Fair Trade tea time!
Prepare yourself to enjoy this millenary beverage, originated in China and now popular all over the world. In this page ee shall see some theory about it, some practical information and some other beverages which may have a resemblance with "true" tea. Enjoy your cup!
|picking tea leaves|
To some extent, we may consider that tea has been a kind of turning point in certification history; in the beginning, Fair Trade was more oriented to support independent and small-scale artisans or farmers. In fact, Fair Trade was first done with handcrafts and the first certification label, Max Havelaar (named after a XIX century dutch novel) was created to differentiate a coffee produced in Mexico by small co-operatives.
Fair Trade tea is a quite different case, as it is not produced only by small-scale, independent farmers but also by large estates who use hired labor. In a sense, we should admit that we can't help only the laborers and set aside the land owners when certifying a tea plantation.
The solution adopted for this situation has been to create the so-called Joint Bodies in the plantations. These Joint Bodies assemble and discuss the issues which affect the life and future of the laborers, for example, how to use the Fair Trade Premium, i.e. the extra amount of money that Fairtrade certified plantations receive on top of the Fair price for their output.
Some beautiful examples of the many Fair Trade benefits are pointed out on Miles Litvinoff's "50 Reasons to buy Fair Trade" interesting book. One of them refers to pickers of a Fair Trade tea plantation in Nilgiri mountains (India) who could retire and have a retirement pension! (something otherwise unbelievable)... thanks to a wise use of the Fair Trade Premium.
|sales volume (in tonnes) of Fair Trade tea. Data by FLO|
Tea is one of the Fair Trade foods for which FLO has developed a document with the Fair prices to be paid (btw, new Fairtrade tea minimum prices have become effective in February 2008, ranging from 1,20 to 2,00 USD/kg).
When, after assessment, the producer is find worthy of certification, the identifying label is granted and can be shown by the product, so we all can recognize (and buy) it!
Heavy tea drinkers happen to be in Ireland, Poland and the United Kingdom, so it is no surprise that the U.K. leads the world in Fairtrade tea consumption, as the table shows; a nice 5 % of all tea sold in the U.K. has been fairly traded.
Tea bush (Camellia sinensis) is grown in some 30 countries with tropical or sub-tropical climate; plants grown at higher altitude, like those at Darjeeling (northern India) offer better quality leaves.
Tea has been grown in China from some millenia; it was "recently" spread to India and other countries under the British empire. As of today, these two countries, along with Sri Lanka, remain the largest tea producers in the world.
During the growing season, plants can be plucked for buds and fresh leaves even every week. Quite probably you have admired the sightly and beautiful views of tea estates, sometimes called tea gardens, that extend over large and green terraces on hill sides where pickers (usually women) work.
|a tea estate. Photo by C. Steinbach|
There are thousands of different types of tea. I will try to summarize very briefly the main stems.
Regarding the elaboration process, we may consider green tea as a simple form of tea: after being picked, leaves are allowed to oxidize only minimally, as oxidation is stopped two days after harvesting by applying some source of heat. (It is important to point that most of the time, this oxidation process is improperly referred to as fermentation, but nothing of a real fermentation actually happens). Green tea has a larger concentration of antioxidants than other varieties.
On the other hand, black tea is allowed to "ferment" (i.e., oxidize) completely, a process which can take up to one month. This is the most widespread form of tea, sometimes called red tea after the chinese term for the beverage.
White tea has even less oxidation than green tea, while Oolong type lies between green and black tea processing, as it has a medium oxidation degree. Pu-erh tea is at the opposite end: it undergoes a second oxidation step.
To get a distinctive flavor, manufacturers can use additives like fruit flavors or scented oils as well as blending different teas from several estates. For example, Earl Grey gets its subtle aroma from the addition of bergamot oil, while Lapsang Souchong tea has a delicious smoky flavor (well, it's my favourite).
Regarding tea presentation to final consumers we may find that paper tea bags usually carry average quality tea, nicknamed fannings or dust; fannings can be a byproduct of higher quality teas bounded for loose leaf packaging.
Now, let's get to know a few of the producers and their output; in all, there are some 70 certified tea estates around the world (too many for me to mention! )
Satemwa was the first Fair Trade tea estate to get certified in Malawi, altough now they are somehow skeptic about whether certification is either beneficial to them or a bit burdensome.
They elaborate some varieties of white teas, similar to the famed chinese ones; all of their produce is "pesticide free". If you are interested in visiting their state, there is also tourism accomodation available.
You can get a fine black Fair Trade tea from Koslanda tea garden. They are located in the famed Uva district in Sri Lanka, where they grow 100% organic and biodynamic Fair Trade tea (which they proudly advertise).
Some 600 families make a living in the plantation, where Fairtrade Premium money has been used for micro-lending programs and buying sewing machines for additional revenue.
|Joint Body assembly at Makaibari|
Actually, Darjeeling tea is a kind of "origin denomination" rather than a type of elaboration process. Darjeeling is a town in northern India which lies at the foot of the Himalayas. Tea produced there is sometimes referred to as "the champagne of teas", due to its delicate, subtle and unique aromas.
One of the most famous Fair Trade tea estates there is Makaibari, founded in 1859; they have embraced permaculture and biodynamic cultivation techniques, and their finest varieties have set world record prices on international markets.
Makaibari estate is covered with native flora and fauna, sometimes only present inside their garden; the estate owner, Rajah Banerjee, talks proudly about the skill and prowess of the plantation Joint Body.
|a tea factory|
The birth place of tea, China, is where Dazhangshan plantation is located. A large industry, they are able to export a number of varieties to all the world, including green tea, of course. The group runs more than 50 Fair Trade tea farms and also produces other organic food (mushrooms, herbs...).