Managing Editor’s Note: Several weeks ago, I reached out to David Lee Hoffman, whose amazing tea journey is featured in the wonderful film, All In This Tea. He kindly agreed to allow me to select some of his previously published writings that might be of interest to our T Ching readers. The post below is only the first of several posts by or about Mr. Hoffman. This first post was originally published in May 2010 on The Phoenix Collection website in a longer version that also included information on specific teas he was offering at that time.
Just got back from China yesterday. Every time I travel to China, I’m amazed at all the changes taking place. Development and new construction continue at a dizzying pace. A view in any direction from virtually any major city reveals a landscape of giant cranes working non-stop 24 hours a day. New buildings that went up twenty years ago to replace China’s ancient history are now being torn down to make room for massive new skyscrapers, shopping centers, factories, and parking lots. Private vehicle sales are up 40% from last year, and the increase in traffic is apparent everywhere.
In one town I used to visit routinely, there was a dirt road that was used by the tea farmers during harvest season. Shoulder to shoulder, they lined the street and in front of them laid open their sacks of freshly harvested tea. This year, the dirt road is covered in asphalt. Shiny new cars, parked and in motion, now occupy this space. There was not a farmer in sight. Like it or not, we’re are living in a changing world. The great pendulum that swung for so long to the west, leaving wealth and prosperity in its wake, is now swinging to the east. This does not entirely bode well for western tea drinkers. The wealthy class in China cannot only afford to buy the best teas, but pay absurdly high prices for them, so culturally conditioned are they in the importance of the art of gift giving. Government officials are often the recipients and the donors of some of the best teas in China. It is not unusual for someone to spend thousands of dollars for a small amount of a showcased tea that might land them a little favor somewhere down the road.
For example, the Mayor of Shantou wanted to purchase some of the best of the Phoenix Bird Oolong tea from my friend of fifteen years, Mr. Lin of Phoenix Mountain. Unfortunately, it was during my visit when the mayor wanted to come. Mr. Lin informed him he was busy at that time. Greatly surprised, the mayor replied, “no one will be busy, but only you Mr. Lin!” One does not normally turn down the mayor. When Mr. Lin he told me that story, he burst out laughing and said, “he is only a customer, but you are my friend. Friendship is more important than business.” He then proceeded to give me a portion of the tea he had set aside for the mayor.
All this drives up prices. Normally, this would be good news for the tea farmers, but unfortunately climate and market change are wreaking havoc with tea production. Yunnan and the western provinces are experiencing the worst drought on record. Conditions were quite the opposite on the eastern side of China. Besides unseasonable freezing temperatures damaging many of the young spring buds in some of the best high mountain tea areas, the cold actually killed off many of the tea plants. The King Tree, a 700-year-old Song Dynasty tree that I’ve been taking photographs of for fifteen years, is now almost dead. Very sad. The whole eastern side of China was drenched with persistent rain that lasted for nearly two solid months. The windows of opportunity for the best picking and production were few and far between this year. If you talk with the larger big tea suppliers, they all bemoan these facts and in the same breath cite them as justification for raising their prices. Considering that the dollar has dropped 21% against the Chinese Yuan over the past four years, we should all expect to be paying higher prices this year, right? I say nonsense! Yes, it’s true one can find more expensive teas, yet I am still able to find great teas at reasonable prices.
My favorite area for tea on the whole planet is still the Phoenix Mountain in Guangdong province. My new business, The Phoenix Collection, gets its name from this place. The mountain is so much more accessible now that they put in a new road that cut the travel time from Shantou to the high mountain tea gardens to just a few hours. Les Blank, the highly acclaimed documentary filmmaker of All In This Tea, accompanied me in 1997 to this mountain. Les is a rough-and-tumble ex-football star and a well-seasoned world traveler. But so difficult was the steep, muddy, slippery, and rutted road up Phoenix Mountain (we negotiated it on the backs of motorcycles) that this is the one place in China to which Les refuses to return. In his mind of bad recurring China memories, it was not Phoenix Mountain, but of the ride we took from Shantou to Xiping with Mr. Wei Yue De, who had just been selected as the new “Tea King” for his award-winning Tieguanyin, that he still likes to complain about.
Mr. Wei’s wealth hadn’t yet been translated into a modern comfortable truck and Les found himself locked up for an all-night ride in total darkness in the back, packed with migrant tea pickers. The ride bouncing over rough roads with loose human cargo was bad enough, but it wasn’t the physical pain that he found so tortuous; it was the thought of me riding up front in total luxury that was most disturbing. It was of no consolation when I later reported that my “comfort” zone consisted of five of us packed into a cab designed to carry three. The heater didn’t function, so the windows were kept shut in a vain attempt to keep out the cold, while our lungs had to work overtime searching for any trace of leftover oxygen that had not been consumed by the lungs of our chain-smoking companions.