Wuyuan Tea: Everything Old Is New Again

By Janis Hashe

For more than 1,200 years, the county containing the city of Wuyuan, nestled between the Chinese provinces of Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Anhui, has reigned as the “golden triangle of green tea.” The surrounding mountains, the misty, humid climate and the rich soil combine to create an ideal environment for growing high-quality tea. During the Song dynasty, Wuyuan green tea was called a “masterwork of tea,” and during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Wuyuan tea was presented in tribute to the emperors.

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Wuyuan’s misty, humid climate and rich soil provide an ideal climate for high-quality tea.

Mt. Dazhangshan (also known as Da Zhang Shan and Dazhang Shan) looms between the QianTang and LeAn rivers at 1,630 meters. Dazhangshan tea was classically described as “featuring a strong fragrance, delicious taste and thick soup.”

Now fast forward to the twentieth century. Wuyuan’s tea farmers were growing tea in much the same way as their ancestors did: free of pesticides and chemical enhancements. In fact, their system was a naturally organic one. However, the farmers themselves had no idea of a global market for their tea.

Change would not wait for them to catch up. Under the “New China” of 1949, Wuyuan green tea could not be sold domestically, only through an external seller and only if labeled simply “China green tea.” No specific branding meant that Wuyuan tea became, essentially, lost in the shuffle and unable to compete with other, better-known brands. According to a 2013 article in China Daily Asia, these brands included Longjing in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and Tieguanyin in Anxi, Fujian province.

Then things changed again in the early 1990s. As China moved to export more and more of its products globally, it also adopted the concept of “green foods.” After the inspection of the country’s Agricultural Department Food Quality Inspection Center in 1993, and then successive three years’ detection by the State Green Food Development Center, 53 hectares of tea-growing areas in Wuyuan Dazhangshan were given the “green food trademark, the first of its kind in China’s tea industry,” again according to China Daily Asia.

A major player in this development was Hong Peng, president of Jiangxi Wuyuan Dazhangshan Organic Food Co., Ltd. (JWDOFC) and a graduate of the Wuyuan Tea School. Recognizing the potential of Wuyuan’s organic tea, his company organized a collective tea farm of approximately 800 hectares. In 1996, the company’s teas became the first to be certified Class AA Green Food by the Chinese government. In 1997, the company’s teas were certified organic by the EU and in 2001, by the USDA. The company continues to work with its farmers to ensure organic standards are being met. It has also constructed the 14-hectare Dazhangshan Tea Eco-Industrial Park, which contains tea primary production and refining facilities, technology, research and development facilities, and provides eco-tourism opportunities.

Hong Peng, President, Jiangxi Wuyuan Dazhangshan Organic Food Co.

Hong Peng, President, Jiangxi Wuyuan Dazhangshan Organic Food Co.

World Tea News spoke with Hong Peng at the headquarters of Numi Organic Tea in Oakland, Calif. to ask him about his company’s journey since that time.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Hong said, “Before 1997, all our teas were sold as blends. After 1997, we were able to begin exporting to Europe as single, pure teas. Also, we were now able to label and sell it as our own brand. The quantity exported has increased exponentially, from 200 kgs in that first year, to more than 1,000 metric tons currently.” Of this total, 80% is exported to Europe, and 10% to the US.

These exports are no longer just the original “green tea,” but include Dazhangshan Xianzhi, Chunyun, Ming Mei, Jian Feng, Yun Cui, Extra grade, 1–5 grade, green fannings, gunpowder, half gunpowder, jasmine tea, Sencha tea and black tea. The company now also exports organic herbs, dried flowers and dried mushrooms.

First also in fair trade

Jiangxi Dazhangshan Organic Food Co. has also become a force in what is still a novel business practice in China: fair trade. In 2000, the company established the Dazhangshan Organic Farmers Association and, in 2001, the association joined the Fair Trade Label Organization (FLO), becoming the first Chinese member.

“Our farms are small. They range from 20 to 100 hectares each, and average 30 to 40 hectares,” said Mr. Hong. All are at elevations above 600 meters. “They are still family farms. We realized that a cooperative system was very similar to a fair trade model,” he explained.

Since adopting the fair trade guidelines, the company refunds some of proceeds realized to improve education, production and living conditions for its member farmers. Fair trade practices are being adhered to both on the farms and in the tea processing plants.

“It is not just about profit,” said Mr. Hong. “There is democracy and transparency. They can decide as a group where [profit proceeds] can be used. There has been a big change in living and working conditions.” For example, the association has helped build schools and offered partial scholarships to more than 5,000 children.

Implementation of fair trade is possibly also having an influence on whether the new generation chooses to stay on their family farms, said Mr. Hong. In addition to maintaining centuries-old traditions, “there is the possibility of much more income,” he said. “Fair trade is still a new concept in China.”

Where will future growth come from?

In the European and American markets, Mr. Hong predicted that increasing consumer sophistication about different types of teas, the subtleties of flavor and correct preparation will help drive increased consumption. Currently, the most popular teas for JWDOFC in both markets are its gunpowder and jasmine tea varieties.

“People are now being exposed to many more choices, which means they will buy more tea,” he said.

Interestingly, Mr. Hong was skeptical about the future of pu-erh teas in these markets, indicating he felt it was more of a fad than a long-term trend, and calling some of the teas overvalued. However, he commented, “The market can change.”

The domestic Chinese market will remain only a minor percentage of JWDOFC’s business, he indicated.

Huangling village, in Wuyuan.

Huangling village, in Wuyuan.

Marketing is currently dependent on exposure at tea shows, such as the recent World Tea Expo, and on media coverage, which Mr. Hong expects to increase as tourism to the region expands. (Mt. Dazhangshan itself, for example, is described by WikiTravel as “a truly beautiful location… green and crashing waterfalls at every turn. It has dreams of being the number-one extreme sports area in China, but at the moment it’s quiet, probably because the cable car is not finished yet, and the only way up and down is on foot, on classic Chinese paved mountain paths. It claims the highest waterfall in China…[which] is really spectacular even if the claim is exaggerated. There’s a tea shop by the last section near the top.”

Along the Silk Road?

In 2013, the Chinese government announced an initiative popularly referred to as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). Proposed by leader Xi Jinping, its two components, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, would combine to increase trade between China and the rest of Eurasia, Oceania and perhaps parts of Africa.

Asked about the potential for JWDOFC with implementation of OBOR, Mr. Hong called it primarily “a political initiative.” Yet, he noted, “This road still exists, and [the OBOR] could potentially result in reopening markets.”

However, he sees JWDOFC’s future road continuing to head west, aimed at the palates of Europe and the United States.

Source: China Daily Asia