Are you sure?

Who really pays the price for a $40 pot of tea?

Between the tea bushes on a lush mountainside more than a kilometer above China’s south-east coast, migrant worker Tao Ming Xiu shifts the weight of the infant son she is carrying on a sling on her back and stares in disbelief.

„How much did you say?” the 25-year-old from Guizhou province asks. „That can’t be right. I don’t believe that anyone could afford to pay 310 yuan [$40] for a pot of tea.” Tao earns the equivalent of $2.50 a day tending bushes and picking tea from the steep mountain terraces of Fuding. The idea that in genteel shops in European and Asian cities, people pay as much money as she earns in a fortnight on a small pot is almost impossible for her to grasp. But this is no ordinary tea.

This is silver needle white tea, the world’s most expensive tea and a drink that has suddenly captured the imagination of health-conscious Westerners who are being told it can stop the ageing process and prevent cancer. The result of the hype is that a tea revered in China for more than 1,000 years but virtually unknown outside the mainland until three years ago has suddenly become the drink of choice for wealthy Westerners. At one tea shop in Edinburgh, a pot of silver needle tea for one costs more than $40.

At Claridge’s in London, the price is $30. And at the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong, a „white tea experience” afternoon tea - including champagne, caviar and a personal butler - is being offered for more than $1,100 per couple. Taken from the white tea bushes that grow in a remote north-eastern corner of Fuzhou province, silver needle is made from the uppermost, downy buds of the plant. From April onward, thousands of migrant workers arrive in isolated Fuding for the first harvest. The allure of white tea is nothing new within China.

Emperor Hui Zong, who ruled imperial China from 1101 to 1125, wrote that white tea had „the rarest and most delicate flavor.” Legend has it that he became so obsessed with his quest to find the perfect tea that he lost much of his empire. For Tao, who works year-round at the Tian Hu, or „Sky Lake,” Tea Farm, which exports silver needle tea to markets around the world, there is no such romance surrounding the white tea bushes that represent her livelihood.

Tao has worked for two years in the hills above Fuding, picking tea during the harvesting seasons and tending to the bushes through the winter. She lives in a stone hut with her husband and child and another family. In August, Tao gave birth to her baby boy and stopped working for two months before strapping the 8 week old to her back and returning to the fields in time for the year-end white tea harvests. „The work here is very hard, but we have relatives in our home province to support, and we have no choice,” she says.

„It isn’t picking the tea that’s the hardest part. It is working for 10 hours in bright sunshine. Sometimes women pass out from the heat.” Farming methods are strictly traditional. Chemical fertilizers are banned, no pesticides are allowed and tea bushes are picked by hand, leaving women workers with heavily calloused hands. Work starts at 5 a.m. throughout the spring and summer and is so poorly paid with daily rates of $2.50 to $4 that only migrant workers from poor provinces like Guizhou are prepared to do it.

As the plantations are extended and new terraces planted to try to keep pace with overseas demand, workers say their pay has remained unchanged even though the booming market has seen supplies eaten up and export prices rise sharply. Importers buy silver needle mostly through China’s state-owned export firms, which buy up the entire crops from the dozens of small farms and plantations on the mountainsides around Fuding. Grandmother Tu Yin Zhu, 60, who single-handedly farms two acres of white tea trees on a steep mountain terrace, says the booming demand had amounted to only an extra $2 a week for her.

„Last year, I got 3,000 yuan for my entire crop,” she says. „This year, the price will be 4,000 yuan. I know they’ll be selling it on for a much higher price, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” He Meng Miao, 28, manager of the Heng Yuan Chun Tea Farm, which employs 500 migrant workers and exports 1,000 kilograms of silver needle tea a year to overseas markets, says he cannot afford to raise workers’ salaries without wiping out profits. „I’ve heard how much this tea is selling for in places like London now, but we aren’t seeing any of that money back here in China,” he says. „The investment return for us is very low.”

„The price we get from the export company hasn’t changed,” he adds. „We sell silver needle tea to them for 300 yuan a kilogram. Maybe they sell it on for five or 10 times as much. We don’t dare ask because it isn’t our business.” Tea master Teddy Leung Yau-bun, manager of the Spring Moon restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, says silver needle tea had gone from obscurity to international renown in three years - and says much of it was due to effective marketing. „White tea simply didn’t exist in the European market five years ago,” he says. „Now everyone is asking for it. It has become like wine drinking. I think somebody has done a good job promoting it.” (