Every time I go online I seem to be greeted with someone saying we need standards for this or that type of tea. Some make sense, such as the geographical designation for what can be called a Darjeeling tea, others are questionable, such as a tea needing to be grown and processed in Yunnan to be labeled a pu-erh, and others are just plain overload. And apparently there is a call out for standards for specialty teas. Necessary or not? Hard to say.
What Standards Are Said to Do
Generally, standards can be very handy things. They help consumers know what they’re buying. That is the case with Darjeeling tea. They also help fight fraud, such as tea blends being labeled as Darjeeling when only a small percentage of the total volume of dry tea is actually from a garden in the area around the town of Darjeeling, West Bengal, India. Another area where standards are helpful is when someone is touting a tea as GABA-enhanced (or just GABA), and Japan has set strict standards for anyone selling tea in or to Japan to meet, as we talked about in this article. And what about teas labeled as “wild-grown,” “hand-picked,” or similar claims? Without a standard, you could get sold something very different unless you are an extreme expert in that area.
What Some Standards Do Instead
Sometimes instead of achieving the positive goals above, standards keep people from striving to improve the tea as well as their own economic situation and tend to be protectionist, such as the restriction for pu-erh labeling. Before this was implemented, tea farmers in Yunnan province could make arrangements with tea factories in other provinces such as Guangdong for processing or could sell their máochá to these factories outright. Now the tea leaves must be processed in Yunnan province, so the tea farmers are restricted as to whom they can sell, or make arrangements to process, the raw leaves or máochá. Standards can also stunt innovation, since they set limits on things, again an issue with the pu-erh labeling since a certain tea plant varietal is needed.
When There Should Be Standards
Definitely some standards are needed, and I think the ones for GABA-enhanced tea and for Darjeeling tea are certainly good examples of when this is important to do. GABA occurs naturally in tea, so for it to be GABA-enhanced, the tea should have an amount sufficiently above the normal range for the customer to received the desired benefit from it. Darjeeling tea had gained a certain reputation for its flavor, and by blending this tea with inferior tasting teas, the tea merchants were dragging down that reputation. So a standard helped keep that reputation intact. There are scams and frauds everywhere, such as one pu-erh tea factory labeling it’s leftover máochá pressed into cakes as coming from a rival tea factory, or mixing in dirt and leaves from other plant types (not from tea plants), or such as passing off as a wild-grown tea one that comes from a cultivated garden (an expert could tell, but not the average consumer).
But do we really need a standard for specialty teas? The whole term is too vague and any standards would most likely end up stifling innovation. There comes a point when the buyer must beware, as the saying goes. And even with a standard you could be sold something that was not what it was labeled to be. Best just to know your tea vendor, who in turn should know his supplier.