Sourcing Practices

Howto source tea in China

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. 

Mark Twain

As a tea enthusiast and buyer, getting as close as possible to the source could be benefit to your business very much, four points in my head now:

  • Right and solid tea information, important for tea education and promotion
  • Better price
  • Predictable quality
  • Make one more friend

But once you head to this exciting adventure, you might find it’s a fuzzy world covered with confusing stories, you have the guts to reveal it, that’s great, let’s see what kind of strategy can help.

Know the system, get a blueprint before construction

Tea system works in China is quite different from India or Sri Lanka, in China most of the tea lands are divided into pieces and belongs to small farmers, there are four kinds of organizational forms:

  1. Solo farmer: that’s the most common form, especially for renowned tea, it’s precious and no one will let it go. During harvesting season they might hire workers, someone even hire tea masters to monitor and get them response for whole tea making process.
  2. Co-operative: farmers united and leaded by one. If one farmer is serious about business, mostly they are in. Cooperatives are encouraged and strongly supported by the government, including tax reduction and equipment subsidy etc. In China, government plays a very important role, sometimes can be a decisive element of an industry’s destiny. Co-op is the most valuable source for buyers no matter you’re just one man company or SME. Besides all these information can be obtained publicly, visit a Company Search Engine like Tian Yan Cha and enter “tea cooperative” in Chinese, POP, a huge list of names come out with contacts.
  3. Solo corporation: These companies have their own tea garden, no matter rents from the government or buy from other farmers, this form is rare but can be found easier in foreign-invested enterprise, especially Taiwan-invested. Good thing is the company can control everything from planting to packaging, if it works well there is a big stability of the quality. The bad is this needs a lot of funds and normally cost much higher. In order to get payback, huge sales quantity needed, so normally they will swim to a big pool where quality is not the first priority, security is, then price, then quality, it’s a fair and big _business_.
  4. Farmers plus corporation: one company tied up with some farmers, normally farmers have contract with the company to agree with how to plant the tea, how to avoid damage from insects, how to process the tea and what kind of purchasing price guaranteed. Still the tea garden belongs to the farmers and they have to take care of their garden. This form is flexible and economic, also conform to human nature. This kind of organization can be big, bigger than solo corporation, also can be small, it’s a higher form of Co-OP. 

Get a tea map

When hang out sometimes I just do not want to have a destination, I want to slow the time and meet a surprise, that’s fine for holiday but for buyers especially foreign buyers, efficiency is important, and there is no other tools can compete a map.

Given a map, your itinerary can be easier and more efficient. As tea is an agricultural products, it’s very much connected to a specific location, one tea grows well here doesn’t guarantee the same good in another garden. 

So where is good tea planted?

As we know tea plant likes warm and humid environment, that’s the Southern China, normally south of Chang Jiang River, or simply South of Zhejiang province, including:

  • Zhejiang
  • Anhui
  • Hubei
  • Hunan
  • Fujian
  • Jiangxi
  • Jiangsu
  • Guangdong
  • Si Chuan
  • Guizhou
  • Guangxi
  • Yunnan

The Northern China also planted some tea from 1950s, like Lao Shan green tea and Ri Zhao green tea in Shandong province, in such cold area it costs so much time and care to get survival, we can dig into this heart-broken yet inspiring history later. Let’s focus on the South.

For green & black tea, everywhere can make it. Good news is almost every famous tea has its Geographical Indication Products system protected, like West Lake Dragon Well and Anxi Iron Goddess and Wuyi Big Red Robe, so if good loose leaf specialty tea is what you are looking for, there is a governmental agency you should check – China Protected Geographical Indication Products (subsidiary of National Intellectual Property Administration) – All China’s Geo Indication Products are here, this website has filter function, like choosing Fujian Province, all 12 famous teas in Fujian showed out like below:

GEO indicated protected products
Official website of GEO protected teas

Has a trouble with Mandarin? Easy pie, open Google Translator and enter the URL, nothing can stop you.

There is a trick, normally teas planted close to the protected area is not bad too, if you are looking for big value instead of name, give it a try.

Join local tea exhibition

Every year when the tea harvesting is finished, almost every tea production area has one tea fair, regional one, mostly County Level, not big national wide. As distance matters really, especially for tea farmers, a lot of farmers can only speak local language not mandarin, a lot of farmers cannot afford distant fair which normally much higher costed, even very possibly no way to get that information, they are vulnerable groups in the informative age.

In order to figure out which is County Level fair, should you learn the Administrative Divisions of China, China provides for _four_ levels:

  • The Provincial
  • The Prefectual
  • County
  • Township
Administrative divisions of China
Administrative divisions of China Credit: Wikipedia

If you can read Chinese, there is a China map on website of Minister of Civil Affairs of PRC, here you can zoom in and out, click one division it will show you the sub level divisions.

TODO: Thinking about creating a functional digital tea map, each region has tea introductions, market insights, local culture and contacts of renown tea farmers, tea factories, tea educators etc, and importantly update the information annually, a crowdfunding?

Dip a toe in the Chinese culture

Show respect, be humble. Might you have ever heard of this word – [MianZi] – or face translated in English, it’s important here no matter in business or daily life. [Lin Yutang], this famous Chinese writer considered the psychology of “face”:

Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be “granted” and “lost” and “fought for” and “presented as a gift”. Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.

Lin Yutang

Lin Yutang wrote a book in 1935, My Country and My People, Reynal & Hitchcock, Inc., (A John Day Book), although it’s published long time ago, still you can learn a lot of the Chinese from it. It’s a work written in English, I strongly recommend you take a look.

Disrespect for local culture sometimes can cause some misunderstandings or even a war. In 1941 a tea buyer named Yang Anyuan came to Xi Shuang Ban Na, Yunnan and did some disrespectful behaviors to local people of Youle Moutain, thus started a war lasted for two years, human died, home destroyed, over thousand acres of tea gardens were burned. 

Yet there are some tips can help you make a successful relationship:

  • Pay the sample: Not every tea deserves your bucks but once you meet the one you like, make a proposal that you would like to pay the sample like 50 grams, it’s not much money to both parties but can send a strong message that there is a respect for the hard work of the tea. If the producer insists its free as a gift, then could be comfortable for acceptance. So even you don’t make an official order later, no one would misunderstand why you are here, you will have a healthy relationship with each other and have a welcome to come back.
  • Prepare a gift: No word can beat a small gift, it’s the easiest way to say thanks if you do not know how to do it. The gift must be not expensive, so could be comfortable for your host to accept it. It doesn’t matter a note book, a pen or even snacks, as long as they have your native characters on it, people love gift from far distance.
  • Speak two words: “Ni Hao” and “Xie Xie”, that’s hello and thanks, in Mandarin will be enough, don’t need to be local language. These are two magical words, once on show, smile comes, it shorten the gap between guest and host very much.
  • Accept meal invitation: There is one fold adages in China, “Depend on parents at home, rely on friends outside”. Let’s skip the first part, the other part about friend is very popular, you could say Chinese people are very enthusiastic, it’s quite possible people will suggest you have a meal together. That’s very common in country side, in tea mountain, in tea farmer’s house, when it’s at mealtime, accept it, that means you accept your host. Eating is very important in China, at the dining table, there is no foreigner, only friends.
  • Stay tuned with WeChat: WeChat is an instant messaging app similar to WhatsApp, it’s very popular, even such people don’t know how to use Smart Mobile know how to play WeChat, it’s the No. 1 option to get connected in China. One thing you might find that email is not popular here, especially for tea producers, to them, _email_ is kind of an alien. You better call or WeChat, besides WeChat has an awesome feature, it can make translation automatically, thus no language barrier at all.
  • Show your talent in the right time: People respect real tea man very much, once you show them how much you know about tea in the right time, you will become one of them, not just a friend. The timing matters, as most of producers got proud of their crafts and will share a lot with you, when this is finished, when there is a cupping, do tell them your opinions, expert deserves respect.

To be continued …

Sourcing Practices

How to source China teas during COVID-19 pandemic

Tea sourcing is funny but a lot of challenges especially right now the world still has COVID-19 virus, all travel are severely restricted, even already have vaccinated, it’s not 100% safe, for your safety it’s better to stay where you are, besides the plane ticket is crazy expensive, then how to get the tea sourcing job done?

COVID-19 Policy Updates (5-10-2022):

  • Quarantined in the specific hotel for 14 days
  • Another 7 days quarantine if you’re not citizen of your destination
  • Final other 7 days for in-house health monitoring if entry from Beijing and Guangzhou

Please note suggestions proposed below might be workable only in China.

3 Options for Tea Sourcing

  1. Directly work with tea farmer
  2. Partner with a tea broker
  3. Buy from trading company

Not anyone option is perfect, all have advantage and disadvantage, with farmer you can get the freshest tea and background stories but no QC, no shipping service, payment mighte be problem too and normally each farmer just make one tea, if you offer many teas then you need talk to many farmers, that’s a lot of work.

With tea broker or trading company, you will need to pay the commission or a higher price and might not able to reach the man behind the tea but quality should be reasonable and no big problem with shipping or payment.

How to pick? the advice here is it depends on the scale of your business, if you are small or just in the begining, then to get 1st hand information is quite important to build your brand and have the real feeling with tea too, so option 1 and option 2 are recommended. What if you are big company or have mature business, then no advice here, they know what to do. But if you are not big company nor beginner, then I will recommend option 2 and option 3, at this time stable supply is important, with tea broker you still can get the information and you might not be able to pay so much time to communicate with each farmer.

Hong China Tea Company cann’t fall into any category above, it produce tea, many teas by ourselves but also offer shipping/payment etc, it’s a mix of option 1 and option 2. 

So only questions left is where to find that kind of people and how to talk to them.

Exhibition is The Breaker

Exhibitors List is where you can find the tea source, many tea factories, trading compaies even medium size farmers attend it. It’s not the perfect option but the best option during this special time. China has all types of tea through whole country even in Tebet and a lot of tea exhibitions available every year, but the most important exhibitions is just 4-5.

The list can comes from this year or the past, actually the past is better. Unfortunately this list is not downloadable for the public from the offical website, so you will have to call them and require it. Fortunately all the organizers of the tea fairs have staff speak english.

Here three key items will be listed only, tea fair, website and phone number.

Tea Fair NameTelephone Number
Xiamen Int’ Tea Industry Fair+86-592-5959888
Shenzhen Tea Fair+86-181-2616-5003
Beijing Int’ Tea exhibition+86-132-6978-1410
Shanghai Tea Expo+86-183-2120-1992
Guangzhou Tea Expo+86-20-89231623
Hangzhou Tea Exp+86-4000-820-838
China main tea exhibitions

Deeper Source from Local Tea Association

Tea exhibition is kind of like the World Expo, huge and only some of them can join, in contrast the local tea association is similar to rural market, everyone can join, however this list is longer but you can reach the **silent** producer.

To target them, firstly you need to figure out which region of what tea you are searching, you will need a tea map, you can check another post about [Howto Source Tea in China](/post/howto-source-tea-in-china/) to know where is good tea planted.

Also here we will share our treasures with you one by one.

(Note: Information showed below is free to use without any charge.)

Wuyi Mountain of Nanping city, Fujian Province

Company NameTelephoneCompany NameTelephone
Tea Factory List in Wuyi Shan

Talk to Them in Chinese Way

In China, most people do not have email but over 99% have mobile phone and 99.9% have an instant messenger app called WeChat, thus the best way to contact is throught WeChat or phone call.

But most of people do not speak English or just have limited English, so long chat on phone is not workable but a lot of people can speak and understand simple english words, so phone call can be the way to get WeChat ID.

In China, WeChat ID = Wei Xin Hao, when you make call, be sure to use Wei Xin Hao instead.

Why do I recommend WeChat so strongly? Not just because most people have it but also there is a feature can help both parties, the translation, WeChat can translate for both parties automatically and I will say the quality is not bad.

Another feature will be big helpful is payment, you can pay to your supplier by WeChat money.

Tea Sourcing Cold Call Book

It’s very important for this opening phone call, but we are in different location, speak different language, have different culture and different accent, so you need a script and practice to avoid embarrassment, here we have a simple yet effective steps to guide you.

  1. Ni Hao = Hello
  2. Wo Yao Mai Cha Ye = I want buy tea
  3. Wei Xin OK? = WeChat Ok?
  4. Wo De Wei Xin Hao Shi ABC12345678 = My WeChat ID is ABC12345678

Here is a trick on WeChat ID, to keep it simple and easy for your supplier’s understanding, it’s better to set this ID as ABC+your phone number.

On the 4th step we choose to let you tell your supplier your WeChat ID instead of the contrast, because most Chinese people have poor speaking but can understand English letter and number. 

Sourcing Practices

How to import China teas into USA

Tea is getting more and more popular in America, according to the statistics published by Tea Association of USA, so it’s a good time to jump into the tea business. There are so many teas available. You can buy tea from a domestic wholesaler or from the origin directly for some real benefits. Although it’s a little complex to deal with importing business, here is some guidance to help you make the task easier.


There is no import license, customs duty or VAT (value added tax) needed for tea importation. All you have to do is register with the FDA and make sure the imported teas meet the food regulations. It’s best to hire a forwarding agency and customs broker or it will be a time- and energy-consuming job.

Be aware of the Prior Notice to FDA before shipment: there is a “US BORDER CUSTOMS & PROTECTION ISF REQUIRED INFORMATION” form that needs to be filled out.

The Chinese tea supplier should offer you the documents for customs clearance, such as the commercial invoice and packing list.

You can avoid most of this paperwork if you just order a small quantity. (More detailed information can be found in Appendix I: Avoiding complicated paperwork on small tea orders.)

1. Form a company

Forming a business is the first step to be a tea importer. In the United States, the form of tea business typically depends on state law; it is best to consult your accountant or tax attorney.

Taking on a corporate form or any other form requires filings with the state authorities and it’s best to register your trade name with local authorities for protection. 

2. Register with FDA as an importer

According to the the Bioterrorism Act, any facilities engaged in manufacturing, processing, or holding food for consumption in the United States should be registered with the FDA.

Here is an online registration instruction for registering as a tea importer once you login the FDA Industry System. Your supplier should be registered here as well.

3. Sign a contract with Chinese tea supplier

There are many good teas and tea suppliers in China. (There are some tips in Appendix II: Finding the right Chinese tea supplier.) Once you confirm the teas you want and all the terms with the supplier, you can sign a formal contract. or more commonly, use a Proforma Invoice (P/I). 

In China, the supplier should meet 2 requirements for tea exporting: the first is the tea should come from a government registered plantation; the second is to get a phytosanitary certificate from the CIQ, or your teas will not have the rights to be inspected.

The HTS (Harmonized Tariff Schedule) for tea is 0902. Green tea is 090210, black tea is 090230. (There is no specific code for Oolong and Puerh because the U.S. Customs considers Oolong and Puerh tea leaves to be fermented or partially-fermented black tea(090240)).

There is a detailed reply from U.S. Customs and Border Protection – The tariff classification of Green, White, Oolong and Black Tea from China

Normally, tea itself is duty-free under the United States HTS. However, imported tea loses duty-free status when it is merely an additive to another beverage or dietary supplement.

The supplier should provide you the packing list and invoice for Customs clearance.

4. Third party certification required by FDA

According to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), all food importing (including tea) must offer a third party testing to ensure the foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards. SGS, Eurofins could be your choice of analysis lab.

5. Prior notice to FDA before shipping and ISF(10+2)

Pursuant to the Bioterrorism Act, tea importers/supplier are required to give the FDA advance notice of shipments before import into the USA. Here is the step–by-step guide for Prior Notice. You can do it by yourself or provide your Registration Number and let your supplier do it for you.

And under the new rule, before merchandise arriving by vessel can be imported into the United States, the “Importer Security Filing (ISF) Importer,” or their agent must electronically submit certain advance cargo information to CBP in the form of an Importer Security Filing. This requirement only applies to cargo arriving in the United States by ocean vessel; it does not apply to cargo arriving by other modes of transportation.

Entities that want to become Importer Security Filing filers using either AMS or ABI should call 571-468-5500 to be assigned a Client Representative.

6. Hire a broker to do Customs Clearance

International trade business can be pretty complicated, especially with Customs. You will lose if you are not familiar with what the Customs regulations, so it’s better to hire a Customs broker. Sometimes the broker can be a forwarding agency too, that also can do the Prior Notice for you.

You can also choose “DDP” terms, which means the supplier will offer you a door-to-door price. In this case, all you need to do is pay one sum directly to your Chinese supplier. It will take care of everything including shipping, insurance, and Customs clearance and deliver the teas to your warehouse. That’s the easiest way for you.

7. Get your tea and enjoy it

Once you get the tea and prepare to sell it, you should be sure your label meet the labeling regulation.



I. Avoiding complicated paperwork on small tea orders

Normally there are 3 ways to ship teas out of China into USA: these could be by regular air postal service, by EMS express or by sea. For a small order, you can choose postal service or EMS, both of them will do the Customs clearance for you and no fees added into the price.

While the regular postal service will save you some money, it takes a longer time. The EMS will cost more, but it only takes about five days to receive the shipment. Normally a professional exporter gets a big discount from EMS.

Be sure to remind the shipper to mark the tea as tea gift or sample and claim the value under 200 USD.

II.Finding the right Chinese tea supplier

The best way is to get recommendation from friend or attend a tea trade show; you can search it on Events Eye, the most famous tea exhibition in North America is World Tea Expo, also you can fly to China and take a look at the the Canton Fair, Shanghai International Tea Fair, Guangzhou Tea Expo or Xiamen International Tea Fair.

You also can search for suppliers on the internet. Sure, it’s convenient although you’d better double check the information you find.

Or you can emai to the author – Mr. Daniel Hong who is an expert of China tea as well as tea tour organizer, the company he founded –Hong China Tea Company– can help you with the exporting and logistics.

You can make a trial order to test the supplier and all procedures. Any questions, ask in the tea forum like Linkedin groups – Tea Enthusiasts and Entrepreneurs. Most of the tea men are quite willing to help others.


Useful Links:

  1. SPRING: Singapore Export Technical Assistance
  2. FDA: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  3. USITC: United States International Trade Commission
  4. ITC: International Tea Committee


  • V0.1 – 05.27,2012
  • V0.2: text proofreading by Dan – 05.30,2012
  • V0.3: information about ISF(10+2) added – 07.26,2012
  • V0.4: third party testing added – 09.05,2013
  • V0.5: amend lost links