Third generation tea farm in the mountains of Anxi Province, China
The tea market in America can feel like a small, niche industry. Not so in China. The Xiamen Tea Fair is big - six exhibition halls big - like being inside a kaleidoscope of Puer big. If you are an American who has the context to imagine a kaleidoscope of Puer, then you are definitely part of that small niche industry.
Tea booths at the Xiamen Tea Fair
The Xiamen Tea Fair has over six hundred exhibitors selling tea, teapots, gaiwans, tea packaging, and even clothes to make you look like you drink tea. For a company like TeaSource, this is a great place to find potential new suppliers. Vendors are more than happy to have you sit in their booth and make you tea, gongfu style, for 30+ minutes at a time. It’s a slow pace, especially if you don’t speak Mandarin. On the first day after almost three hours, we had only made it three rows in. I could still see the entrance.
Bill & Michael drinking tea
With all these choices, it may seem easy to simply go there and buy tea, but that is not the case. Many companies who can export to America are too big to work with a small company like ours. And many companies who produce the quantity/quality we like to work with are small, family operations who don’t have the means to sell outside of China. Facilitating payments and shipments to another country is a major headache. In addition to being a hassle, some refused to sell to us because we are westerners and they don’t believe we’ll appreciate the fine quality of the tea they produce. There was a gentleman from Yunnan who bluntly told us exactly that. It wasn’t said out of any anger or smugness, he just takes a lot of pride in what he does. We had to work through a lot of “no’s” or reluctant “maybe’s” (and drink a lot of really great tea) to find those who are excited by the idea of selling tea outside of China.
Gongfu style tea
After sorting through all the vendors at the show, it would be easy to think you’ve seen everything the Xiamen tea trade has to offer. Not even close. On the first day of our trip we stopped in to see our friends at Share and Taste (they have a new baby) at their store front office. It’s located in a shopping center that is 5 floors and 3 of them are dedicated to tea only! In China, it is not uncommon for those in the same industry to cluster their commerce together like this. As an American tea enthusiast, the variety of choice is near paralyzing, but endlessly exciting. Each one of these store fronts is only a glimpse into the family, the history, and the geography of the Chinese tea business.
Eldon,Yanmei, and their baby of Share & Taste Tea
Shopping center with 3 full floors of tea shops
And in case that wasn’t enough, here’s another tea market in Xiamen. Unlike the contained and orderly shopping center where we visited Share and Taste, this one was several city blocks that contained all the messiness and grit of everyday life. Kids playing, family members sorting and packaging tea, men gathered round the tea table smoking and playing cards, meals being cooked. Nothing is too tidy, but everything is in its place.
If you wanted some tea, they would be happy to have you sit down and join them. They often invited you in if you made eye contact. A new acquaintance we met brought us here because he knew we loved Chinese tea culture. He was right.
Outdoor tea market in Xiamen