• Timely Tea Delivery

    Early harvests in China, India, and Kenya sent new teas to market early this year – a fortunate head-start. Unlike last year, labor availability is good despite COVID-19 restraints, tea regions report fine weather, and orderly processing is raising expectations of a bountiful crop. In this segment Jason Walker, spokesperson for Firsd Tea, the US division of the largest green tea supplier in the world, discusses two remaining challenges impeding timely tea delivery.

    Jason Walker on obstacles to timely tea delivery.
    Map shows ships idled for days waiting a berth at ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, Calif.

    Finally Under Way

    Early harvests in China, India, and Kenya sent new teas to market early this year – a fortunate head-start. Unlike last year, labor availability is good despite COVID-19 restraints, tea regions report fine weather, and orderly processing is raising expectations of a bountiful crop. Two hurdles remain. Transport is stretched to the breaking point as reinvigorated economies stir from pandemic weariness. The second hurdle is cost. Wholesalers, retailers, and importers that last year bore the weight of spiking prices must now make up for lost earnings. Expect significant price increases for both specialty and commodity teas for the foreseeable future.

    Tea Biz: COVID-19 and the chaos of lockdowns this time last year presented unique delivery challenges. Describe how the logistical hurdles differ for the 2021 harvest.

    Jason Walker: We did see locations and origins that either could not get any tea out at all, or we saw that they could not get anything out on their regular schedule. There were multiple variations of disruption that were happening last year.

    For example: Some growing areas in China saw a shortage of workers to harvest the spring crop. Then you may have packing or processing facilities that were locked down or running a skeleton crew. On top of that- even if your workforce could pluck, process, and pack on schedule, shipments could still be hindered

    This year we are seeing a more steady flow. We are seeing harvests started earlier. Compared to last year things look like they’re much more on track. Especially in terms of harvest and processing/packing

    In October the dollar costs of shipping really started to ratchet up.

    Things were behind schedule.Then we started to see there was an inadequate supply of either ships or containers.  Things were piled up because of ports that had been closed. Port closures caused shipping routes to get rearranged, and it took time to re-position and resume normal flow.

    Then you had increased demand for online retail. Lots of new equipment and personal items were getting shipped. People who used to spend their money on a on a dinner out now buying exercise equipment and things like that. You just have more stuff trying to get on the water at the same time. 

    It takes months for all that to shift back into what it was. Containers were not even available for weeks sit at ports waiting for days or weeks just to get loaded onto a ship. 

    I tracked one of our ship’s on Vessel Finder just to see where it was day by day.

    I had heard the stories of logjams at LA and Long Beach ports, the online vessel tracking service let me see just how our shipments might be impacted. By taking a screenshot daily, I saw how our shipment waited in a line of ships offshore for about 7-8 days before being cleared to dock and unload.

    Every single day we saw it just sitting there waiting its turn to get unloaded.

    Then we began hearing stories that some of those ships were returning empty because the rates for East Asia into Western US were four times the going rate.

    We are seeing still seeing some of that.

    We had to share some of that burden of costs with our customers. 

    Tea Biz: In 2020 importers, wholesalers, and retailers eased the price shock for consumers by absorbing some of the sharp increase in transportation costs. This year prices are expected to rise with retailers promoting pre-orders and fewer free shipping offers. What advice can you offer to reduce the cost of transporting tea.

    Jason Walker: We have been trying to encourage our customers and everyone out there to make their best projections that we can know roughly when you need it. That helps everybody along the line prioritizing the order. It also average out. You may pay higher rates now, but may be able to offset that later as the cost of things goes down and we all can adjust our prices.

    Projections essentially help ease the strain on the logistics chain. Container shipments, warehouses, and truckers are better equipped to send and receive the right amounts of product while compensating for delays caused by a strained system. The alternatives are to either overprepare (potentially overwhelming the system), or under-prepare and risk being left without. We recognize it can be tough to make projections in these unparalleled circumstances but the benefits outweigh the costs. Depending on the size of the customer and their orders, clients are providing 6-month or quarterly projections. As a result we have seen fewer interruptions due to better planning. Observers in ocean freight, major ports, and domestic trucking all indicate the overall instability may continue until late spring or early summer.

    Firsd Tea has been tracking and sharing updates we receive from logistics partners and sharing that via our newsletter and blog:

    Shipageddon: Plan Ahead
    Shipageddon: Continues Through Chinese New Year
    Shipageddon: November Update

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  • Tales of the Tea Trade

    It was at this point that Mr. Toshiro gestured me to push my hand into the soil, which I did until I was past his elbow; the light, aerated soil offered little resistance. On removing my arm I was instructed to taste the soil, which I did without hesitation. How could something that was growing such healthy plants be anything but good for me? It tasted sweet, soft and gritty. If it hadn’t been gritty, I would probably have gone back for another handful.” (Page 23)

    Tales of the Tea Trade Book Review

    Review at a glance
    Tales of the Tea Trade

    Intensely Human and Heartfelt

    It was at this point that Mr. Toshiro gestured me to push my hand into the soil, which I did until I was past his elbow; the light, aerated soil offered little resistance. On removing my arm I was instructed to taste the soil, which I did without hesitation. How could something that was growing such healthy plants be anything but good for me? It tasted sweet, soft and gritty. If it hadn’t been gritty, I would probably have gone back for another handful.” (Page 23)

    That’s a quote from Tales of the Tea Trade by Michelle and Rob Comins.  Voted our favourite book of the year in October 2020 by Tea Book Club members. I’m Kyle Whittington from the UK and founder of Tea Book Club, we are an international group of tea lovers and readers who meet up online each month to discuss tea books. 

    Tales of the tea trade was also shortlisted for the Andre Simmons Book Awards in 2020. 

    Here are my thoughts:

    After a general but thoughtfully written introduction to tea and its types (pages 6-55), Michelle and Rob take us on a journey to the different countries they source their tea from (pages 56-183). Taking turns to voice the stories, we hear from both Michelle and Rob, as well as the fascinating people they’ve met on their travels. This book is intensely human and heartfelt. You really feel a connection with Michelle and Rob, their love of tea, the places they go and the people they meet. 

    The book is thoughtfully laid out so you know right away who is speaking and can easily pick out the stories from tea people alongside interesting asides such as baking their own oolong (page 38)  and people’s relationships with tea. Countries are arranged in chronological order based on when they started growing and producing tea, a different and thoughtful approach. The book is easy to hop in and out of, reading sections that interest you, if you’re not a cover-to-cover reader. Overall a pleasure to read and a must add to any tea bookshelf. 

    Thoughts and comments from Tea Book Club members:

    I truly enjoyed the whole book” (Nadine, UK)

    I absolutely love the way they outlined the book, the flow and I love the bits at the end, such as the meditation (pages 187-189). A lovely way to finish it.” (Jin, USA)

    “I think it’s wonderful, it’s almost like meeting those people. I want to drink all of these teas. They really showcase the people and the teas. It’s not about them telling, it’s about the people and the teas.” (Nadine, UK)

    Definitely the storytelling, the personal connection. They put a face to the tea, they put people to the tea.” (Alison, UK)

    Peoples attitudes and passions about where they came to tea from, why they were doing it.” (Laura, UK)

    I really enjoyed the chapter on Korean tea (pages 100-113). I’ve never had Korean tea before, so it was really nice to immerse myself in that world.” (Jin, USA)

    Harvest Schedule

    “I like the table where you can see and compare the different harvest times depending on where they are and the different names of the picking seasons depending on where they are (page 30).” (Kristine, Sweden)

     “It was really nice for me reading about my friend in Nepal (pages 156-165). I didn’t read it from end to end, just hopped on and off reading different sections.” (Elke, Germany)

    “I love in the Chinese chapter about the clay and the pot making (page 80) and how they’re using different types of clay for different types of tea. For me it’s new and I haven’t really tasted the differences between using different teas and different clay.” (Kristine, Sweden)

    Some things that came out of the book:

    It made people more appreciative of the farmers, the work they put in, and their care for the tea. 

    Made them feel more mindful about the teas they buy. 

    Another reader commented: “Something that really got my attention was on tea preparation. They wrote that to taste tea really well requires people to have a quiet and compassionate heart. A good reminder that tea requires one to be peaceful.” (Greta, Sweden)

    You can purchase the Tales of the Tea Trade directly from cominstea.com or, of course, on Amazon

    If you’d like to join us for next read, visit teabookclub.org or @joinTeaBookClub on Instagram. 

    Kyle Whittington
    Kyle Whittington

    Comins Tea

    Michelle and Rob Comins, as well as authoring this wonderful book, own and run Comins Tea, a direct-trade fine tea merchant, with teahouses in the city of Bath and the picturesque town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset, UK. Definitely well worth a visit if you’re in the area or visiting the UK. I had the most wonderful afternoon at their Bath teahouse with friends a couple of years ago tasting a range of delicious teas (I couldn’t resist leaving with several teas and some wonderful teaware of course). With lockdowns in the UK this last year they have been doing loads of great stuff online, so check out their tea school and programs on offer on their website [www.cominstea.com]. — Kyle Whittington

    Michelle and Rob Comins
    Michelle and Rob Comins

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  • Shunan Teng

    New York’s Tea Drunk tea house is normally bustling with tea lovers gathered to sip and learn. Since opening in 2013, founder and Tea Master Shunan Teng, an accomplished speaker and tea educator, shared her knowledge by telling stories of her annual buying trips while pouring tea for customers at the shop’s beautiful tea bar. Last March, Shunan, who normally spends three months a year with heritage growers in China, was grounded – worse yet, her thriving business was locked down.

    Shunan Teng on attributes that lead to the ageless popularity of heritage teas.
    Tea Drunk
    Teng normally travels for several months in China visiting historical growing regions and sourcing tea.

    Online Tea Education Club in a Class All its Own

    Dan Bolton: Shunan, what inspired you to create the online Educational Tea Club, a $50-per-month subscription service that delivers tea samples to home-bound tea lovers?

    Shunan: When the pandemic hit it was mandatory close downs so we couldn’t really share tea with our guests anymore in person. There was this need to somehow stay connected and offer tea lovers this kind of tasting experience. Tea is a shared experience, right?

    We always had an educational key club before. What we did was send people extensive ratings on featured teas.

    Dan: Since the onset of the pandemic, tea retailers have created many virtual tea experiences. How does your program differ from other online courses?

    Shunan: Everybody was, you know, trying to create content virtually.

    We decided to create tea courses that bring a lot of essential information about the origin, the cultivar and also the processing of the tea. We supplement that with two virtual tastings that we host each month.

    Our club has two tiers. The the first explores true origin Chinese teas that are historically famous. This is a great way for people to get into tea.

    We also have a higher tier.

    Those teas are to be had once in a lifetime. They represent some amazing vintages.

    When I talk about where the tea comes from, I don’t mean ‘I drink Chinese tea’ versus Japanese tea or say, ‘I like teas from Yunnan’. We consider basically all the external environment that might affect the tree itself from the slope and direction of the sun and how the sunlight is actually dispersed which leads to temperature differences.

    There’s so many different things, a whole checklist of things — all the external things that affect the tea itself.

    Dan: You described a growing level of consumer awareness and appreciation for heritage tea and interest in what you call the “geeky” aspects of cultivation and production of ancient teas.

    Shunan: The core competence of Tea Drunk as a company is our tea. We don’t do just any tea.

    Gimmicky terms, such as “fair trade,” even organic, and single origin, don’t really apply to the Chinese tea industry. We specialize in historical and historically famous tea.


    There is a long history of drinking this tea which means there is so much that we already know and can share. These teas have been highly sought after by generations of connoisseurs.

    What we are experiencing is a connection with the past — passed down to us.

    Click to join…

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  • Maruyama: 21st Century Japanese Tea Production

    Maruyama Fields Shizuoka
    Meticulously groomed Maruyama Tea farm in Shizuoka, Japan

    Production Fields are Mechanically Harvested

    By Ian Chun | Yunomi Life

    With clockwork precision, the Shinkansen—Japan’s Bullet Train—smoothly pulled in to the Kakegawa train station. The trip from Tokyo to the heart of Japan’s tea production region operated with the characteristic technological sophistication that is this country’s trademark. While the image of tea leaf pluckers wandering among ordered rows of tea plants (beneath the benevolent gaze of the majestic Mount Fuji) pervade industry advertising, the foundation of Japan’s tea industry has been its incorporation of new technology. It has been apparent in the incorporation of shading in the cultivation of tea leaves in the 16th century, to the development of steaming and rolling in 1738 by Nagatani Souen, to the invention of machines to mechanize the laborious six-hour sencha hand-rolling process by Takabayashi Kenzo in the late 19th century.

    In the late 20th century, as Japan urbanized and the farm worker population plunged, as the average age of farmers crept upward to 68 years old in 2020, the development and incorporation of new technologies to maintain productivity and quality has been important to the health of the tea industry.

    In the fields, we see tractor like tea trimmers and harvesters, in the modern processing factories, the machinery allows for the finest adjustments to account for differences in the leaves, and in the daily weather — the craft of tea creation combined with technology to supply an entire nation.

    Perhaps the area of development that gets the least attention are the technologies used to preserve tea quality. Hashimoto Naoyuki, international sales director at Maruyama Tea in Kakegawa, Shizuoka, explained the technology behind the refiner and wholesaler’s tea quality. “Green tea,” he explains, “still has about 5% moisture content in the leaf when we purchase it from the production factories. We need to store it at low temperature or the flavor quality will go bad in a few months after harvest.”

    Maruyama installed its first -25C refrigerator in 1996. Hashimoto-san showed me a few of their storage facilities where the rooms are ordered in levels of temperature — 10C to 0C to -20C. Asked if there is an ideal temperature for tea storage, he replied, “The colder the better, but colder temperatures require more energy and so has a higher maintenance cost.”

    He pointed to the large fans at the ceiling blowing in the sub-zero air.

    “And when you remove the tea, you need to do it in stages. Japanese summers are very humid so you have to slowly acclimate the leaf to room temperature before handling it.”

    The tea leaves at this state is called aracha, literally “rough tea”; it is tea at its unfinished state, and besides removing stems and broken leaf bits to refine the aracha, Maruyama Tea’s facility also green roasts the leaf (in Japanese hi-ire, pronounced “hee-ee-reh”). By controlling the roasting time and temperature, refiners are able to add different levels of sweet toastiness to a green tea leaf. More importantly, the reduction of the moisture content in the leaf to 1-2% guarantees that the leaf quality will last for at least a year on store shelves without significant decline in quality. This process allows the manufacturer to prepare (green roast) leaf at anytime after harvest to start the clock for maximum quality. After green roasting, the leaves are nitrogen flushed and vacuum packed to remove as much oxygen as possible to maintain best quality, and placed back into the refrigerated storage rooms to await shipment.

    The other very impressive aspect of Maruyama’s facilities is the level cleanliness— the FSSC22000 level cleanliness, a food safety standard, requires workers to dress in protective suits, and undergo an air shower before entering the clean room environment for leaf processing and packaging. This helps to ensure a sanitary, dust-free environment for refining tea and grinding matcha.

    Yakuji Maruyama Tsuyomatsu, the founder of Maruyama Japanese Tea, learned his tea making skills working for Kyoyeki-Sha prior to establishing Maruyama Tea in 1933. Maruyama has always believed in creating a cupful of tradition and innovation. This philosophy led the company to work with local farmers to master deep-steam sencha, a Kakegawa cultivar shaded for a few days prior to harvest and then steamed for 45- to 60-seconds to make Fukamushi Sencha. President and heir Katsuhisa Maruyama continues the company’s tradition of technological innovation.

    A canopy of traditional grass forces tea leaves to produce additional polyphenols and healthful catechins.

    Matcha is a mainstay for Germany’s Wollenhaupt Tee

    Marco Sinram, head of tea trading at Wollenhaupt, a Hamburg-based supplier of Japanese tea, writes that family-owned Wollenhaupt and Maruyama share a similar ownership structure and philosophy in management style.


    Wollenhaupt imports Japanese teas exclusively from Maruyama. “Since 2018 we have entered ever-closer cooperation to focus on promoting Japanese teas to the western markets,” said Sinram. Wollenhaupt, founded in 1881 and Maruyama, founded in 1933, retain traditional values and time-honored practices while embracing technology and production efficiency.

    Last year Wollenhaupt constructed a large volume, cold-chain distribution hub to ensure timely tea delivery on short notice. Tencha, processed in Japan using traditional horticultural practices, is ground only when it needs to be packed against an order. Until then, it remains as the raw material, stored at minus 20°C,” said Sinram.

    He explained that Maruyama’s ability to nitrogen flush and vacuum pack tea is critical to meeting the expectations of beverage and culinary matcha clients in 70 countries. Shipments arrive every eight weeks. On arrival Wollenhaupt refrigerates teas at a constant temperature below 8°C. Container lots and a regular shipping schedule lower costs, and “stock never stays too long. This ensures absolute fresh quality to the customer,” writes Sinram. 

    Learn more at www.wollenhaupt.com.

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  • Udena Wickremesooriya

    In principle tea certification programs have positive impacts but in practice results are highly location-specific and mixed. Farmgate prices generally rise along with gross income, but so do costs that are borne by farmers in about 60 percent of certification programs. Certifications are an imperative for marketers seeking to export tea – third-party certifications soothe the conscience of retailers and consumers, but do they address the needs and interests of tea workers in the communities in which they reside?

    Udena Wickremesooriya on certification programs.
    Udena at Kaley
    Kaley Tea founder Udena Wickremesooriya at a July 2020 Ceylon tasting showcasing artisan tea makers.

    Certifications Soothe the Conscience, But Do They Deliver for the Communities Where Workers Reside?

    By Dananjaya Silva | PMD Tea

    Dananjaya Silva: Third-party certification is popular with EU consumers and elsewhere? How do you earn the trust of buyers without an organic certificate?

    Udena Wickremesooriya: I think it’s a tough one because everyone’s used to certification and certification is the easy way to prove you are organic.

    It’s how we communicate our authenticity, the authenticity of our story. If you look at CATA (Ceylon Artisan Tea Association), if you look at all of us artisan tea makers we are on ground. We live here at least 20 days per month.

    So if you look for one word, its authenticity the authenticity of our story and how we communicate the authenticity of our story. Certification is more than a marketing label. It assures soil and water conservation. It limits deforestation and increases plant diversity.

    Silva: Certification is more than a marketing label. It assures soil and water conservation. It limits deforestation and increases plant diversity. What steps does Kaley take as good stewards of the land?

    Wickremesooriya: The first thing is being on the ground. There’s a lot of documentation control one can do, for example. I sign off on every invoice that we payout. I know what comes in and what doesn’t. So if you stop stuff coming onto the land, that’s one way of control to ensure that what shouldn’t come into the site doesn’t come.

    The second is creating the forest ecosystem, building the soil. We have a diverse mix of forest trees that we plant in between the tea. We also have patches of cinnamon so we bring plant diversity which builds soil. We just started making biochar which will feed into the soil.

    The third element is our cows. We have ten of them to make a liquid fertilizer from dung and urine. We apply close to 2000 liters per acre.

    Silva: Udena, what are the most pressing challenges facing small producers of premium quality tea.

    The very first challenge is marketing. How do we get our teas out there? I’m fortunate that I worked elsewhere before I became a farmer, I have travelled and have a network to leverage, but most farmers are locked on their farm. They don’t produce what the market needs and they don’t know how to get their product out. They don’t know how to build a brand, how to communicate. So marketing is the biggest. The key issue that stops good Sri Lanka artisan tea products from reaching the market and reaching the consumer. So marketing is the biggest.

    The second is how we change the mindset of everyone around us to say that the ecosystem is critical and that good leaf is critical because of good qualities made on the soil in the land. And how do you? How do you really manage your bushes? How do you pluck good leaf? This is a second second key aspect.

    So the first is marketing, getting a product out and the second is how we grow and source good quality raw material.

    Kaley Tea Estate
    Workers sort tea leaves at Kaley Tea Estate, Sri Lanka

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