Having been given the opportunity to travel to the only existing tea garden in Colombia was the highest form of random blessings.
When I was offered this marketing internship at ITI, I wasn’t quite sure it was real. After all, how many people (that you know of) could say they were offered an all-expense-paid trip to Colombia immediately after college graduation?
However, when I reached out to Katherine Burnett, UC Davis’s current director of the “Global Tea Initiative” program, professor of my alma mater university, and partner to both International Tea Importers and Bitaco teas, she actually laughed at my skepticism. She told me,
“Girl, you have just won the opportunity of a lifetime. Take that gift and run with it!”
So yeah, I ran with it.
It was on the Avianca flight when I realized one thing: I am about to take a week-long trip to the only organic tea farm in Colombia with Reena Shah, America’s queen of specialty teas… there really is no better “tea education” than this.
The real Bitaco trip experience began the next day when our main host and English translator (named Santiago, or “Santi-” for short) introduced us not just to the gardens, but to the heart of why Colombia’s organic tea garden exists: The town of Bitaco.
If you were in the mood for finding a gem in a tropical forest, I would advise taking a sturdy jeep up into the winding, unpaved roads of the Andes Mountains… just a little more than one hour’s drive northwest from the metropolitan city called Cali, Colombia.
Once you travel past the communities of painted houses, past the jaw-dropping mountainside views and into the thick, tropical jungle, you will find a colorful, little town tucked away in the Andean hills.
A quick Google search will tell you this town spans approximately eleven thousand miles, but for some reason, the town seems smaller than that. It is quaint and much more romantic. Every building dons a fresh coat of paint, and you will realize this town is a beacon of art, community, and funded education. It is an example of the realized potential every Colombian city carries. This is Bitaco, Colombia.
A common question I received during my time in Colombia was, “So, McKenzie… What do you think?”
All I could tell them was, “I am overwhelmed in a good way.”
….Yes, ITI actually hired me to be their chief marketing intern. Can’t you tell?
As the trip went on, Santiago told Reena and I all of Bitaco tea’s social efforts, and then some. Funded by the “community and sustainability” focused Agricola Himalaya Foundation, Bitaco tea garden was built to “leave the world a better place than when we started”, according to Miss Carlotta, leader and visionary of Bitaco Teas.
Bitaco Tea sponsors children’s education from toddler stage all the way to high-school graduation and provides generous college scholarships to the community’s top high-school graduates with an entrepreneurial twist.
Bitaco Tea has also turned half of its 117 hectares into a protected National Park, actively reforests the Andes Mountains, pays their workers beyond the fair wage standard, and leads a public health initiative that educates locals on the importance of clean water and recycling. Now, the local rivers are more than 60% cleaner than when the initiative began.
Safe to say, Bitaco Tea is truly living by their code.
I know, I know. I haven’t even mentioned the gardens or Bitaco’s teas yet. However, Santi found it important to show Reena and I the “why Bitaco” first, and I too believe it is important to understand mission before the product… especially when we are talking about tea because tea is an art form in itself.
As far as an organic tea farm goes, I have only been to one. It is hard to make a comparison. However, I do remember Reena’s take on the Bitaco tea gardens.
“It’s wilder,” she said, comparing Bitaco’s organic garden to conventional tea gardens located in India, China, and especially Japan.
“Usually in other gardens, the Camellia Sinensis plants are extremely compact and uniform. In Bitaco, it’s different. The tea plants are still uniform but there is more space in between them. It’s wilder but in a good way.”
The gardens may be wilder, but they are innovative too.
What struck me the most about the gardens were their citronella plants. Big, thick bushes lining every tea field with long leaves flowing down and outwards. I had previously learned that organic farms love to use Citronella plants for its natural insect repellent qualities in my “farm economics” class (UC Davis alumni, talking). Seeing the organic standard being practiced in front of me though? That felt special.
Reena and I were able to explore roughly 90% of the Bitaco tea gardens, but about halfway into our trip, we finally met Bitaco tea’s crown jewel: their tea manufacturing plant.
I have been told that many tea manufacturing plants around the world are adequate enough at producing tea, but much of the equipment is described as old or run down. In Bitaco, Colombia, they use state-of-the-art processing equipment brought over from India… and all equipment protocols soar above internationally recognized sustainability standards.
Santiago and Jose (Bitaco’s lead manufacturing engineer) gave Reena and me a tour through the tea making process. The first room was dedicated entirely to the “withering stage”, lined with expansive rectangular troughs.
“We keep our black tea in the withering troughs for 14 hours,” said Santiago. He also mentioned how Bitaco uses one or two troughs for the “passive drying” process of Bitaco’s white teas. My personal favorite in their product line.
The rest of the Bitaco tea process could be described as “inspired”. Inspired by other top tea manufacturing practices worldwide. The shiny rolling tables come from India, and their tea steaming process originates from Japan. It is a little mish-mash of different tea customs respectfully coming together to build a new tea origin: Organic Colombian Tea.
I have been drinking Bitaco tea for roughly 5 months now, and the quality I love the most about their teas is the “smoothness” factor. You can tell how each sip is full-bodied and rich with Colombian flavor, but it never overpowers. Also, their straight white tea is an absolute classic! It is difficult for a tea novice to mess up and with every hot sip I take, I immediately become two degrees calmer. Bitaco’s White Tea is magical and I cannot recommend it enough.
There were a plethora of memories made in my Colombia trip that I will cherish forever. Some of these memories include hiking along the tea garden with Bitaco engineers, learning the foundation’s mission on a drive with Miss Carlotta, and my personal favorite, salsa dancing with friends on a late Friday night in Cali, Colombia. I am so thankful for this opportunity. I am thankful that a tea manufacturer like Bitaco exists because as an economics graduate, I know the number of companies carrying an actionable mission to be “solely good” are few and far between. I am thankful that International Tea Importers trusts me enough to tell this company’s important story.
Thank you for listening to my experience. I know you will enjoy Bitaco as much as I did.
Hasta la Proxima,