Somewhere in the lush forested corners in the deepest recesses of Yunnan Province lives an Ingenious Gentleman. In his quest, our hero uncovers the shady dealings of big tea business and seeks to protect a waning, sustainable tea culture. But is our hero tilting at windmills?
Wild Tea Hunter by J.T. Hunter and Shana Zhang is the memoirs of Hunter’s experience sourcing teas for his company, Wild Tea Qi. The book covers Hunter’s experience learning Chinese, getting to know the people of China tea business, and finding ancient and wild teas.
Hunter’s approach to sustainable tea practices and doing tea-business in China is based on a couple of key premises:
1. A Daoist perspective that integrates an emphasis on sustainability and bio-diversity.
Hunter relates how Daoist teachings have influenced his approach to tea. As a result, he approaches the plant as a life force intertwined with his own. He speaks of the “qi” of tea, and experiences how tea has brought healing energy into his own body. He studies under Daoist teachers, one of which shares a deep connection to tea. Inasmuch as Daoism (Taoism) advocates harmony with the Way of Nature, sustainable tea growing practices become an important feature of the teas Hunter seeks. He wants teas that grow in more naturally diverse habitats instead of vast fields and endless rows of tea bushes.
Admittedly, most tea lovers would welcome teas grown in a more bio-diverse environment. There is a romance in knowing, for example, that old-growth and wild tea trees reach heavenward in the middle of untamed wildness of exotic flora and fauna. It will be interesting to see how the economics play-out. What will these tea farmers do when/if demand increases? Can these farmers balance production volume and pricing over the long term?
2. With a passion for pure, natural teas, Hunter also expresses disappointment at current systems designed to protect/promote these teas.
A portion of the book reads like an exposé of the flaws in sourcing Chinese organic and Fair Trade teas. He relays firsthand experiences where documentation was tampered with and switcheroos with lab samples occur. I have no reason to doubt that these events occurred, or could have occurred. These would not be the first stories of a China product offering less than what is advertised.
Nearly any system can be cheated. Does that mean all teas from China are dangerously tainted? Not necessarily. This recent article looks at some claims about dangerous pesticides in tea. Some of those claims don’t have sufficient or any scientific measurements to support the claims. It is disappointing and misleading when a tea labelled organic isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it need be dismissed as dangerous. Hunter advocates his teas and his system of providing wild, ancient, sustainable teas. He gets to know farms, farmers, and processors before purchasing their teas. But Hunter is advocating a system, and the flaws in nearly any system can eventually be found and manipulated.
3. The barriers to successfully sourcing valuable quantities of natural, sustainable teas is nearly prohibitive.
Hunter wants to make it clear that finding good teas in China is not easy. Some may liken the experience to David Lee Hoffman’s in All In This Tea. One major difference is Hunter’s entrepreneurial work on an even smaller budget.
4. The relationships between people and teas matter.
I do applaud Hunter’s efforts in promoting the people of tea. He gives us names and details about the growers, tea masters, and others who work to protect and develop artisanal teas. The people and places behind many teas often remain hidden as tea retailers remain reluctant to divulge their sources. This may be due to a concern that companies will waltz in and take advantage of all the energy others expended in finding good tea producers and cultivating those relationships.
Along with the people, Wild Tea Hunter shows how to appreciate the teas those people produce. Coverage includes a brief explanation of how these teas can/should be appreciated in accordance with Traditional Chinese Medicine and Daoist principles. Part of this coverage even goes into detail of comparing tea from ancient trees that Wild Tea Qi offers with teas produced from more modern estates. This section is best taken with a grain of salt. Hunter distinguishes between the leaf quality and aroma of teas, but doesn’t give enough explanation to solidify his point. He notes that the veins are more obvious in the leaves of the estate leaf compared to his ancient tree leaf. But could that distinction not simply be due to different varietals used? Could not some ancient leaf have more obvious vein patterns, and some other varieties of estate leaf have less obvious patterns? Does the visibility of leaf pattern have any proven effect on the overall quality of the tea we drink? Similarly, he describes how the taste of ancient leaf carries the aromas or characteristics of the flora and environment in which it grew. But Taiwan teas like Li Shan grown on tea farms and tea estates make similar claims. Some claim Li Shan oolongs contain pear elements from nearby pear trees. Ancient may be better, but it may take more to convince seasoned tea drinkers.
Wild Tea Hunter contains some interesting accounts of Hunter’s experience in finding teas in China. Others have gone before him, and others will go after. Where this book stands apart is the combination of people and experiences that come together to shape the teas and stories of Wild Tea Qi.