Steeped in controversy - Page 2

The politics and style of artisanal and organic teas

Jayaratne, newly appointed minister of plantation industries, instructed tea researchers and relevant authorities to investigate whether premium teas exported in bulk are being mixed with cheap tea.

And on the less quantifiable front, contemporary tea drinkers such as Yu consider bagged tea to have all the sophistication and allure of boxed wine. Properly enjoyed tea is not only an intoxicant but also an art. "It's like music," Yu explains. "The notes have to be appreciated at their own time."

Tea bags pilfer quality by design, but something bigger may be lost between the staple and the tag: how about a bit of ceremony in a racing, relentless world?

"Tea is a spiritual product, as well as for consumption," says Yu, who has made it her mission to bring fine tea and tea education to the Bay Area. "It was a medicine for 2,000 years before it was a beverage."

Her Berkeley tearoom — a serene, beautiful environment flecked in copper and bamboo — allows you to connect with the leaves, the culture, the moment, and the community. "Drinking with 3,000 years of history, you don't feel alone," Yu says.


Meanwhile, at the 40th annual World Ag Expo in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-February, cannons thundered, Rudolph Giuliani waxed poetic about alternative fuel, jets split seams into the sky, more than 100,000 people gathered from 57 nations, and a small group of farmers met to contemplate the agribusiness plunge into the emerging organic industry.

During a seminar with Ray Green, manager of the California Organic Program for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, these farmers had before them a daunting question: organic at what cost?

When it comes to tea, Yu has an answer. The cost is large: to consumers, who mistakenly think their certified-organic tea bag is superior to the noncertified (but tastier and ecofriendlier) independent variety, and to small farms, which have to compete with the certified giants.

Artisan tea shops such as Yu's depend on strong bonds with small farmers. But most quality tea farms opt out of the bureaucratic mess of US Department of Agriculture organic certification because the fees are too high and the other costs are too great. For example, USDA certification can require land to lay barren for up to five years. According to Yu, it's nonsense to ask a family farm to participate in such a thing. "These hillsides have had tea growing on them for hundreds of years," she says. "It is very precious to have a tea tree."

Many new farms are certified under European and Chinese regulations — which are both significantly stricter and cheaper than their United States counterpart — but still have to compete with big corporations willing to jump through the USDA hoops.

At his seminar Green said, "Some of the farmers that left conventional agriculture 10 years ago because they just couldn't compete on economies of scale are now finding that the same companies they were in competition with 10 or 12 years ago are now competing against them in the organic sector."

Consumers want to choose certified products because they think they're doing the right thing. But doing so doesn't necessarily help anyone but the big corporations that can afford certification.

"Organic isn't an issue if it's always been organic," Yu says. "Fair trade is not an issue [for Teance] because we buy from family farms."

Yu works with family farms like the ones with representatives sifting through the advice and cautionary tales of the World Ag Expo, the farms wondering how to stay afloat in the wake of impossible competition.

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