Tea grown exclusively using panda poo fertilizer debuts in China and is hailed the world's "most expensive tea" by the tea's founder, who says the pricey brew also carries an important environmental message.
YA'AN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA (MARCH 17, 2012) (REUTERS) - Giant pandas are traditionally well-known as China's national treasure, but today even its excrement is proving to be equally priceless.
A Chinese entrepreneur based in the southwestern city of Chengdu has launched a pricey organic green tea grown solely from the poo of these gentle pandas.
An Yanshi (pron: an yan-shee), a former calligraphy teacher, started growing the tea in the mountains of neighbouring Ya'an (pron: yah-ahn) city last year with the help of local tea farmers.
He said he has been collecting tonnes of excrement from the pandas housed at the Chengdu and Ya'an panda research base to grow his prized crop.
The first batch of tea harvested from his tea plantation will debut at around 220,000 yuan (3,165 U.S. dollars) per 500 grams, a price tag An said would set his product to become the world's "most expensive tea".
An said he has invested close to 1 million yuan (158,328 U.S. dollars) in his venture and he has been growing the tea with the cooperation of panda reserves and local tea merchants.
Citing scientific research, he An chose to use the excrement of panda bears as an organic fertiliser for his tea because of their high nutritional value.
"The digestive and absorption abilities of the panda are not good. They keep eating and they keep producing faeces. They are like a machine that is churning out organic fertiliser. Also, they absorb less than 30 percent of the nutrition from the food and that means more than 70 percent of the nutrients are passed out in their faeces," he said.
He reasoned that since panda bears only eat bamboo grown in the wild, tea leaves grown from its excrement would be truly organic.
In addition, through the marketing of his tea, An said he wanted to encourage more farmers to use animal dung instead of chemical fertilisers for their crops.
Dressed in a panda suit to promote his tea and his environmental message, An invited dozens of guests from neighbouring Chengdu and the local tea farming community to help in pick the first batch of tea at his tea plantation in the mountains of Ya'an on Saturday (March 17).
At the launch of his simply-branded "Panda Tea", An defended the hefty price tag a tea lover had to pay for the unique drink.
He said his tea would be sold in different batches, with the most expensive being only from the first batch of tea picked every year in spring, considered its best grade.
At the highest price range, 21 boxes of limited edition tea sets including 50 grams of the first batch of harvested tea grown from panda poo, a unique porcelain container and a scroll of An's personal calligraphy, would be sold at more than 21,986.50 yuan (3,480 U.S. dollars) per set.
An said the rest of his tea from its second picking onwards would be sold at prices comparable to the level of other prized Chinese tea.
"The limited first batch of tea grown from panda poo is the most expensive. The next most expensive type would be the premium tea collected from the second picking to before the Qingming Festival. They would be sold for around 20,000 yuan (3,165 U.S. dollars) per 500 grams. Tea collected after the Tomb Festival would be sold at around 10,000 yuan (1,582 U.S. dollars) per 500 grams. These prices are not considered expensive as compared to organic tea sold in China," he said.
An defended his move of setting such a high price for the tea, saying he would channel all the profits from the sale of these limited edition tea sets to set up a fund used to support environmental projects.
He said he hopes his brand of tea would push more people in China to look at innovative ways to help save the environment.
Despite this, some tea lovers were not impressed by his plans to sell the tea at such a high price.
"It's sold at such a sky-high price, perhaps this is just hype. I don't think the most expensive tea in the country is sold at such a price. In the past, people were hyping up Pu'er tea, but in the end when prices stabilise they were still sold at around 100 yuan (16 U.S. dollars) per 500 grams," said 49-year-old Li Ximing (pron: lee shee-ming), one of the guests invited to pick the tea.
Critics have slammed An's tea as just a promotional and marketing gimmick and have questioned the benefits of using panda poo as an organic fertiliser.
Others said it would be best to let tea lovers decide for themselves when the tea is finally launched in the market.
"I feel that the philosophy and idea behind this is not bad, but I cannot practically judge it for now because I have not drunk it. If he sells it for such an expensive price, perhaps it has to do with the raw materials and its unique taste. But the most important thing would be for the public to judge this tea when they drink it," said 35-year-old Tang Shiyou (pron: tang shee-you), at an outdoor teahouse in Chengdu.
An's "Panda Tea" is a version of green tea that can only be harvested manually by tea farmers used to picking young tea shoots.
These shoots are basically buds and not tea leaves, so the process of harvesting is a labour intensive and costly process.
Chinese people place great importance in the different grades of tea harvested at different times. Generally, tea harvested in spring before the Qingming Festival, which falls on April 5 every year, is considered high grade.
An said he is cooperating with three tea plantations located on different altitudes across Sichuan province to get the best climate for his prized tea.
He added he was confident that his tea would be a success and hoped people would learn from his project to better protect the environment.