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Showcase projects: organic tea in China

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A view to organic tea gardens in an environmental protected area in South China

Picture: A view to organic tea gardens in an environmental protected area in South China. Photo © Karin Heinze

In China quite a lot of entrepreneurs see the future of tea growing in general and the future of their own companies in the organic sector. Trading organic teas is still mostly dominated by exporting but they are working on innovative concepts in order to open up the domestic market in China. Three examples from classic tea cultivation regions in the south of China illustrate this development. The report and the video take us to the Hangzhou region and the mountainous Yunnan province, the cradle of the tea culture.

Manager eines Teegartens in der Bergregion um Menglian

Picture: Manager of a tea garden in the mountain region round Menglian. Photo © Karin Heinze

In the tea gardens in the Yunnan mountains, in the golden triangle in the extreme south-west of China on the border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, tea is cultivated up to an altitude exceeding 2000 metres. It is said that this is where the tea trade began. The historic tea route along which the valuable leaves were transported 2000 years ago starts at this point. Yunnan Province is where more than 50% of China's 56 minorities live. The Menglian region is home to mainly the Wa and Dai ethnic groups. Buddhism is widespread here.

Tea ceremony at the firm Yamihong

Picture: Tea ceremony at the firm Yamihong. Photo © Karin Heinze

First-class teas are as expensive here as rare wines in Europe. Rice, sugar cane and maize are also grown on terraces on the fertile soils found to quite high altitudes. In particular, the region round Pu´er in the west is famous for its tea. For millennia, the valuable leaves have also been compressed in a complex process into so-called tea cake. This special method was used to preserve and store tea over long periods of time. Today tea cakes are a speciality and tea connoisseurs are quite prepared to pay a higher price for them. Top quality teas command prices in China such as collectors in our western culture pay for expensive watches or rare wines.

Tea cake is a speciality in China

Tea cake is a speciality in China. Photo © Karin Heinze

Dongzhai – second generation organic

In Yunnan Province the second generation of the Dong family is growing and trading tea that is exclusively organic. They have been cultivating organic tea in the famous Pu´er tea region since the 1990s. Mr Dong senior used to make a living in forestry and the timber trade. His great interest in nature and his desire to provide his family with healthy products and tea not contaminted with chemical inputs were his motivation for starting to grow organic tea. To establish his first organic tea garden he cleared the land and then little by little gained experience in tea cultivation.

Entrepreneur Mr Dong senior

Picture: Entrepreneur Mr Dong senior. Photo © Karin Heinze

100 % organic, a lot of exports and their own tea shops

In the end, the harvest from the tea garden was so good that even their extended family circle couldn't cope with the volume. The initial attempts to market their tea within the country were not really successful, because the Chinese were used to a different quality and organic didn't mean much to them. Ultimately, Mr Dong got to know people in the USA who were looking for organic tea. His tea was certified organic and he began exporting. Dong then decided to concentrate 100% on growing and trading organic tea. By now, the export business has become firmly established, with around 80% of the harvest going abroad. However, their focus is no longer on the USA – 60% is now marketed in Europe. Important partners in Germany are Kloth & Köhnken, the tea wholesaler in Bremen, Ökotopia in Berlin and Heuschrecke Naturkost, that sell the Dongzhai tea also with the Fairbiotea label, Sonnentor (Austria) and TeeGschwendner.

The junior boss of the firm Firma Dongzhai is focusing on both the export and the domestic markets.

Picture: The junior boss of the firm Firma Dongzhai is focusing on both the export and the domestic markets. Photo © Karin Heinze

Ökotopia managing director Franziska Geyer regularly goes to see for herself how tea is cultivated in China. She is thrilled by the variety of tea available but is also convinced that growing organic tea is of great importance for the country: “Everywhere in the world there are people committed to organic. If this is the case in such a big country as China and with the need for sustainability playing an increasingly significant role, everybody benefits."


 Ökotopia managing director Franziska Geyer and buyer Hui Pang with the manager of the tea garden.

Picture: Ökotopia managing director Franziska Geyer and buyer Hui Pang with the manager of the tea garden. Photo © Karin Heinze

“We at Ökotopia are very pleased that we're often in contact and that we can gradually get to know and understand each other better,“ she explains. “That's how you overcome cultural differences. We get more know-how about cultivation, harvesting and processing and the producers learn more about the needs of the German organic market. When it's a question of such delicious premium products as  those offered by Dongzhai, a visit is of course a real pleasure. It's great to see how consistently they are refining quality – they take organic seriously and the result is outstanding tea delights," says Franziska Geyer.



Dongzhai: Their own shops celebrate organic tea

 Dongzhai has two tea shops of its own in the cities Pu´er and Kunming (provincial capital of Yunnnan, ca. 9.5 million inhabitants), and they are something quite special. With its modern but nevertheless nature-inspired design, the approximately 100m² shop in Pu ´er is very different from other specialist shops. And, moreover, the offer is 100% organic. As if in an exhibition the organic teas are presented in fine packaging and are in the spotlight.

Looking into the tea shop of the firm Dongzhai in Pu`er

Picture: Looking into the tea shop of the firm Dongzhai in Pu`er

The tea ceremony is a social occasion in China and is part of the offer in all tea shops. The Dong family have succeeded in making their tea shop into a meeting place for higher earners. Here they celebrate the exclusively organic range and specialist staff are in a position to answer customers' questions. The next project Mr Dong has in mind is combining the tea culture with the wellness theme. It will be interesting to see how he does it.

The tea ceremony is part of the experience in all tea shops.

Picture: The tea ceremony is part of the experience in all tea shops.

The tea gardens of Dongzhai also have a social component: very poor small farmers from other regions were settled here by the government. The men and women belonging to the roughly 400 families find work at Dongzhai and the children benefit from a daycare facility  and a school. Dongzhai has also organised sports activities for its young workers, for example, football, basketball and badminton. The small farmers are given their own plot on the condition that they don't use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. By offering these social benefits, Mr Dong hopes to retain the commitment of the workers long-term.

One of the Dongzhai tea gardens

Picture: One of the Dongzhai tea gardens

Yamihong: Trading tea is a family tradition

Mr Xu Tianjian comes from a family that has been growing and trading tea for generations. He sees the future of tea cultivation in general and the future of his enterprise in the organic sector. He has been working for more than13 years on converting the leased tea gardens round Menglian (Yunnan) to organic so that the certified harvest can be marketed under the Yamihong brand. “This region is one of the poorest in southern China and that's why we think it makes sense to increase the added value and promote organic cultivation," Franziska Geyer explains.

Attractively designed packs of  the Yamihong brand organic tea in the tea centre outside Meglian

Picture: Attractively designed packs of  the Yamihong brand organic tea in the tea centre outside Meglian

Xu followed the call of the provincial government in 2003 and accepted their offer that enabled him to lease tea gardens at a favourable price. He moved with his family from the Dali region to Menglian and founded the Yamihong Tea Industry Co. Ltd. The firm has specialised in high-quality black teas under the Yamihong brand but also offers hand-picked top-quality green teas and tea cake. The company's production is still both organic and non-organic: around 20% of the 660 hectares of tea gardens have been certified organic (Ceres) since 2008. They are cultivated by small farmers under the guidance of regional managers. These managers are responsible for advising and coordinating more than 1,400 farmers and pickers, collecting, inspecting and transporting the daily harvest down into the valley for processing.

Team of tee garden managers and visitors from Germany Besucher aus Deutschland

Picture: team of tee garden managers and visitors from Germany

A 23% plus in organic sales

The person responsible for the organic sector is Mr Jianbo Li, a graduate biologist. With responsibilities covering growing, marketing and sales, his highest priority is quality and he is tasked with fulfilling the Mr Xu's vision of "more organic for China". And they are well on their way: last year, organic sales grew by nearly 23 %. And Mr Li points out that the conventionally managed land too is cultivated in a nature-based and sustainable way – a good foundation for future conversion and organic certification.

Die jungen Triebe von Bio-Teesträuchern

Picture: The young shoots of organic tea bushes

At the outset, however, the farmers of Yunnan had to be taught what organic cultivation means, because since the green revolution the little backpack spray for pesticides has apparently been present in every household. Compost, mulching, planting shade trees in the tea gardens and mechanically removing of weeds had to be learned. The farmers were sceptical at first, but people in the countryside spread the word about the health risks and the damage to the environment, with the result that today there is much greater awareness and sensitivity regarding these issues. Workshops, help with conversion and awards for organic tea created an incentive and helped the farmers to decide in favour of organic.

His vision: Tea culture combined with tourism

In China, the tea from Yamihong still mainly follows the classic trade route of wholesaler, retailer and over the counter. Every year only about five tonnes of organic tea are exported, and these exports go mainly to Europe. The firm is certified, however, not only in compliance with the EU Organic Standard but also with the Japanese organic standard JAS and the American USDA Standard. 

next generation of the organic tea business

Picture: next generation of the organic tea business

In order to promote organic tea more on the Chinese market Mr Xu has launched a unique project: a  “factory made of glass" with tea house and showroom. The site and the buildings are nearly finished and are located between a road leading to Menglian and one of the firm's tea gardens. The idea is to familiarise visitors with the journey of tea from the field to the cup and to welcome tour groups to tea ceremonies. They are also planning a hotel on the attractively presented site. A huge investment. But the next generation – the son of the founder of the firm -  is ready and waiting and wants to carry the business forward.

Ambitious project: glass tea factory with showroom and  tea house

Picture: Ambitious project: glass tea factory with showroom and  tea house

Tradition of organic tea on the south-east coast

The region round the garden city Hangzhou, south of Shanghai can look back on more than a thousand years of tea history and it is today still a major area of tea production. Approximately 60% of the protected provenences were cultivated in this region, for example Gunpowder, Sencha and Long Ging.


tea gardens  in the

Picture: tea gardens  in the "Dragon Mountains" region

The organic firm has a long tradition of organic: as early as 1991 they turned their attention to organic tea because a German buyer was looking for organic quality and he encouraged the owner of the firm to convert his tea gardens. Several firms work together for exporting and the specialist teas are  sent to the USA, Europe and to other Asian countries.


Exportmanager at Dayang Tea

Pictue: Mr Sen is the export manager.

Organic coffee from China is becoming increasingly popular

The big coffee chains in the west have now arrived in China. Although there is no coffee culture in the country, coffee is popular in the younger generation in particular. After more than 17 years experience as an employee in the coffee business in Yunnan and cooperating with firms like Nestlé and Starbucks, he has recently become self-employed and he now operates in the organic sector. His firm - HuangGuan Coffee Co.Ltd. - is in the start-up category. The coffee growing land is in the process of conversion, and counselling and controlling is carried out by the certifier Ecocert. The owner of the firm explains that next year the coffee will be ready for marketing. He is expecting high demand from Europe and the USA.

organic coffee from China is a trend.

Picture: organic coffee from China is a trend.




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