This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.
Terroir is becoming an increasingly important consideration in selecting tea for the North American specialty tea market, as was reflected in the courses and show floor interactions at the 2013 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Terroir and the French phrase “gout de terroir” have been more frequently used by the wine industry in speaking of “the taste of the earth,” or “a sense of place.” The word is also employed to describe those signature flavor characteristics of artisanally crafted tea that are direct results of growth condition and location.
Kevin Gascoyne of Maison de The Camellia Sinensis (Montreal, Canada) delivered a seminar on the elements that comprise terroir. Terroir can include a variety of factors, including altitude, terrain, soil content, temperature, weather, and surrounding plants, to name a few. All of these elements contribute to the final product of processed tea. According to Gascoyne, “Depending on the kind of tea and method of manufacture, 60 to 80 per cent of a tea’s flavor profile is a result of terroir.” The ability to select fine teas is therefore contingent on one’s appreciation of terroir.
When location-specific manufacturing methods of teas are also considered, the origins of a specialty tea become even more important. Bill Waddington of TeaSource (St. Paul, Minnesota) cut slices of hei cha with a bandsaw on the exhibition floor. Hei cha, or dark tea, is an oxidized tea that undergoes additional fermentation. While pu’er from China’s Yunnan province may be the more recognized sub-category of hei cha, other forms of dark tea are entering the U.S. specialty tea market. Mr. Waddington was sawing a 1,000 tael dark tea from An Hua, Hunan Province, China. A 1,000 tael unit of hei cha is a compressed log of tea that weighs nearly 80 pounds, is approximately 5 feet long, and is traditionally wrapped in layers of bamboo and other leaves for storage. Hei cha is frequently stored and aged for a minimum of a few years so that its flavor and character can mature. Some hei cha can be aged for decades to become prized teas.
Along with the distinctive features of teas from origin come unique sets of considerations in sourcing and quality control. Austin Hodge of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas (Tuscon, Arizona) spoke about the logistical, food safety, and other issues related to the Chinese tea industry. “In order for small U.S. tea businesses to survive, they will have to offer better quality tea and provide the depth of information so that customers can understand the value of those teas. Only China provides the possibilities for that kind of quality and variety,” said Hodge. He also spoke about the need to spend a lot of time on the ground in China. “In addition to connections to tea producers and a thorough knowledge of tea, successfully sourcing Chinese teas requires a broad spectrum of relationships with government officials at many levels.” Understanding terroir and signature production methods are only a part of bringing quality teas to consumers.
In contrast to China’s rich history of origin specific tea cultivation and manufacture, the World Tea Expo saw the first meeting of the U.S. League of Tea Growers (USLTG). The USLTG is working to bring best practices and a collection of tea varietals for use in developing distinctive tea cultivars to suit the terroir and manufacturing practices for tea farms that currently span at least 13 U.S. states. The league foresees great potential for the development of even more tea farms in the U.S. “Given the growth of the U.S. tea market, trends in specialty tea, and a growing consumer preference for locally grown products, U.S. tea growers have a tremendous opportunity before them” said Nigel Melican as he guided the league’s founding meeting. The future of U.S. grown tea will depend on striking the right balance between many factors, including: terroir, processing, tea variety, and consumer preferences.
When it comes to the places of tea, the World Tea Expo revealed the richness of both established and new tea origins. Attendees discovered how terroir and processing skill combine to create unique characteristics in specialty teas. Expo classes explained the keys needed to bring signature teas to the U.S. marketplace, and how to present specialty teas to a growing community of discerning tea drinkers.
Jason Walker operates WalkerTeaReview.com, writes for tea publications, and works with online tea businesses.