A Tea Addict's Journal

Appellation control for tea

January 20, 2010 · 9 Comments

One of the most confusing things about buying tea is that there is virtually no naming scheme and standards.  I can go buy some green tea from a wholesaler and resell that as “jade green spring”, which sounds awfully like biluochun “green snail spring”, and perhaps lead you to think that it might have something to do with biluochun, even though my tea could be some cheap Sichuan green of no notable character.  Tieguanyin from Fujian and tieguanyin from Taiwan are entirely different beasts — the ones in Fujian are generally named for the varietal of tea plant from which the tea came, while in Taiwan tieguanyin also includes specific sets of production procedures.  Likewise, Longjing is a famous tea, and is supposed to be from the Hangzhou area, but somehow, Taiwan has Longjing too, and no, Taiwan’s Longjing does not taste anything like the mainland version, at least the good stuff.  And then you have things like “Zhejiang Longjing”.  And let’s not even get into puerh naming conventions….

It seems like what really needs to happen, at least with Chinese tea, is a strict regulatory regime that makes it possible to tell something about a product when it comes to its name.  When I see the word “longjing” I should know that it is coming from a defined area, with a defined characteristic, and maybe even certain defined manufacturing procedures.  This is like how appellation d’origine contrôlée is done in France, and it works pretty well.  When you see Epoisses de Bourgogne, you know what you’re getting.  It’s going to stink, it’s going to be creamy, and it’s the same every time.  If you put that name on, and you didn’t make it there or follow the proper rules, then you are going to get sued.

This is of course part of the problem — the lack of a robust legal system that can handle problems such as infringement on these names, and the lack of an authority established to deal with such issues.  I remember reading about a Chinese town that wanted to copyright their namesake alcoholic beverage, because other people from a different town started making it, and it was being bastardized and worse, its reputation was damaged because the other product was not as good.  For people whose hometown has a product which has a name-recognition value, it is in their best interest to have a system that will protect such a product.

It is, of course, also in the interest of the government to do so, because goods that can command the trust of the consumer is going to be able to command a higher price.  The lack of appellation control means that when I see “Yiwu” printed on the label of a puerh tea, I actually have no idea what’s in it.  It could be indeed the best leaves from Yiwu, it could be really bad leaves from Yiwu, it could be leaves from other places in Yunnan, or worse, it could be from places that are outside Yunnan.  There’s no way to tell, and the only way I can even guess is to drink and see what I think of it.  Nine out of ten times, however, Yiwu and other famous places like it will have tea that isn’t really produced from materials made from that area, just like “Anxi tieguanyin” is often not Anxi tieguanyin at all.  Really experienced drinkers will know the difference, but for the vast majority of consumers, no such possibility exist.

One of the inherent problems with tea is that it is often made by small farmers, and sold to larger distributors/consolidators/wholesalers who blend, process, and resell the tea to the consuming public.  The leaves themselves are anonymous, and farmers are usually only selling bags of tea they carried to the factory with no distinctive marker of any kind at all.  When you look at the raw leaves, you really can’t tell very well whether it’s from Yiwu or not.

The Taiwanese have come up with a rather interesting method of dealing with this problem, namely, regular tea competitions among farmers.  Farmers are asked to submit batches of tea for these competitions, and the teas are then graded, winners announced, and the teas are then resealed in government authorized packaging with the grades accorded to the tea.  The point of these competitions were twofold — to encourage better tea, of course, but also to grade and sell them in a way that guarantees some level of quality.  For an entry into the competition, the farmer has to submit a certain amount of tea (13.2kg for Lugu) and the judging panel basically takes a random sample out of this batch to evaluate the tea.  The whole batch eventually gets sold, and because of the labeling and the grading, they are usually sold at prices much higher than they would otherwise command without such certification.

Now, doing so would be hard for all levels of tea, and in all fairness, there’s probably no good reason why this needs to be done for the large scale, commercial, and mass-consumed tea that slosh around the market every day.  At the same time, some basic form of appellation control that at least gives a modicum of origin assurance would be nice.  Just like how for wine there’s AOC, Vin de Pays, Vin de Table, etc, one could imagine such stratification for different kinds of tea.  Some farmers might go for the highest rating and aim to produce high quality, but possibly lower yield, tea, while many will be content to make tea for the mass market.  Some will do both, and it is up to government authorities to build an infrastructure to support this kind of choice.  What we have right now, however, is nothing, and nothing is damaging the entire market.

Western buyers are not alone in this either, as Chinese buyers are just as confused as everybody else.  Most experienced tea people know that when you buy Dahongpao, oftentimes the tea in the bag is not really Dahongpao.  On top of the varietals you have all kinds of other things, such as Monkey Picked, etc, that are often used by shops to denote their own blends or processes.  If there’s an appellation control, at the very least they can tell you it is “roasted in house using x leaves” or something along those lines.  As it is, we have none of that luxury.  For the Western buyers who have to deal with names like Snow Monkey, Leopard Monkey, Naked Monkey, or whatever else, the situation is only worse.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // January 20, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Reply

    This is a great idea. Verifying the authenticity of a tea is not nearly as definitive as it should be. You bring up a good point about Taiwanese tea competitions, too. A solid indicator of a good Dong Ding or a high mountain oolong is the farmer’s track record of competition winnings. While this would be hard to achieve to mainland China in many cases, some kind of vetting process is needed.

  • Anonymous // January 21, 2010 at 11:00 am | Reply

    The problem though.. is certification, and not labeling.
    The only way to ensure that it is genuine, is to certify it at the time of picking in a way that can not be altered. Any time after that, it’s anybody’s guess.

    I remember going to an apple orchard that advertised they had “Honey Crisp” apples, which is my favorite varietal, thinking I would be getting fresh fruit right off the trees. Turns out, this orchard had many kinds of apples, but not that varietal, which they instead had shipped in for sale. They have “Honey Crisp” trees, but they are too young to yield fruit yet as it is a newer variety. So just because you get something from a farm, doesn’t mean it came from there.

    So, I think the only way to really certify it is to do so when it is picked, and sealed.

  • MarshalN // January 21, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Reply

    Of course certification is part of the problem, which is why the Taiwanese opted for the competition model — it avoids the need to certify anything.

    One of the fundamental issues with tea is that it’s easily transported. You can move 20kg of tea from A to B on the back of a motorcycle. There’s absolutely nothing to stop you from doing that, in fact. This is why certification might never work — tea from the next town over can be brought in with little way to verify it. If you mix it in a batch of 200kg, 20kg of bad tea isn’t really going to show up, unless you know what you’re doing, which means we’re back to square one.

    Which is why I think the Taiwanese went for competitions — you are judging what’s going into those boxes, with no way for them to tamper with the tea otherwise. A farmer who wins lots of competitions will then be able to say “look, I win often”. Sometimes I do wonder if the competition results are pre-ordained, but I think even then, you have some measure of control.

  • rtea // January 29, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Reply

    It’s my hope that the competitions reward honest producers of quality tea, as well as to maintain standards for tea production in general.  Upon trying many types of Taiwan oolong award winners, though, I am often left a bit baffled by the criteria and motivation behind competition judging.  Although officially there is a breakdown of the criteria being judged, I often feel confused as to why the taste trends for winning teas continue to change.  What, for example, are the necessary criteria for winning Baozhong teas?  I know an Alishan farmer that uses high mountain tea with hybrid high mountain and Baozhong processing methods and has won many Baozhong awards (his Baozhong will brew with a 3 leaf/1 bud picking – unique).  Similarly with Dong Ding, I have heard of farmers with tea from outside of Lugu that enter and win.  Since the prices for competition winning teas is many-fold higher than non-winners, there is an incentive to cater to a certain taste that one may believe the judges are looking for.  One of my Tieguanyin teachers won a 2nd place award a few years ago and a tea that normally sells for about $80/jin went up to about $550/jin; he has since changed some of his production techniques to try to mimic that award-winning tea.  What makes for a good Muzha Tieguanyin?  I suppose I no longer know, at least from the perspective of what the tea judges consider to be good.

  • Anonymous // September 1, 2010 at 4:45 am | Reply

    I was called to attention to this article by a recent ATB newsletter. These are very good points! I thought about the same things for some time. I think it’s almost impossible to have a clear system for names of tea. Till now I don’t know yet how many types of teas China has, but it seems a number too large to manage. The fancy names invented by tea vendors in the west generate even more barricades for tea drinkers to learn even popular and well-established tea names.

    Then there are problems of geographic regions, grading system (everybody can call their tea grade 1, or, when it’s not enough, call it king grade, imperial, royal, or whatever), cultivars… which makes me wonder, is tea business a big mess in nature?

    I admire the Taiwan tea competition system very much. Here is a blog I wrote about Taiwan tea competition.

  • MarshalN // September 3, 2010 at 3:25 am | Reply

    @gingko – 

    The Taiwan competition system works, but only in small amounts. What about tea that didn’t make it into the competition? That’s the problem with things like Longjing, which are produced in such volume that the competition method has problems.

    There needs to be a way for it to work, because right now, it doesn’t. Oh well, it’s not something we have real say over, unfortunately.

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  • Jakub Tomek // August 20, 2012 at 5:52 am | Reply

    Hello MarshalN,
    seems that this is still an open issue. I wonder why it does not work – the appelation system may not work that well in Italy, but it does work in France (probably the orderliness of the whole nation went towards wine so the is not that much left for other activities :)).

    Are there any initiatives in China to make things better? If not, why? On one hand, China is huge, on the other hand, the tea producing regions do not seem that huge to me (at least puerh-friendly regions).

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