Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Negative Outlook By a U.S. Tea Wholesaler

I always welcome with delight the latest quarterly catalog from Upton Tea Imports when it arrives in my mailbox. Even though I rarely order from them, the catalog itself is a good read. It is written like a gazette on tea history accompanied with a broad list of tea and accessory selections.

What caught my attention in the Fall 2008 catalog is the short note to the customers on page 3. As a well-established wholesaler and mail-order tea company in the US, their view on the tea industry -- though understandably it may not be free of subjectivity due to their position -- let us peek into the changes and the current condition within the trade. The note reads as such, and I quote:

(Bold format by me)

"A Note to our Valued Customers:

We continue to see challenges in the procurement of top-quality teas from virtually all of the major producing countries. A late start to the growing season was followed by rather warm weather, adversely affecting the quality of the teas from northern India, China, and Japan. With few choice lots being produced, and with sustained pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar, the best teas fetched record prices once again. For the first time we have seen select Assam teas selling at prices formerly attainable only by the best Darjeeling teas!

China Yunnan teas continue to be disappointing. There is hope that the late season will produce better teas than last year's selections, but the proof will be in the samples, yet to arrive."

It's followed by a more upbeat tone...

"But rather than focus on the negative, I must say that we have been enjoying some outstanding new arrivals here at Upton Tea Imports, and we will be receiving several excellent teas over the coming weeks. And even as loose tea prices have been increasing by leaps and bounds, we note that the world's finest teas are still an affordable luxury.

As always, new arrivals are posted on our website as soon as they have been received and checked for quality."

Then it mentions about 3 recent arrivals from Taiwan, which I am leaving out, before the note is concluded.

Altogether, it's realistic but not an inspiring note for tea drinkers, if you ask me.

Left out by the writer of the short note above is any mention of the recent political unrest in Darjeeling (also here) and the effects on the quality of the region's teas. Also, the writer gave no hint as to the causes of Yunnan teas' poor quality, which in the case of Pu'er it was most likely from overproduction, a lack of standard control and the rampant speculation of the commodity. But there are other types of tea produced in Yunnan. What causes the poor quality of non-Pu'er teas from that province remains elusive for now.

As consumers, we are already being pummeled by high gas prices, increasing food costs, weak U.S. dollar, and the poor economy as a whole. Unfortunately, in the scheme of things, what goes on with tea is not at all surprising. We are being forced to pay more and settle for less.


Anonymous said...

Hey Phyll,

I just read that in Upton's new catalog too - thanks for posting their outlook here. I continue to be very impressed with Upton's transparency and unparalleled (in my opinion) ability to source such a massive variety of teas from all over the world!


~ Phyll said...

Hello Nikhil! If you could kindly share your learned opinion, has the recent unrest and bad weather affected Darjeeling tea quality this year dramatically?

Anonymous said...

Hi Phyll,
the artificially pushed demand and production of pu-erh teas have had an effect also on other teas from Yunnan. While last year's Yunnan Golden Bud teas were very disappointing compared to the previous year (which was very good), this year's Golden Buds aren't up to the 2006 standard, either. They're nice, but not outstanding.
The problem is, that the high demand for pu-erh in the last few years has disturbed the established chain. Since there simply wasn't enough raw material for pu-erh production, tea varietals that have previously not been used for pu-erh production were used to fill the supply shortages. This has had a strong impact on other teas (like the Golden Buds).
After the burst of the pu-erh bubble, we can only hope to see the quality of other Yunnan teas improve again in the future.

~ Phyll said...

Hi Jo, thanks for the valid insight! I think your comment echoes the many reports out there about tea farmers in Yunnan who didn't use to make pu'er jumped onto the pu'er bandwagon just to cash in on the craze. Non-tea farmers, too.

I wonder if they will learn anything from it, the way that we in the US are realizing (too late) our missteps during the mortgage-crazed years.