Monday, September 17, 2007

LETTER FROM FUJIAN: Pollution and Purity in China Teas


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Readers of CHA DAO will likely remember the last LETTER FROM FUJIAN, an interview with Warren Peltier, who has been teaching in China for some time now. This piece is adapted from an email to Corax about the issues of pollution and hygiene that were raised in 'All the Tea in China -- Polluted?,' an earlier post to this blog. Warren's material is published here with his permission.]]

China's tea is a heavily-exported commodity. So I suspect if sales are falling off due to scares about pesticide residues, tea companies in China will soon use non-chemical or organic pesticides instead -- and that will solve the problem. Most are flexible, and they will switch production practices to meet consumer demand.

On a recent visit to Wuyi Shan, where famous teas such as Da Hong Pao are grown, I saw no evidence of pollution. This was likely because it is 1) a tourist destination, and -- more importantly -- 2) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It would be shameful for the Chinese government (and bad for tourism dollars) to have a polluted UNESCO site in China. So they keep the city very clean, and the citizens of Wuyi seem to avoid practices that are common in other parts of Fujian:
• Wuyi residents don't throw their trash into the street curbs for pickup. Result: the streets are much cleaner. There are no black oil spots or general grime on sidewalks or in the streets.
• Wuyi residents don't burn their trash. This is an assumption, not a fact; but I'm guessing they don't, because the air there is so much cleaner than other parts of Fujian. In many small villages in Fujian, including Anxi (where Tie Guan Yin oolong is grown), you will sometimes see fires burning alongside the roads. Sometimes they are burning dried grass. But often it's bags filled with garbage. The smoke from them is very powerful. (They also burn rice fields after the harvest, in order to clear the land. But the smoke from those is not as bad as that of burning garbage. And burning the rice fields actually has some positive aspects: it gets rid of the dead grass, and it fertilizes the fields.)

As far as tea being exposed to pollutants after the growing period, i.e. during processing and/or packaging -- that is also a possibility. In processing some teas, there is a period where the leaf is spread out to dry in the air/sun. But in many places in China, there is a black dust that settles over everything. You can't sit down in a public place without first wiping away the dust. Balconies of houses become covered in a thin layer of dust after a week or so. You have to be constantly cleaning the dust away.

Tea may also be laid on an unclean surface before being sold. In China, they often lay herbal medicines straight on the dirty sidewalks to dry in the sun. Sometimes they will even lay them right out on the street, or in a parking lot, causing cars to have to drive around them!

Then, before packaging, some teas like Tie Guan Yin mao cha must be further processed to take the stems off, before it is ready for sale. They often do this in individual retail stores, i.e. in the very place where the tea will then be sold. How, then, might tea become polluted during processing, if it's processed in a store? Nothing is being added to the tea. Vendors would not risk adding some chemical that might taint their tea. But personal hygiene may sometimes be unfavorable. For example, public toilets often have no toilet paper or soap. This means that most people after using the toilet (even in their workspace) have no access to soap to wash their hands (unless they bring in their own personal supply to use). However, most people don't bring their own supply of soap for handwashing, and do without the soap when washing hands. They would then go and process the tea. It's a reality. (And not only in China: a recent study conducted in Chicago showed that one-third of the men there did not wash their hands after visiting the rest room. So this is not just a Chinese problem.)

Fujian province is also a very hot and humid place. Perspiring is a natural bodily function, and cannot be avoided when one is processing tea. If one's palms are sweaty during the labor of processing tea leaves, there is no way to prevent its coming in contact with the tea. Most shops are not air conditioned -- at least not to the degree we are accustomed to in the West. So it's an unavoidable problem.

Tea that is being poured from large 10-kg bags may inadvertently be spilled onto the floor. If that happens, they don't sweep up the tea and toss it in the garbage bin: no, that would be a waste. Instead, these lovely, innocent and naive young ladies will sweep the tea with their hands into a pile, then scoop it onto a piece of cardboard or paper, and place it back in the bag, for sale. As long as the floor looks reasonably clean, and no foreign matter gets mixed in with the leaves -- that's what they will do.

But all of this is just my own experience. You need to see it to believe it. Perhaps later I can take photos and everyone can better understand the whole tea process, which is hugely labor intensive.

Just rinse your tea well before you brew it. And store it well. I always rinse my tea before steeping, and sometimes even rinse leaves well in cold water first. And examine the rinse water.


corax said...

speaking of pesticide regulations and the tea industry in china -- the online journal CHINA DAILY published, in 2004, an article on this very topic which may be of interest to readers of warren's post. [thanks to anodyne for bringing this link to my attention]

TeaMasters said...

To rinse or not to rinse? Here you have a different point of view (article in Chinese):

Warren said...

Teaparker makes some good points: The first brew of tea (the rinse), you first pour into the cups; then immediately pour out - because it's supposedly unsanitary. But if it's unsanitary why does one pour it into the cups first to rinse the cups? And why then use these rinsed and now dirty cups and allow guests to drink from them?

To drink or not drink the first infusion (the rinse), you must first ask yourself: Are you sure about the source of the tea? Where was the tea grown? Under what conditions was it processed?. And you should also ask about the storage environment. How was this tea stored? Did it come in contact with with anything unsanitary?

Basically, what he's saying is: because most of us can't answer these questions about our teas, it's best to rinse the tea first before drinking. We don't know who did what to the tea we drink.

And I would also add this little-known fact:
Tea rinsing originated in the Ming Dynasty, because the tea leaves were left outdoors in the sun to dry. So dust might settle on the leaves back then. Then, in the gongfu tea ceremony, tea rinsing became the norm. So that's why we rinse our leaves.

Julian said...

For tea rinsing, I assume we are only talking about the darker teas and not green/white/yellow teas?

I have never heard of people rinsing these lighter teas, but if you do, it will be interesting to know.


corax said...

warren, thanks for your common-sense observations in the comments here. also for that tidbit about the ming dynasty, which i did not know! fascinating glimpse of that bygone era ...

TeaMasters said...

Thanks Warren for the translation. I was being lazy.

I may add that in Taiwan, Oolongs don't dry very long outdoors. The whole process is done in 1 day.

As for the yellow, green and white tea, I confirm to Julian that it's not necessary (even a waste of tea) to rinse the leaves. Such teas (especially the high grades) are made with such young buds that these leaves didn't have time to be subject to much dust.