J. T. Hunter took his tea obsession further than most. After tasting a potent, invigorating brew his qigong teacher shared with him, Hunter set out to find its source in the remote mountains of China. Adopting a new vocation as a “wild tea hunter,” he scoured the countryside for ancient teas grown and harvested according to centuries-old tradition. Along the way, he discovered the tea industry’s dirty secrets—fudged organic certification, environmental degradation, and inferior teas passed off as premium. The former Bostonian now lives in Kunming, Yunnan Province, the heart of China’s tea country. His company, Wild Tea Qi, specializes in single-origin teas of the highest quality.
Describe a typical tea farm.
Commercial tea plantations have row after row of small tea trees grown to the exact same height. They grow very close together and are heavily sprayed with pesticides. There’s no biodiversity; it’s monoculture and damaging to the local ecology.
What is “wild tea?”
Wild tea trees are found high up in the mountains, growing in biodiverse forests. Some grow out of rocky, uneven soil perched right on the edge of a mountain. Others grow in the shade of bamboo. The trees’ roots are able to go deeper into the earth, where they gather more nutrients. The soil is much better quality since it hasn’t been turned over so many times. If you’re concerned about the health benefits of teas, these are the best to drink.
Tea experts often refer to the absorbent quality of the tea plant. What does that mean?
Tea trees tend to absorb the scents and qualities of the plants growing around them. In Phoenix Mountain in China, farmers allow osmanthus flowers to grow near the tea trees, which affects the flavor of the tea. It’s a very fragrant flower, also used in Chinese medicine. In Wuyi Mountain, oolongs grow beneath pine trees, so they have a more piney taste.
You have a family connection to one of China’s biggest tea exporters, and in your book, Wild Tea Hunter, you call out the “organic” and “fair trade” certification process as bogus. How is it untrustworthy?
It’s easy for Chinese tea factories to “plant” teas they’re shipping out to be tested. Local auditors are not well paid and susceptible to bribes. Also, factories use Photoshop to alter the date on their certification, which they send directly to tea buyers. Plenty of major companies sell USDA-certified organic teas that are absolutely not organic. One that’s common is jasmine pearl. A true organic jasmine pearl tea will have a mild smell, not a perfumy blast of jasmine. You can pretty much guarantee that the superfragrant ones have been sprayed and artificially fragranced. But I see them sold as USDA certified organic.
How can tea drinkers support sustainable farmers?
Avoid large tea corporations. They’re touting premium teas when in fact they’re buying mass-produced factory teas. You want to buy from smaller, independent tea companies that source directly from the farmers.
The Wuyi Mountain Farmers Collective is a great example. It’s a village that collectively grows and sells its tea. The farmers live in the middle of nowhere, but their village is beautiful, clean, and everyone has good housing. Because of technology and a younger generation that is more educated, they’re able to sell direct to the market. It’s a very exciting time in the industry, in that sense. My company, Wild Tea Qi, sells one of their wild teas, Wild Rock Oolong. It’s absolutely phenomenal. I hiked into the mountains to see where it grows beneath stands of bamboo. We can only get 14 kilograms of it per year.
A lot of teahouses and shops want a stable price and consistent supply, but the small farms can’t provide that. We’re trying to grow a more direct consumer market to connect the farmers with the consumers. Luckily, technology opens a lot of doors.
This article originally published as "Steeped in Nature" in the May/June 2014 issue of Spirituality & Health.