tea’ helps tea drinkers to see those human faces, and hear those human voices, behind the tea that they are enjoying. She reminded us that tea growers are keen to know what customers think of their product – and Comins tries to create that link. Comins invites the producers of their 7 varieties of ‘tea with purpose’ to design the image and wording for the packs, creating a direct link between the grower and the drinker. Once again it’s about transparency and respect and recognition for the tea grower. Michelle emphasised that Comins does partner with some larger plantations who are doing good things to support their workers and felt that actions were more important than size. Michelle accidentally used the word “flavourable” in her talk – but we all agreed it definitely should be a word – a word that is particularly apt for speciality tea.
So I think overall the verdict was that speciality tea by itself would struggle to overturn the history of inequality and exploitation that characterises the tea industry – but, by its very existence, it is saying tea is something to be valued. And that the people who create are to be valued – not pitied, exploited or saved. And in order to ensure that they earn a decent living, not only consumers, but tea traders needs to pay a decent price for the precious commodity.
 The terms ‘estate’, ‘plantation’ and ‘garden’ are commonly used interchangeably to describe formal tea-growing and processing units as distinct from small tea growers or farms.
Jonathan has been working closely with Tim D’Offay since 2012 although his connection with Postcard Teas started even earlier as a customer. Of mixed British and Indian heritage, he made his first visit to Asia in 2013 when he went to see the small farms of Sahyadri co-operative in Kerala and has since sourced tea and met tea farmers in Japan and Taiwan. Jonathan currently manages the shop and writes the descriptions of tea and farming practices on the website. He is also a food writer, writing about the intersection between restaurants, labour, class, race and policy for The Guardian, The Economist, Prospect and Eater, as well as editing the food publication Vittles.
Michelle Comins – co-founder Comins Teas
Michelle Comins is co-founder of Comins Tea in Dorset & Bath which she runs with her husband, Rob. An eternal tea student Michelle has been travelling throughout the tea world since 2007 co-authoring her first book with Rob & Pavilion books in 2019.
Timothy d’Offay – Founder of Postcard Teas
Over 25 years ago while living in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto, Tim became fascinated by tea culture and the tea growing areas around the city. Using Japan as a base, he soon started to explore the tea traditions of Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong as well. These experiences led him to start importing tea in the late 1990s from the people and places he had visited and in 2000 he co-founded East Teas at Borough Market with the tea expert Alex Fraser and in 2005 founded Postcard Teas which is well known for being the first speciality tea company working across Asia to full proper provenance on every pack. He has travelled extensively across Asia to many of the famous tea producing areas in India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and China. Tim is also the author of 3 books on tea which have been published in several languages.