Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tea and Locavores: Loose-Leaf Tea Which is Not Local Can Still Appeal to Fans of Locally Grown Food

I recently read an article on J-TEA's blog, Marketing Oolong in the U.S: Difficult But Not Impossible , which raises a number of questions. In this post, I want to focus on one question: whether or not imported tea can appeal to people who value locally-produced food and drink. My short answer is a resounding yes! I posted a comment on the post, but I decided that it was an interesting enough topic that I wanted to expand on it here.

The above picture shows a poster from the U.S. Food Administration, circa 1917-1919. While the U.S. government used to actively promote local foods, now, current U.S. food policy encourages a lot of long-distance shipping of foods, such as by subsidies of bulk commodities and other subsidies that benefit wide-scale factory-farming. Now, the local food movement is primarily driven by a decentralized network of people acting from their own personal value systems, out of a desire to preserve local food cultures and protect the environment.

My experience with locavores, die-hard fans of eating locally-produced food:

My experience is that there are very few "strict locavores", i.e., people who truly will not eat food that is not locally produced. Rather, most people seem to embrace eating locally-grown foods as a general guiding principle of something that is good, but not necessary to follow strictly, the way an Orthodox Jew might follow Kosher food laws. Strict locavores in colder climates would be forced to avoid such culinary staples as olive oil, lemons or limes, and many spices. Most people, no matter how enthusiastic they are about local foods, don't hold themselves to standards this strict.

The above salad (click the image for an ingredient list) was made in Pennsylvania from mostly-local ingredients, but it included lime, olive oil, and coriander from other regions.

It's also been my experience that people who are highly enthusiastic about eating locally-produced food and drink, either already love loose-leaf tea, or are very easy to get into drinking loose-leaf tea, especially if you present them with an explanation of how loose-leaf tea can fit into the same value system that values locally-produced foods.

Why do people want to buy or support locally-produced foods anyway?

There are many reasons that people seek out locally-produced foods. These include:

  • Sustainability - Using locally-produced goods can minimize consumption of fuel to transport goods over long distances. Increased reliance on locally-produced goods can also promote economic sustainability by promoting more local economic activity and insulating each region against economic downturns in other regions.

  • Local Traditions - Local food production is inextricably tied to local food culture. People often support local foods because they want to support traditions, including the preservation of and development of specific cultivars of plants, as well as traditions of preparing food. "Foodies", people interested in food culture in general, tend to be among the strongest proponents of locally grown foods.

  • Quality - Locally grown foods are often fresher and higher in quality, and are often preferred by people seeking out the best-tasting and highest-quality goods.

Loose-leaf tea may not be local, but fits easily into all of the main driving factors behind the eat local movement:

In most parts of most Western countries, locally-grown tea is simply not available. But even if tea is not locally-produced, there are reasons that loose tea, specifically, high-quality loose-leaf artisan teas, traditionally produced, single-origin teas, can fit into this same framework for a variety of reasons. Much of this comes into comparing tea to coffee, or presenting tea as a substitute good for coffee:

  • Tea production, measured per cup of brewed tea, is less resource-intensive, and thus more sustainable, than coffee production.

  • Tea culture is associated with a more mindful, slow-paced culture than coffee, which is often associated with a fast-paced consumerist society.

  • Tea is much more diverse than coffee, having a greater potential to appeal to foodies and people interested in the diversity present in the different types of a certain food or drink available.

But looking at tea on its own, it also fits into more things:

  • Tea, even higher-priced tea, is quite inexpensive when compared to other food and drink. Tea can thus appeal to people who value sustainability and the prudent use of resources.

  • The traditions of tea production in many countries are rich and diverse; by buying high-quality single-origin tea of specific varieties, produced by traditional methods, people support the preservation and development of local traditions.

  • As tea ships and stores well, people seeking out local foods primarily for quality reasons will have no qualms about seeking out high-quality tea imported from far away, as it is a good, much like olive oil or spices, that does not suffer much from being shipped.

Do these "selling points" work for drawing local food enthusiasts into the world of high-quality, imported loose-leaf tea? It has been my experience that they absolutely do! Most locavores are not strict or fanatical in their focus on buying and eating local. They are just regular people with common sense, who care about sustainability, about the quality of their food, and about preserving local food traditions. If you can show them how loose-leaf tea fits into their value system, they can and will get into it.

If you want to read more about these issues, you can find more depth on my post Tea as Slow Food.


  1. very interesting!! I had never thought about this before, but I do value local food myself (we get as much as we can from our local farm market).For some reason the fact that my tea came from far away never occurred to me. I'm going to think about this topic a bit more myself.

  2. Last time when I stayed in Beijing with my parents, I thought a lot about this. Nowadays in the market of Beijing, there are a lot of food from other places, but most vegetables and fruits and from the surrounding areas. I thought about why, and my conclusion is, in China, it's not affordable to have a lot of food products transported for thousands of miles. In US, large corporation operation, along with well developed transportation systems make non-local food very affordable.
    Comparing Urban China and the US, generally I have the impression food is a lot cheaper (relative to people's income) in US. On one hand, it's nice that when living standards are high, people don't have to spend a big portion of their income on food. On the other hand, I think maybe it's good that people allocate a little more of their income on food to get higher quality food. But in the past decades, operation of large corporations (grocery chains, large wholesalers...) have deprived people of many food options and put local food in a struggling state. We have a quite a few groceries in 10-minutes driving distance. But if we want to get all vegetables we want, we would have to go for the stores of 40-60 minutes driving distance.
    Actually in our area, there is a relatively large local farm store that's one of the first to sell oolong and other "fancy" teas! What you and J-Tea said is exactly what I've seen in our area!

    1. I've seen food prices rise sharply in recent years, here in the U.S., and housing prices have fallen least, the price of buying homes. The prices of rent have not fallen at all in high-demand areas (I'm appalled by how high rents are on the east coast, often for very shabby housing), but they have in some regions. For me, housing has always been my #1 expenditure and food #2, but food is always much smaller than housing. I also think I spend much more on food, proportionately, than most people I know.

      That's interesting about what you've observed about more vegetables being local in China, vs. in the U.S. Frankly, I think most of what is shipped long distances in the U.S. is of pretty low quality. For example, I won't buy Washington state apples. I think they taste terrible, and their texture is also terrible. I buy apples mostly from New York state, and when I can get them, Ohio...they taste much better. I buy a lot of ingredients grown within neighboring counties too...but some of these are higher priced.

      I do think a lot of the big corporate food infrastructure in the U.S. has resulted in a decline of quality. Although grocery stores are somewhat diverse in their quality and selection of produce, I find that by and large, grocery stores don't really satisfy me, and I need to shop at other stores that get fresher, higher quality produce.

    2. Actually I had some very nice Washington apples (pink lady probably). But when I shop in the regular grocery, it's often unpredictable whether the fruits would be sweet or not. I think a big problem is, the fruits to be shipped for long distance were probably harvested even before they were ripen. Last year I had some very nice fresh orange juice in Mexico, and the first month when I was back home, I felt I wanted at least half a dozen oranges each day! I bought various brands of oranges, including some Florida oranges as I thought Florida was close enough to Mexico. But I never got the "right" orange taste. But probably some Florida orchard farmers have got delicious oranges every day, and only the plain ones are shipped to us because the ripen fruits can't endure multiple days through both transportation and distribution chains.

    3. I notice a huge difference in quality between the produce I buy from sources that buy directly from regional produce auctions (including Iovine's produce at Philadelphia's reading terminal market, the Newark, DE farmer's market, and stands at Lancaster, PA's central market) and the stuff in the supermarket. I'm not 100% sure how it works, but I think supermarkets add an additional layer in there, regional distribution centers. I also notice that the offerings at supermarkets tend to be more standardized, whereas the availability of specific items fluctuates greatly at the markets that get direct from the produce auction.

      For example, one week they'll have blood oranges, the next, they won't. Some items show up one week and then never show up again. But the quality is consistently better. I suspect that the items are arriving for sale more quickly, with less sitting around, but I also suspect that these sellers are exercising a little more individual discretion and quality control when buying. A supermarket might only ever stock navel oranges, and might always stock them. The produce auction might typically stock navel oranges, but avoid them if the batch doesn't look good, or buy a batch of some other type of orange if it looks particularly good.

      I think this sort of behavior ultimately results in better produce on the shelf.

    4. There are some amazing oranges (and Honeybell tangelos, pink grapefruits, etc.) in Florida, but I only know because I've been there. You can buy them in little stores with the orchard sitting right behind the store. The one I went to was off Highway 4, I think. I have never found that level of quality anywhere north of Georgia, regardless of where the citrus came from.

  3. Another brilliant post AZ. I like how you describe locavores as "...just regular people with common sense, who care about sustainability, about the quality of their food, and about preserving local food traditions."

    In my opinion, if you can buy, make, or grow a food locally then by all means PLEASE DO... but nobody needs to feel guilty about enjoying high-quality, sustainably produced, plant-based foods from other parts of the world. Great Tea is, as you point out in this post, one of the best examples out there!

    1. Thanks!

      It blows my mind though, here in the northeast, and I'm sure you see it in the northwest too, in climates where mint grows like a weed, how often I see mint tea for sale. There are many brands which offer either peppermint, spearmint, or some mint blend for sale, which do not offer any rooibos, for instance. Rooibos is something I can't grow here! I guess they're responding to market demand, but, growing up, I always thought of mint as something that was in endless supply, because even a small plot can produce more than a family can consume all summer long (and winter, if you dry it).

      Interestingly, some of the things you might expect don't grow well locally, actually can be grown locally. I've grown ginger in cold climates, outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter, and Marlena of Tea for Today has also been growing it. I recently started to see it being sold locally too. And my parents grew tulsi, and found, surprisingly, that it grew better than sweet basil. It did not taste as good as commercially available tulsi, however, in contrast to the mints grown in our garden, which taste much, much better than any dried mint I've ever bought.

  4. I've contemplated this, too - we try to eat as locally as possible. (No strawberries in winter unless they're frozen from the garden, etc.) But tea and olive oil are just super hard to avoid buying from afar! So we do...and make the best of what we have locally.

    Thank you for thediscussion.

  5. There is certainly something particularly special about being in China or Taiwan and drinking the tea right near where it is grown. I was actually visiting the East coast of Taiwan during Chinese New Year, and saw on the map that Lisan and the Dayuling area was not too far from where I was at what point, trying to figure out if there was a feasible way I could pay a visit there and check out some farms...but the roads are quite steep, public transport is pretty minimal, and the weather was terrible, so I didn't even try.

  6. Alex, this is a great article that reminds me why I check your blog so often - and also why I prefer tea to coffee.

    The 1917 poster is great, though I'm embarrassed to admit I at first overlooked that it was during World War I, which explains the message. "Use less wheat & meat" was presumably not a message about healthy eating, rather a reminder that those food groups were needed to win the war. Unfortunately, knowing this makes me somewhat less fond of the poster.

    1. Thanks! I think you're right that this is more about resource utilization during war than about eating healthy.