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Local company promoting organic teas

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Rob Henrich (l) and Jake Caccia of Andao Tea
Rob Henrich (l) and Jake Caccia of Andao Tea

This year's spring teas have begun hitting Kunming's numerous tea shops and markets, marking the beginning of the tea buying season. Many tea buyers are expecting higher demand for organic-certified teas in 2007. GoKunming recently sat down for some tea with Rob Henrich and Jake Caccia, founders of Kunming-based Andao Teas, exporters of organic teas from Yunnan and elsewhere in China. Editor's note: Andao Tea is a paid advertiser on GoKunming

GoKunming: How long have you lived in Yunnan?

Rob Henrich: I've lived here for about two and a half years. Before living in Kunming, I was studying up in Shanghai.

Jake Caccia: I have lived here for nearly seven years. Nearly three in Lijiang and more than three in Kunming.

GK: What do you like most about Kunming and Yunnan?

Rob: Kunming is actually a great place to live. I admit I'm a workaholic, but at least here the pressure isn't external. Kunming is probably one of the most relaxing places I've ever lived in. Besides having quite a laid back, carefree mentality in terms of work, my life here is largely defined by my own attitude and not by those around me. When it comes down to it, Kunming is just a great place to be yourself.

Jake: I think many foreigners and Chinese probably are drawn to Kunming for similar reasons. Granted, everybody's experiences can be hugely diverse. The climate, a relaxed pace of life, rich natural diversity and ethnic cultural diversity make it an attractive place to live. There is also a sense of Yunnan being a place of borders - somewhere on the edge rather than the center of civilization. So historically Chinese exiles and in modern times self-exiled groups end up here.

Development - at least in Kunming - seems to be eroding this sense of a far away safe haven but hopefully Yunnan's geography will always mean this region maintains a comparative quietude in relation to the East coast of China. Roads and airports have brought important economic development and a better standard of living. It's just a question of whether these changes can maintain a balance between the Yunnan 'shai taiyang' [sitting around and soaking in the sun] relaxed disposition and the rush to develop.

GK: What's the philosophy behind Andao Tea?

Rob: Well, when Jake and I decided to establish a business here in China we wanted to build something that could be a platform for our interests in China and Chinese culture. Doing tea was by no means random. Jake had set his eyes on tea years before and I got into it sometime after arriving in China. The basic premise we had for Andao was to first offer a more reliable source of high quality teas to the West and couple that with genuine and above all interesting information related to Chinese culture. Two years later, our company is organic certified, we still drink tea everyday - and are often 'tea drunk', as the Chinese say - and best of all it seems like people are actually starting to dig the taste of fine Chinese teas.

GK: Why drink organic tea?

Jake: I think that's a question everybody has to answer for him or herself. Essentially, consumers choose organic food products because they have a belief that these products benefit their health and have less chemical and artificial pollutants. And they are probably right. Ironically, something I didn't understand before we actually got involved in the mechanics of getting organic certified, the certification does not mean it's better for your health. It's simply an assumption that currently can't be scientifically supported. The certification does however posit that the land where the crop was grown and the crop itself have not been exposed to fertilizer and pesticide pollution. The certification is, in a sense, an assurance of sustainable land use. I think both health and sustainable land development are compelling reasons to drink organic teas.

GK: How reliable are China's organic standards?

Jake: China does have its own 'green' and 'organic' standards. We don't have much experience in the various local "green" standards currently emerging. Andao is actually certified according to US [NOP] and EU [EU2092/91] international standards. It is not a question of one standard for China and one for other countries. Producers who have chosen to undergo the rigorous certification process have to maintain the very strict levels required by these standards.

China's internationally certified organic food production essentially came about to support demand in the international market. In that sense it's distinct from the grassroots-level organic farmers that sprouted up years ago and gave birth to a whole movement in the US and Europe. So the growth of organic production here was largely economically motivated. However, this is a positive result of external economic impetus and it is already being followed by small but growing demand by Chinese consumers for more 'green' products.

GK: Are certified organic products from China up to international standards?

Rob: If I didn't say yes you'd probably think I was crazy, being that organic teas is our business and all. Right now the standards for organic tea production, processing and exporting are all carried out according to international standards.

The amount of work the major international certification organizations have done over the last 15 years here in China is nothing less than commendable. We've been to internationally certified organic farms. We've spoken with the owners, the managers and the workers and they're all very excited about making excellent products that live up to Western expectations. Our peace of mind lies in the fact that if a company decides to risk the organic integrity of their products to make a couple of extra bucks they're risking the future of their business. Once they're caught, their certification is annulled indefinitely.

GK: What's the most difficult aspect of your line of work?

Rob: Our scope of business is by no means narrow. We cover everything from the selection and cupping of teas, to packaging, export, import and sales. Within this quagmire of bureaucracy and paperwork probably the most difficult aspect - and with good reason - is reaching the high quality standards the Chinese government places on exported food goods.

GK: What are the best teas you've seen coming out of Yunnan recently?

Rob: This year I'd have to say I'm looking forward to the new Yiwu teas as well as a batch of tea a good friend of mine is making down in Yibang. In either case my favorite is definitely uncooked pu'er from the Six Famous Tea Mountain area.

Jake: One afternoon last year Rob and I had a memorable experience with some friends. They suddenly brought out three teas: a 2000 Yiwu pu'er, a black tea they had produced and then a tea called Anji Bai Cha they had been hiding. They had very limited quantities of each of the teas, which they kept aside for personal drinking. They were interested in comparing the unique and similar characteristics of each. All the teas were exceptional in their own way and blew us away. More importantly they were good people and we had a blast. I am hoping 2007 will have some more enjoyable and mind opening surprises in store.

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