At some point after I began to drink tea, I discovered the pleasure of pure teas. I was still a huge fan of full leaf Assams and gunpowder greens but didn’t really know much else. Beyond that, I had the usual flavoured teas, herbals, etc. usually in teabag form. I wouldn’t really say my repertoire increased too much while I was at graduate school in England. Rather, I learned there was strong tea, stronger tea, and stuff you could polish brass with.
So imagine my surprise and delight when, as a young employee at Fairtrade International, I was put in charge of auditing Fairtrade tea. Part of my job involved actually communicating (via email/phone/etc. in the pre-Skype days) with tea importers and packers. I met tea producers for the first time at the Biofach, a trade fair in Nuernberg, a few months after starting my job. All the people in tea were such characters! (Okay, there are characters in all trades and I myself would likely be considered by others as a character but hey, my first exposure was to the who’s who in the tea business. Tea was my first commodity-love and it stuck). Everyone I met was happy to fill the gaps in my technical knowledge, to give me their multitudinous and very strong opinions. And they did so with such flair! I was hooked.
In 2004 I finally go to go to the field for the very first time, to Pakistan (not for tea), India and Sri Lanka. In India and Sri Lanka I visited tea export houses and plantations for the very first time. I must have asked a thousand questions, many over and over again, and was indulged with tea cupping lessons, tastings of some of the world’s rarest and finest teas, and taught about manufacture and trade. And around all this I learned about the people who grew, plucked, made, tasted and sold the tea. I talked with tea pluckers about the impact of Fairtrade on their lives and the challenges that remained, saw where and how they lived, where their children went to school, where they celebrated, where they prayed. They fed me everywhere I went even though I was bursting at the seams after the second stop of many, and had entertainment programs to show off the talents of their children. I was told that they always prepared these programs and for some reason people would make them cut the programs out for shortage of time. Really? These kids on remote estates would prepare for days for a visitor’s arrival and you wouldn’t think it was worth your while after their parents dissected their lives open for you?
During that first trip, the many that followed, and to this day, my friends in the tea sector have shared their knowledge, their expertise and their most beautiful teas with me with unabated generosity and warmth. And every time I feel like I’ve learned something new, that I know something more, I realize I’ve just scratched the surface. And it just makes me curious to know more.