If you’re at all interested in tea, you’ve probably heard the term ‘orange pekoe’ (or OP) before. This is a tea grade; for instance, a tea may also be graded Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (or FTGFOP), which is one of the highest grades a tea can achieve (which is probably why FTGFOP is sometimes known instead as ‘Far Too Good For Ordinary People‘).
Interestingly, and rather contrary to what some will tell you, orange pekoe doesn’t have anything to do with orange notes, orange flavouring, or any oranges at all. It is instead a quirk of language use, and actually only tells us that the tea is a basic medium-leaf variety of average quality. Teas carrying this grade are plain tea; the herbs that may have been combined with them later are not a part of this grading system, and have no effect on the overall grade of the lone tea.
This grading system is used for the tea trade that occurs in the West, and applies mostly to teas that have been grown in current and former British colonies such as Sri Lanka and India. Black teas are the only types of tea that use this system. It is relatively unknown in most parts of China.
The term ‘pekoe’ refers to silver downy hairs found on both the buds of camellia sinensis, and the leaves. It is possible that it originated as a mispronunciation of the Chinese word that was used for a tea called “white down”. ‘Orange’ seems to have come from either the fact that finished black tea can have a bright orange tinge to it, or due to the Dutch marketing the tea as orange when they transported it to Europe, so as to make the tea sound royal (after the House of Oranje Nassau).
Hakka Tea, as it is called, is a dying form of tea in Hong Kong. The tea consists of pounded tea leaves and a variety of other ingredients, such as peanuts, salt, puffed rice and sesame seeds. Other ingredients are also often added to give the tea different nutrients and flavours. By consuming Hakka tea, a person is able to both drink and eat at the same time, making it ideal for snacks.
Despite the tea having been around for centuries, it is currently in a slump. Only some members of the older generation continue to make it, and many of the Hong Kong locals do not know of its existence.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the merits of doing the seemingly impossible: selling tea to China. After garnering quite a bit of interest, I’ve decided to extend that article (although, if you haven’t yet read the old one, you can take a look here). Today I’m going to link you to some news articles about entrepreneurs who are all selling their own tea to China.
One of the largest hotel chains in America, Marriott, recently celebrated opening their 4,000 hotel with an acknowledgement to the quickly growing number of international guests from China.
In an effort to better accommodate the Chinese people, Marriott is now also employing Chinese-speaking staff and offering Chinese-style tea service, along with several other upgrades to make them feel right at home.
It is no secret that China has market dominance when it comes to tea, followed closely by India and Japan. China produces so much tea, and in so many different varieties, that it caters for palettes the world over. In addition to that, it has generations of tea farmers who have passed down ancient and heavily-refined tea processing techniques to their children, thus giving their tea an edge that very few other countries could ever hope to match. With access to the wondrous, mountainous areas of the Himalaya, to ideal soils and large amounts of land from which to harvest, China truly understands the importance of its thriving tea export market.
So, the question is begged: Is it actually possible – under any circumstances – to sell tea to China?
This phrase tends to be thrown around when someone is seen as an exceptionally good salesperson. Compare and contrast “Selling ice to the Eskimos”, which I can guarantee is going to be harder still than selling tea to China. And yet, the question still hangs in the air.
This may surprise you to know, but one clever British woman is doing exactly that. And she is doing it by selling Chinese tea connoisseurs experiences that may only be seen outside of the Chinese market. It seems a little silly, really, that with China’s love affair with tea that very few are exporting more exotic teas into the country. In fact, it seems, selling tea to China is shockingly easy, with China on average spending even more on tea than we Westerners manage to spend on alcohol.
Let that statistic sink in for a moment. Think about the sort of drinking cultures we have here, especially in the UK and Australia: Binge drinking is common among youth, and people who choose not to drink at all are apparently “strange”, for some reason. Alcohol has pervaded our society with unimaginable breadth – and it definitely isn’t cheap. Despite this, despite the fact that you could probably die from over-consumption of tea if you spent (and proceeded to consume) the same amount as you would for scotch, China still makes more money per capita on tea than we do on alcohol.
Now we’re starting to see the bigger picture, but this doesn’t include incredibly rare and special teas, which can become very expensive indeed. However, these aren’t for the average consumer – these teas are in limited supply and do not make up a large market share. Many average Chinese consumers still crave for a taste of the exotic – even if less expensive varieties of exotic would be favoured.
I will leave this analysis with one final question, one that you may be asking yourself right now:
Why aren’t more people selling tea to China?
Made from a special clay found only in the city of Yixing, China, this extraordinary teapot possesses the ability to absorb the flavours of the teas inside it over a number of years.
Those who have the privilege of owning and using one over many years are said to be able to brew tea simply by adding plain, boiling water to the pot.
Before the teapot is made, the mined-out clay is left in the sun in the form of large rocks after extraction to weather. This process will take in excess of a year before the clay is ready to be pounded into a powder and sieved to remove impurities. The clay is then placed in a large fresh water tank for three days, and is then allowed to dry out under sunlight. Finally, before it is ready to be sold, excess moisture is drawn out of the product using a vacuum processor.
Such preparation seems excessive, but it doesn’t end there. The potter artisan must make time for a further two days of processing, which involves pounding the clay with a wooden mallet while every so often adding some water, until there are no air pockets to be seen.
With such a lengthy process and renowned tea-brewing capabilities, Yixing teapots are not nearly as expensive as they might sound at first glance. The unfortunate truth, however, is that while commonplace in China, much of the Western World is unfamiliar with them.
Traditional Russian tea caravans began to die out in the 1880’s, after work on the Trans-Siberian Railway had begun and the first leg was complete. The Trans-Siberian Railway was a great asset to the ongoing tea trade between Russia and China, in which merchants would have to suffer through long treks that could take up to a year and a half. This reduced the overall importation time to under a fortnight in length, making it the prime method of transport.
Russian tea caravans were made completely defunct by the railway by 1925, and during Chinese tea’s decline in the 1900’s, alternate sources were sought out, including those from London and Odessa.
Much like in the British Isles, Russia gained a taste for drinking its tea with milk and sugar. A trend in the 1900’s was to hold a cube of sugar between one’s teeth and to drink the tea through it. Lemon is also commonly served with tea.
Despite centuries of traditionally using only black tea, recent statistics in Russia are showing an increase in the consumption of green tea, whilst black tea consumption remains stable.