I recently enjoyed tea with Evan of PluckTea. We brewed up some Taiping Hou Kui, and I took this photograph of the spent leaves, after we brewed several very flavorful infusions from them:
I loved the way the leaves of this tea looked after they had been brewed, and I could not resist photographing them. Evan broke most of the leaves in half before steeping, so they would fit in a small gaiwan; the huge leaves here are thus about half the length that the leaves originally were.
Taiping Hou Kui is a peculiar variety of green tea with exceptionally long leaves, pressed very flat. The leaves pictured here were 2-3 inches in length before being broken. Because they are so flat, it can be hard to intuitively measure out how many of them to brew. I've been struggling with this, as Evan gave me a bit of this tea to take home and enjoy on my own.
More unbranded tea:
I think this was the best batch of this type of green tea that I have tried yet. Unfortunately, Evan had no information on the tea's origins. A friend of his brought the tea back from China, and it did not list any brand or information about its source or how to buy more of it.
I've found that this is often the case with tea bought in China and Taiwan. The whole concept of branding and tracing products is to a large degree Western in origins, and although many Chinese companies and tea producers have embraced this practice (especially since it serves their interests when people like their products and want to buy more), many do not.
A relationship between quality, branding, and traceability?
The whole process of making your products traceable and adding a brand name to them is costly, and does not fit into the way the tea industry often works, with many layers of resellers. A small producer who has no role in the retail end of the tea industry usually must rely on whoever is buying the tea from them to ensure traceability, so they have little agency in encouraging traceability, even though they are the party who stands to benefit most from it.
Branding is a marketing effort and takes considerably time, energy, and financial resources, and traceability of products (with batch numbers, harvest dates, and other info on their origins) requires considerable resources for recordkeeping, as well as demanding a certain organizational know-how and structure which must be present at multiple levels in commerce. I think one can look at branding as a certain simple form of traceability or identifying of products, a first step along the continuum towards more detailed traceability.
One thing I've reflected on in the past is that traceability and brand name recognition has the greatest potential for paying off when the product is high quality. If the product is junk, all the effort will be for nothing, as people will either forget the brand name or form a negative association with it and avoid it in the future.
China, unfortunately, often has a reputation in the U.S. for low quality products. It doesn't surprise me that both branding and traceability of products are less common in China.
What does surprise me is the top-notch quality of some batches of unbranded tea that I try. I've especially noticed this in teas from Taiwan, but I've also encountered it in tea from China. Whenever a tea is top quality, yet offers no identification of its origins (or how to buy more) on its packaging, I see this as a lost business opportunity. Somewhere, some producer put in their work to grow and process some amazing tea. Hopefully, the process of auctions and tastings and competitions will reward them for their hard work, but, I think there is another level, the level of people like me trying their tea and having no clue how to get any more of it, on which there is a lost opportunity.
What do you think?
Have you thought about these issues? And have you tried Taiping hou kui?