Author: Dr. Hsiu-Ying Huang, PhDProfessor of International BusinessFeng Chia University @ Taiwan10+ years research of Taiwanese teas, farms & farmersOriginal publish: Expert talks at Food Therapy West Meets East
Based on my research of wildly grown tea/ wild tea, consuming wild tea is not only beneficial to the human, but also to the nature. The three dimensions of wild tea/ plant in the other blog, all importantly determine the quality of the wild tea as well as its benefits:
I. The degree of human intervention
II. The duration of wild growth
III. The biodiversity of the land
Figure 1: Benefits of Wild Tea/ Plant
Source: this research
For consumers looking to try wild tea, price and yield can serve as initial criteria for distinguishing genuine wild tea from imitations. Firstly, genuine wild tea cannot be cheap. When consumers come across sellers claiming to offer wild tea, but the tea's price is comparable to or lower than conventionally grown tea, it's unlikely to be an authentic wild tea. The cultivation methods for wild tea result in yields that are only around 10% of what conventional farming produces. In some cases, particularly for low-altitude wild tea that involves plucking only tender buds and young leaves, the yield may be as low as 5% of conventional tea. Given the inability to produce reasonable quantities, the costs are inevitably high, so low prices are NOT feasible. Some of the more precious wild teas may even have yields as low as just a few kilograms per batch.
If it is genuinely wild tea grown using wild methods, consumers can evaluate and select the most suitable wild tea for themselves based on both objective criteria and subjective experiences. I suggest some criteria and observations which might help to evaluate and choose the most authentic wild tea based on personal preferences and the level of wildness to get the most benefits:
- Evaluating Tea Quality Based on the Three Dimensions of Wildness
(1) Assessing the Degree of Human Intervention during Tea Plantation:
Primary quality assessment factors include the use of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and the frequency of application. Ideally, true wild tea should have minimal human intervention, meaning it should not involve the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or even organic fertilizers. In particular, manual weeding with infrequent interventions is preferred. This is because native grass species, which may be considered weeds by humans, can be food or nutrient sources for other organisms and attempting to eradicate them could disrupt the ecosystem.
(2) Examining the Years of Wild Growth and Frequency of Tea Harvest:
Wild tea should be grown for at least three years, and the longer it has been grown using wild methods, the more valuable it is. The frequency of tea harvesting should be measured annually, and it should not exceed two harvests per year, as more frequent harvesting can lead to a decline in the nutritional content and texture of the tea leaves. While lower harvesting frequency generally results in better tea quality, it is uncommon for tea farmers to harvest only once every few years. Tea leaves harvested less frequently, such as every two or three years, are exceedingly rare and therefore come at a premium price.
(3) Visiting the Tea Tree Growing Environment or Engaging in Direct Conversations with the Farmer:
To confirm the authenticity of wild tea, it is recommended that consumers personally visit the region where the tea trees are grown. Seeing is often believing. Key observations should include the following:
a) Location of the Tea Plantation:
Generally, tea plantations located far from human settlements in remote areas that are less likely to be affected by human contamination or adjacent fields (where conventional farming is practiced) are preferred.
b) Ecosystem of the Tea Plantation:
Is the tea tree grown alongside native plants? Are there various wildflowers and weeds mixed among the tea trees, or is it difficult to distinguish the tea trees amid native vegetation? Apart from tea trees, are there other large trees, and is there evidence of insects, birds, bees, or snakes in the vicinity?
c) Tea Trees, Branches, and Leaf Surfaces:
Thicker tea tree trunks suggest longer wild growth, and they are more likely to have grown from seed planting. Careful observation of the tea tree branches reveals irregular growth, with trees not growing in a uniform and consistent pattern, and their heights vary. On closer examination of the tea leaf surfaces, natural signs of insect bites or nibbles will be noticeable.
The more primitive and natural the cultivation environment, and the more intact and diverse the ecosystem, the more the soil can accumulate nutrients and fertility. Tea leaves grown in this ecological system become healthier, absorbing more essential trace elements and nutrients. They can reflect the natural characteristics of their growth environment prominently in their flavor.
For consumers who cannot personally visit wild tea plantations, it is recommended that they at least have an opportunity to engage in conversations with the tea farmers who cultivate the tea. The quality of tea is closely tied to the beliefs and ideals of the grower. A genuine wild tea farmer is confident in the quality of their tea and can provide a clear explanation of their cultivation process and the reasons behind the superior quality of their tea. Their words will also naturally convey respect for the natural environment. Therefore, having an actual conversation with tea farmers is a way to evaluate the quality of wild tea.
In summary, if the evaluation criteria for wild tea lean towards the right side of the spectrum, it signifies higher tea quality, greater nutritional value, and a more distinct sense of terroir. In comparison to conventionally grown tea, wild tea can be summarized as having "everything it should have, and nothing it shouldn't."
2. Subjective Selection Based on Sensory Flavour and Taste Variations
Once wild tea has passed the evaluation based on the spectrum of wildness, it should meet the basic requirements for tea quality and nutrients. The next step is for consumers to decide whether to purchase it based on their subjective sensory preferences. Due to the characteristics of wild tea, it faithfully reflects the terroir conditions of its origin. This means that even if it's the same tea variety grown in different locations, the flavor may differ. As flavor is a matter of personal preference, consumers can explore wild teas from different regions and varieties to find the flavor they enjoy.
It's important to note that wild tea, which coexists with natural ecosystems and isn't subject to human manipulation, cannot be standardized in terms of its taste. In other words, if a consumer tastes a wild tea in one year that they absolutely love, they cannot expect to find the exact same flavor in the following year (even from the same location and grower). This is because natural conditions such as climate, soil, and rainfall change from year to year, and wild tea, which genuinely reflects its ecological environment, cannot standardize its tasting experience.
If a wild tea producer claims to provide consistent flavors in different years, consumers may reasonably suspect some form of human intervention. The key characteristic of conventionally grown tea is the ability to control the uniformity of tea quality and flavor. This uniformity of flavor, though enjoyable, raises the question of whether the flavor comes from carefully formulated fertilizers or the natural terroir of the region.
For consumers looking to select wild tea, the more appropriate perspective should be that flavor variations and inconsistencies are evidence of genuine wild tea. As mentioned by the renowned French Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse in his book "Eating is a Citizen Act," standardization and uniformity are negative symbols for agricultural products. It is the joy of appreciating the differences in flavor from different years and regions for the same tea variety that makes drinking wild tea an enjoyable experience. Imagine eagerly anticipating each new season's tea and being pleasantly surprised – isn't that one of the pleasures of life?
Finally, the techniques and craftsmanship of harvesting and processing wild tea have been passed down through generations and continuously refined. This includes careful selection during harvesting, tea processing methods, and roasting techniques. These skills ensure the final quality of wild tea, allowing it to perfectly convey the flavor of the land. Consumers will need to invest some effort by learning and tasting continually to develop the ability to distinguish between different levels of craftsmanship.