Sunday, December 12, 2010

Under The Tea Leaves - Part Three of A Troligy

If you read Part One, you would have seen my challenge to the company who graciously provided tea for a tasting party I held on the weekend.
In fact, you might think I was rather rude!
However, Darjeeling Tea Express have seen my comments in the spirit they were intended, and responded admirably.
I asked them, very publicly, what they were doing, and they've posted a reply. Here's the first bit:
"I share your concerns over livelihood/conditions of tea workers and the benefit they receive in this industry... From our experience of being in trade, most tea producers do not provide much except the minimum stipulated by law and it includes food subsidy, free housing and a daily wage (negotiated in every 2-3 years). However, due to profit maximisation mentality, most tea producers do not share proportionate gains/profits with their tea workers. In rare cases, it is a sad to hear the story of their personal plight. Even certifications like Fair Trade do not mean much on the ground."
So, we're on the same page. These guys do think it's important. To state their case, again quoting them:
"Going forward, we intend to procure increasingly large part of our teas from such co-operatives and encourage more of the same. Our business model eliminates many players in the value chain by bringing teas direct from the gardens to consumers. Hence, we definitely aim to share our proceedings with institutions that support tea plantation labourers such as Hayden Hall as well. We cannot claim anything yet as we have just commenced operations, but allow us some time to scale up and implement this."
My opinion is that Darjeeling Tea Express need more than just time to do this, they need market clout. So, let's all help!
They have a nicely set-up site, good prices and plenty of information. That's enough of a reason to shop with them.
But if we can help them to help the tea worker in the field, undertaking back-breaking work for little reward, then I encourage every one of my readers to buy at least one batch of nicely-packed, fresh, exotic, invigorating, worker-friendly Darjeeling from them.
It's time for us all to put our money where our mouth is.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Twenty Moments of Truth - Part Two Of A Trilogy

For reasons outlined in Part One, this is a review and a report.
On an unseasonably rainy day in Adelaide, a bunch of people gathered at a suburban home. For Tea.
Not just any tea, but five excellent Darjeelings, that had arrived a few hours before, from India. There's a picture on twitpic if you're interested.
Of the assembled throng, 4 agreed to taste and review all five teas. Believe it or not, some people find the idea of five different teas in rapid succession too much to cope with.
So our reviewers: the inestimable and long-suffering Mrs Devotea, myself, and two anonymous ones, S1 and S2.
We started with the Kangra Oolong. Several guests got excited, thinking this was an Australian tea. Never Mind!
The notes on the site suggest that this is a Handrolled S.F.T.G.F.O.P.1 from the Dharamshala . A Darjeeling Oolong is still a a rare beast. It ceratinly had an unusual grass scent when dry.
The initial response to this might seem disappointing. Words like 'bland', and 'nothing' were being used to describe the tea, though Mrs Devotea, who normally dislikes all Oolongs, described it as "drinkable, but bland". I must admit I had to agree. However, S1 went crazy over it. She asked for more, and said the flavour of fruit came out the more you drank.
On our points system,added up at the end, this tea came in fourth place.
We then moved onto the green - specifically, a Gopaldhara DJ 156 F.T.G.F.O.P.1 second flush.
It's fair to say nobody liked this. Mrs Devotea is not big on greens - in fact everyone present was more of a black fan, but we gave it a go. S2 found it dry and sweet, but not exciting, and that was the best reaction.
I'm yet to find an Indian green I truly enjoy. Whilst black Indian teas such as Assams and Nilgiris remain firmly my favourites, I'm not convinced India can produce a green to rival some of the magnificent Chinese ones.
Incidentally, this tea came a distant last in our scoring system on the day. To be fair, any green would with this panel.
Excitement mounted as the first black was poured - it was a F.T.G.F.O.P.1 black version of the same second flush Gopaldhara that we'd tried in green.
The malty smell of the dry leaves came wafting out as the water was poured on them. Several reviewers started to salivate.
Let me pause to explain that I don't like 'cupping" - I think people should review tea as they would drink it. Of our reviewers S1 and myself drank everything straight, Mrs Devotea had sugar in everything and milk in the blacks, and S2 tried everything neat, then added sugar, and /or milk and tried again.
So, I poured the Gopaldhara to appreciative murmurs.
Mrs Devotea enthused: "Robust, a really good cup of tea." S1 agreed.
I found it tasted like it smelled, and was really enjoyable. It had a dried fruit and rosemary taste, which was unusual yet exotic. S2 believed it better with milk, which I found surprising. When the points were added up later, it came in at number two.
Much more exciting was the fourth tea, which would ultimately be judged the best of them. It's a Goomtee S.F.T.G.F.O.P.1 Special Autumn Flush Black, though the label suggested it be pre-autumnal.
Mrs Devotea hated the smell of the dry leaves and was reluctant to taste it, but awarded it her top tea of the day points. She described it as a "refined, classic Darejeeling. When you ask for a Darjeeling, this is what you should get." S1 said "I adore it, it's so full-flavoured". S2 described it as "quite like an organic special Ceylon BOP I'm fond of". I only made one note at the time ("strong up front, parsley and nuts") but obviously was concentrating more on drinking it, and taking this photo.
I should say that as I type this, I'm drinking my seventh or eighth cup of this since! It's wonderful!
The final tea was an autumn flush from Castleton , another Black F.T.G.F.O.P.1
This tea was a hit with all except S2, who thought it was too earthy. Personally I liked the soap and earthy tones, and to me, it was the best of the day. But it came third in our points system, as the others assembled preferred the previous two.
None of the teas would persuade me to change my favourite Darjeeling - Giddephar Musk - but all in all, great tea, well presented, and a great event on a rainy day!
It was an excellent day, and my thanks to Kaushal Dugar and Darjeeling Tea Express, and the judging/tasting panel.

Hands Across The Water - Part One of a Trilogy

Sometimes I'm direct and to the point. Sometimes I ramble.
I suspect, as I start to write this, that you might want to cancel the papers and phone work sick for a week or so. There's a lot to this.
In fact, I'm going to break it up into three parts, and I have no idea how part three might pan out.
As regular readers know, I worry a lot about the men, women and children who take part in my cup of tea. There's an appalling amount of exploitation within this industry.
And having been in the industry, I also know it can be quite lucrative at both a wholesale and retail level.
In my quest for excellence, I also worry about the care taken with that precious cargo.
A while back a friend (the wonderful @joiedetea, for you twitterites) introduced me to an Indian company that was exporting great Darjeeling teas.
So I started buying my teas from close to the source. The quality is amazing, though I don't seem to save much money over buying them locally.
Since this means a great deal more of the money from each transaction remains in India; I assume that this must filter down to the worker level. Perhaps I am being naive.
So, here's where we can get interesting.
Yesterday I held a launch party/tasting for a new direct on-line Indian tea company in my home town of Adelaide.
It's not uncommon for people to send me tea to review or taste. But on this occasion, I have actively promoted a specific company.
The whole thing came about when I wrote to them complimenting them on their website. I struck up a conversation with the delightful Kaushal, and it wasn't long before we agreed that he would send me some teas, I'd hold an event, and review the teas.
So, Part Two of this Trilogy, I will commence writing in a few moments, and that will be the review of the teas.
At the same time, I invite Darjeeling Tea Express to write to me and explain what steps they are taking to improve the lot of the impoverished Indian tea worker. I already know they share my concerns - I read their blog.
And that will help me put together Part Three.
Let's all see how that works out.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Sense of Communi-tea.

Dr Simon Moss is a renowned author and academic, a fair joke teller and an entertaining speaker; and on two occasions, I have seen him in action.

His playground is the mind, and he covers a range of subjects. He really knows his stuff.

I try to take just one or two ideas from his work each time I dip into it, but something really resonated last week when I saw Simon in action.

His presentation was about the linkage between emotional states and the abilities we exhibit when we are in them. For example, if we are anxious, we will quite often feel the need to conform. The state of anxiety and the need to conform are linked.

Anyway, to rampantly cut through Simon’s careful and measured approach and use it for my own purposes; he suggests that when we combine two states and two feelings we can be effective.

One of the things he suggests is seeking out communities where we can be individual, yet where we can have a sense of belonging. This combines the requisite two states with two feelings, don’t ask me what they were because at that point my own mind zoomed away ... to tea.

The last year or so has been every difficult for me. So much of my identity is tied up in being a good provider, but, like many people, the Global Financial Crisis savaged my ability to earn a crust.

Now I’m not for one minute going to say I had it bad – quite frankly I live in a place where very few people are not ‘rich’ on a world-wide scale. I spend more on a newspaper than a Kenyan tea-worker earns in a day. I eat three meals a day. I drink 8-14 cups of tea. I have a supportive and loving wife and kids, and an extended family.

But we weren’t bringing in what we needed to support our previous mid-level lifestyle, and it was hurting.

I truly believe that a massive factor in keeping me going was my tea community, centred around Twitter, Steepster and Leaf Box tea.

I was working 18 hours a day to try to make a living, but I always found time to talk tea. Incessantly, really. I shot my amateur little videos and presented them to the world. I wrote these articles. Created “Tea-Shirts”. I split another identity off of myself – I’ve always been eccentric, but I could safely turn it up a notch with these guys.

It was funny how you interact with other eccentrics – sometime you try to share their whimsy, sometime they share yours. And the lovely “normal” people that just come along for the ride are fantastic.

And then there’s the people that are so unlike me that I never would have met them any other way. I’ve met people of every race and creed, gender (quite a few more than most people realise), political persuasion, disability, occupation, age and location.

Some conversations are less than 280 characters long.

But some people are now genuine friends, even though I know very little about them, could not pick them out of a police line-up and don’t even know their real names.
I wrote a whimsical piece for Leaf Box Tea while thinking about them, but until I saw Simon’s presentation, I just didn’t know why they were important to me.

(Incidentally, It's great to talk to people of twitter as @The_Devotea , but what I find really wonderful is that it's spilling over into my professional life. People don't invite me to a coffee meeting, they suggest a cup of tea. But I digress...)

Whenever I go for a High Tea somewhere, there is that sense of camaraderie, of doing something outside the norm. I often get talking to others at other tables, even though High Tea is essentially a collection of private events.

How good would it be to take a teapot and wander the streets, randomly sharing a cuppa with folk who are not like me, but to whom a cup of tea with an odd stranger could well engage all that scientific psychostuff that Simon knows about and leave us both feeling refreshed, energised, and ready to handle anything?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Taking Tea with George Orwell

In 1946 George Orwell wrote A Nice Cup of Tea.
Orwell himself is hard to get a handle on. His works such as Animal Farm and 1984 are casually described as anti-communist – whereas in fact they are anti-totalitarian. Orwell envisioned a ‘democratic socialist state” – he certainly hated the Soviet regime, and also the intellectual left of Britain in his day – he describes them as “pansy-left circles” in his essay Rudyard Kipling.
But he is a product of his times. In the same essay on Kipling, he defends Kipling’s use of the phrase “Lesser breeds without the law” - which is widely condemned as referring to native Indians- by saying it clearly means Germans, and is therefore not racist; presumably as Germans are clearly both inferior and lawless!
Whilst his seven works of fiction and two non-fiction books are very clearly a body of work that shows his belief in an egalitarian and equal society and his barely repressed anger at the class system in Britain and the rest of the world, his 50 essays range enormously from gems such as How the Poor Die to pieces on literature, well-known people, social mores and seemingly random topics.
There’s Books vs Cigarettes where he described his horror that ‘working men” will buy cigarettes and not books, when it clearly costs less per annum to build up a small library than to smoke heavily; Orwell, of course, does both. The same essay seems to assert that all heavy smokers are men.
But he’s no carping socialist theorist. On many occasions, he left behind his middle class life and lived among the poor. He travelled the globe from his birth in India to Europe. He fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He describes himself as “Upper-Lower-Middle Class”
So, onto A Nice Cup Of Tea.
It was written and published in post-war Britain.
Each document is a reflection of its time. Imagine if the US Constitution had been written in 1968. It would be a very different document.
Or if the Bible had been written as the events it purports to describe had been happening, not half a millennia later. For a start, kings who lived centuries apart wouldn’t turn up in the same room.
So, what does A Nice Cup of Tea say to us about Orwell’s 1946?
Firstly, I love the word ‘nice’.
I’d use ‘brilliant’, or 'superb’ or ‘exceptional’ if it were me, but Orwell says ‘nice’. When you consider that 1984 has a recurrent theme of the manipulation of language, the plain old word ‘nice’ both serves its purpose and reflects his status - it is very Orwell.
In his introduction, he decries that the art of tea-making is not more widely documented, given its status as “one of the mainstays of civilisation” in Britain as well as “Eire, Australia and New Zealand”. That in itself is an interesting list, given how widely tea is drunk across the globe. It’s basically a 1946 list of countries where white-skinned folk drink tea.
But in the introduction, we come to his “eleven outstanding points”. Yes, eleven. He does admit that “at least four are acutely controversial”. I’ll try to keep count.
His first point is to always use Indian or Ceylon tea. He describes Chinese tea – the only other option it seems – as “economical, and one can drink it without milk – but there is not much stimulation in it”. There’s one controversy already!
So it seems that pre-Partition India was a more expensive place to get tea from than war-ravaged China. I can’t imagine why, but this is clearly a sweeping generalisation that grows from a personal preference.
Secondly, he insists on a teapot, not an urn or such contrivance. He does not advocate a teapot of “Silver or Britannia”, though he’s keen on both ceramic and pewter. I’m pretty sure that if he were alive today, he’d also hate water boiled in plastic kettles. Or is that just me?
His third point is to warm the teapot inside and out by placing in on the hob, rather than swilling it with hot water. There are echoes of this in the Vietnamese tea ceremony, where hot water is poured into and over the pot to ensure even warmth.
Fourthly, George liked it strong – 6 teaspoons to a ‘quart’ teapot, nearly filled. We’ll work through the maths later.
Fifthly, he decries any form of tea bag or in-pot strainer. I have designed several anti-teabag tea shirts, so it’s safe to say that I agree. It is interesting that tea-bags were seen in post war Britain as a great idea by the Government – easier to dole out the rations – but not by the populace in general, and very much not by George in particular.
But I’ve got that as ‘controversy two’. It still rages today.
Next, he implores us to take the pot to the kettle for maximum temperature – keeping the kettle on the flame while you pour, in fact. In stark contrast to many tea aficionados today, here’s a man who liked a heavy load of leaves, stewed in boiling water.
He does talk about the idea of only boiling water once, which he thinks is a bit pointless. The quality of water is the key here – in Adelaide, South Australia, where I live, the water is 100% safe but also 100% undrinkable, it’s chlorinated, fluoridated and high in salt. Most cafes in Adelaide serve undrinkable tea simply because they don’t either filter their water or use rainwater. Here, if you keep re-boiling water, it gets much worse.
Stirring or shaking the pot is point number seven. It’s hard to argue. He also suggests leaving the leaves to settle.
Eschewing the dainty china associated with England, he implores us to use a “breakfast cup” - a mug in other words. Fair enough.It’s hard to disagree that flattish dainty china does allow the tea to cool quicker – and he clearly likes it hot.
I rather suspect this is his third controversy. Very much anti-establishment thinking.
His ninth point has been ravaged by time – he suggests pouring the cream off the milk. These days, most milk is homogenised, so it’s not really valid. When we owned a tea shop and used unhomogenised milk, we would get the odd customer complaining that the milk ‘must be off’ as they could see the cream floating in it there.
Let’s pause here to say that Orwell assumed that one would put milk in one’s tea. And I suggest that not much has changed. Last time I was in the UK, I had to be very clear that I do not take milk. That way it only turned up with milk in it about half the time! And none of your little jugs to pour it in yourself – the whole country seemed to conspire to offer me third-rate tea, pre-milked.
So, on to point ten – the most controversial of all. Orwell himself says “in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject”. Tragically, Orwell was a tea-in-first advocate.
I am very much a milk-in-first person- not that I take milk myself. My thoughts are recorded on my video blog in one of my very early entries, so I won’t go into that here. I’m quite annoyed that Orwell agrees with my Mother-in-law, though.
Point eleven is that one must not “destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it”. He’s quite keen on this one – he says “It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper and salt”.
It’s quite unusual to find someone so anti-sugar and pro-milk, Actually, not pro-milk so much as assuming that milk is necessary or normal.
After his points, he finishes by mentioning tea etiquette, but for me, the closing statement requires some analysis.
“ as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of tea that two ounces, properly handled ought to represent.”
So, it’s time for that maths. The two ounces referred to is the 1946 tea ration – it equates to 57 grams, which to me should actually make about 27-28 cups.
Assuming that a “breakfast cup” or mug is 250ml and that a “teapot holding a quart” nearly full is a convenient 1 litre, that means his twenty cups come from five pots of four cups each.
Unless he is part of a group of four that shares, it seems to imply that on five occasions during the week, he drinks four cups of tea,
I know rationing is what it is, but the thought of less than eight cups a day is quite distressing to me. It’s just something I take for granted. Not so in post-war Europe.
Of course, Orwell could escape rationing by dining out, and getting some tea there, but I digress. Many people couldn’t.
So, if he’s making five pots, that’s 11-12 grams in each, which equates to his six teaspoons. I still suggest that that is very strong. Even if you go by the maxim of “one each, and one for the pot”, you’d end up with strong tea, and another pot per week.
So, like all of Orwell’s work, it mixes strong opinion and definite ideas with some set assumptions about life that reflect his times.
At this point, I shall go and make myself A Nice Cup of Tea.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bagging some extra $$$

Let’s talk tea bags.
It’s an interesting study in teaconomics.
The first tea-bags were patented around 1903. Interestingly, the first real purveyor, Thomas Sullivan from New York, conceived that by putting the right amount of tea in a silk muslin bag, customers could empty it into their pot, and save all that measuring.
Customers, though, had a different idea, and simply threw the whole bags in.
In places like the UK, tea bags didn’t really take off until the ‘50’s. During post-war rationing, the idea of a measured amount of tea made sense.
These days, commercial machines push out tea bags by the hundreds. A machine by Tecnomeccanica of Italy produces 250 per minute in the so-called, though clearly not, “pyramid” shape. (A pyramid should have a square base, but I guess ‘tetrahedronical tea bags’ is a bit too much to say!)
So, here’s a little idea I’m interested in.
When you buy loose leaf tea, it’s tea. In some sort of container. That’s it.
If it’s a tea bag, then you’ve got to pay for some farmer in the Philippines or Colombia to grow abaca hemp, which is mixed with wood to make the paper, and then you need polypropylene or PVC (yes, really) and then possibly a staple and some string, and a paper tag. On top of said tea and said container.
So, let’s take Dilmah. They grow their own tea, and offer both tea leaf (CTC) and tea bag versions.
So, I log onto my local grocery store to check their prices on both. And I find that 100 grams of Dilmah loose leaf tea, in a 200g pack is $2.68 per 100g.
And I find that that 100 grams of Dilmah tea bag tea, in 2g bags, in a 200g pack is $2.06 per 100g.
WHAT? So I did the comparison again, with Twinings Irish Breakfast. For very similar results.
So adding wood, paper, vegetable fibres, extra packaging, plastic, metal and string to my tea with an extremely expensive machine actually REDUCES the price by 20%.
How can this be?
Perhaps the sheer volume of tea bags versus loose leaf tea offers economies of scale? But the tea comes from the same place, goes to the same place, and is bought by the same consumers!
Perhaps it’s the quality of the tea? But allegedly, it’s the exact same tea!
You could argue that there are brands they only make tea bags, and that these are extremely cheap, and that companies who make both have to compete at their level. But if that’s the case, why not sell ALL their tea in all its forms at that price. As a loose leaf drinker, I don’t want to subsidise tea-baggers (that’s tea-baggers in a strictly beverage sense, see Wikipedia for tea-baggers of the sexual or political varieties).
How about the theory that loose leaf tea consumers are simply willing to pay more?
Bingo! That’s the one that makes sense to me.
I’m being charged too much for my tea.
And I imagine that largesse does not flow back to the person who picked the tea.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Teaconomics 101

Tea Maths is fascinating, isn't it?
Let's call it 'Teaconomics'
Take Fair Trade and other 'conscience' schemes.
At source, paying workers a bit more and adding some facilities - even if the facilities are actually built and the workers actually paid more - might add about 2 cents per kilogram, based on local costs.
Further let's assume that the tea plantation should also be rewarded for its investment - and its decency - and let's give them 100% return on investment.
So we've added 4c per kilo.
Not a single other person in the transaction - not the shippers, not the wholesalers, not the tea merchants add any value to this process. They do what they do, regardless of the provenance of the tea.
So, when it arrives in a tea shop, it should be 4c per kilo more expensive.
Where's the extra gone, then?
The middlemen work on percentages, so they might argue that they need to earn more per kilo to justify their extra expenditure (a pretty dubious argument, but let's allow it) and further more the importers might make the same claim.
Let's assume that the middlemen make 100% profit, and the importers likewise - and that's a lot of profit! So 4c becomes 8c and then 16c.
Even if the tea store is also making 100% profit there's still only a price differential of 32c.
Boggles the mind, doesn't it?
So, let's change tack, and look at not where the extra money is coming from, or where it goes, but what it does.
A tea plantation can operate successfully if it makes a certain amount of money.
When prices are cheap, that's a lot of tea needed. However, if you can get more money for your tea, you need to sell less tea to make that money.
And if you need to sell less tea, you can pick less tea.
And if you pick less tea, you need to give less work to tea pickers.
There's evidence that some of these arrangements designed to help workers actually work against them.
The feel-good Fair Trade-style Teaconomics is basically a version of the old US Reagan-style 'trickle-down economics', which says if you support the very rich, some money will trickle down to the poor.
As a theory, it's pretty sound. In practice, there's a few stagnant pools that stand between the rich headwaters of this river of gold and the poor at the end of the stream.
In most tea-producing countries the gap between rich and poor - as well as the ability to access justice - is huge.
But, as I sit here and sip some delightful Chun Mee, I can't do much but hope a thin trickle of brightly coloured green tea is carrying a whisper of economic benefit to the person who picked my tea.

Monday, March 1, 2010

More tea, Vicar?

I've been further exploring the idea that tea is mostly produced by estates that exploit cheap labour, in very poor conditions.
With some honourable exceptions, it seems almost universally true.
These days, there's no excuse for ignorance. Not when you can find just about any information.
A simple example from Media Global:
At the Needwood Bio Tea garden in Sri Lanka, a fair trade tea estate, workers are fired after three months of employment, only to be rehired immediately thereafter. In doing so, Needwood does not have to distribute the social benefit provisions guaranteed by full employment, but the company is able to retain nearly all of its workers year-round.
For me, there's no question that my favourite beverage is the result of some very poor practices. The big question, though, is what to do about it?
Fair Trade is of mixed benefit. There's no doubt some workers have benefited, but in all likelihood, the majority have not. It's probably not too cynical to say that various 'middlemen' have sucked most of the extra funds from most Fair Trade transactions.
So, as an example, let's take the "Tea-Tribes" of Assam. Descended from indentured workers - let's face it, slaves - brought in by the British to pick tea, they are amongst the poorest social groups in India.
Fair Trade or any other scheme is not helping them much. The Indian Government appoints a welfare officer to each estate to look after their interests, but of course, it's much cheaper for an estate to just bribe the welfare officer, who are themselves not well paid.
So, I love Assam tea. How do I protect against exploitation?
The only sensible way seems to be to go there. Pay out maybe AUD$5000 in travel expenses, tour some plantations, make a decision which plantation to support, slip a few rupees to some of the workers, and return feeling smug.
But if one does that, there's some uncomfortable thoughts that might intrude in your self-satisfaction:
What about the people working at the bad estates. Surely they are even more in need of my support?
Could I have spent the money doing more for tea workers?
I keep typing, and all I seem to do is come up with more problems, not answers.
Complicated, isn't it?

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve been watching some videos about tea pickers.
No matter how fine a tea we might drink, the person who took those delicate leaves from the Camellia Sinensis is probably very poor.
Tea work is seasonal; workers may get 3 to 5 months work per year in many cases.
Like many people, I suspect, I suffer a little guilt at enjoying this product knowing how poorly some tea workers are treated. Alternatively, to not drink it would mean even less work for these people.
I have to wonder, though, why it should be as bad as it is.
Now, we all know there are people who treat their workers well, with dignity and pay wages that are considered to be very good locally.
So, I’d like to touch on two teas, just briefly.
My last blog was about Dilmah, whose treatment of their workers is certainly at the forefront of ‘modern’ thinking.
And then there’s Daintree, a tea grown here in Australia, which means that workers must be paid according to Australian minimum wages. I suspect the picking is done by backpackers and other seasonal labourers, and whilst it’s hardly the best paying job in town, I think a week in Australia tea-picking would probably earn more money that a season in Kenya.
So, here’s something to note: Neither tea is expensive.
Okay, so I can see that Daintree does not need to be shipped overseas and does not have to get through stringent Australian Customs, which must be a cost saving. And Dilmah is, with the greatest of respect, a “supermarket brand”.
But gram for gram, how can the pittance paid to these pickers actually affect tea prices? Clearly not much.
If you look at Fairtrade – and I’m both a big supporter and strident critic of Fairtrade, which seems to be a curate’s egg at best – the value of the extra money paid to the pickers is, by western standards, not great. It seems that when these people are ten feet  deep in a fiscal hole, the standard rope of one foot versus the Fairtrade rope of two feet is only a theoretical help.
But once Fairtrade credentials are established, the tea is actually worth more. So Fairtrade becomes in effect, a bribe to tea companies to do the right thing. It’s the consumer that’s paying the bribe.
If tea was picked in places where there was stable and reliable government, a simple tax could be instituted to build schools and medical facilities, paid for by the tea consumer. I think that’s fair.
But how many people believe that Kenya, Sri Lanka, India or the ‘worker’s paradise’ of China are places where money ends up where it is intended most of the time?
In Kenya, tea pickers seem to me to be particularly disadvantaged, These people are trapped – can’t afford to work, can’t afford not to.
I’ve got this crazy idea that I might take some time off and go and pick tea for a few months up in Queensland; before I turn 50 in 6 years time. Then, I can donate the money I earn to a reputable charity that is building something worthwhile in Darjeeling or the Rift Valley.
I will therefore have absolved my tea conscience. Might have to pick some coffee on the same trip, for the same reasons.
To all tea drinkers, I suggest the best we can do is to continue to drink tea,
And continue to consider how it got into our cup.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Tea King of Sri Lanka

I am fascinated my most aspects of tea. But one that always has stuck in my head is the image of Merrill J. Fernando. This quaintly old-fashioned gentleman would smile out of commercials for Dilmah tea, inviting me with his slogan “Do Try It” – a slogan as inoffensive as he is.

I became aware of the fact that he was incorporating his sons into his commercials. And when you bought the tea – yes, back then I used to buy tea bags – there was often a letter included, where Mr Fernando would let you know of the happenings within his tea family.

I loved those letters. They didn’t change often enough. I craved the next bit of news. After all, this was a while back, when there wasn’t much of an internet.

I realised that not only was he a family man, but that his ‘family’ included all of those who worked for him. With no middleman, he was able to control the whole process from employing the pickers to selling the tea. So if there were people exploited – or there weren’t – it was down to him.

I remember being asked about 5 years ago to name a person I admired , and I chose to expound upon his exploits. That’s right. Most people think I am eccentric at best, anyway and this did nothing to change that.

But here’s a quote that will help you to see what I mean:

‘Workers receive assistance in their day-to day existence with subsidised groceries, assistance with housing, interest free loans as well as the usual requirements of health, etc. Additionally, we try to be flexible in understanding their needs and addressing them at all levels.

On the tea estates, the work of the MJF Foundation brings tea pluckers the benefi ts of free medicines, free hospital facilities, educational scholarships, nutritional programmes and assistance for elderly and re tired workers, child-care facilities in crèches which have been upgraded to model crèche standards by the Foundation, amongst others.’ (quoted in Lucire Living, NZ)

In an industry where exploitation is the norm, this is most unusual.

And then came the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004:

‘Our response to the enormous suffering caused by the tsunami took two forms: short-term emergency assistance (which included tending to the injured, providing food, medicine, drink ing water, etc.) and long-term reconstruction (rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, providing psychological support for the affected and ultimately rebuilding the socioeconomic fabric of the coastal communities) ‘Among the fisher communities which bore the brunt of the tsunami, the MJF Foundation has, like several other charities, replaced boats, nets, provided engines, community centres and storage facilities. What is a little different about our activ ity in these areas is that we have tried to ensure that the material assistance we provide is part of a comprehensive and sustainable programme of assistance rather than simply being a donation of goods.’ (quoted in Lucire Living, NZ)

His two sons were introduced into the business at ground level and have worked their way up to management positions. They weren't handed management jobs, they had to prove their worth. along the way, they found thier niches. That's a smart move.

As I write this column, I intend to touch on the good, the bad and the ugly of the international tea trade. So, I have started with a fine example of the good - a man by whom not just tea growers but all sorts of people can be judged and found wanting, your humble author included!

The Devotea raises a cup of tea to Merrill J. Fernando.