It has been twenty years since I first became obsessed with Chinese tea and it has not lost any of its magic pull for me throughout the years. In fact, I am probably even more obsessed today than I was twenty years ago. Although I have had other obsessions in my life, Chinese tea is the longest running one. It has to do with mystery. Mysteries are always rooted in questions and problems to solve. I love questions. Questions are what sets life in motion for me.
The first questions came when my close friend, Wang Weizi, gave me some green tea that his dad had sent him from China. Weizi was doing graduate work at the University of Arizona. He was from central Zhejiang Province and was a member of the first generation of students to go to college after Mao’s cultural revolution. When I drank Weizi’s tea, my first question was, “Is this really tea?” My second question quickly followed: “Why have I never tasted this before?”
It was not because I had never traveled to Asia before, and it was not that I had never had green tea before. I had certainly gone to enough sushi restaurants to have consumed plenty of Japanese green tea, and I was a San Francisco transplant who had spent plenty of time in the best-known Chinatown in the world. Before then, I had even been to Hong Kong. But this Chinese green tea was so different and compelling that I was shocked that it had somehow managed to elude me.
Of course, I wanted more, which very quickly led me to another shocking awareness. In the global market of the early 1990’s with China having been open to the West for almost twelve years, I was still not able to get tea this good anywhere in the U.S. How was that possible? I wasn’t thinking about this anomaly from a business point of view, or even from an economics frame of reference; it was more of a cultural shock. I had thought in America, if you had the money, there was practically nothing you could not buy.
So I started learning a little Chinese and traveling to China. In those days, the bicycle was still the dominant mode of transportation, and the roads out to the countryside were rough, if they existed in paved form at all. It took a long time to get out to the places where tea was produced, but I wanted to secure myself a stash of tea, without which, the quality of my life would have seemed greatly diminished. I had no interest in buying tea other than for my own selfish pleasure and to share with my friends and family. That gave me the advantage of naivety, because going out to meet the producers is not how business is done, not then or now.
I got to meet a lot of great producers, and because I was the only foreigner ever to make it out to the countryside, I got to meet a lot of other people as well, including the local government officials, some of whom have become very powerful over the years. It is not possible to be really competent doing business in China without having strong government relationships (guanxi) from the village level to the national level.
Two questions came up for me during this period:
- Why were there so many tea companies saying they were doing direct sourcing, yet whereever I went, according to the locals who had no reason to lie, no foreigners had been around at all?
- Why were tea producers everywhere – not just in China – not revealed, but rather kept as a trade secret?
I could not understand this at all. If it were fine wine, the producers would be marketed and would be famous and sought after.
I am glad that I didn’t know what I was doing back then, or Seven Cups would not exist today. Even though China has been open for trade for 35 years and has become the second largest global economy, if you want to get good Chinese tea in the U.S. or Europe you still have to search out small companies like Seven Cups. Why should it be so hard to get good Chinese tea?
We are not talking about a lost painting by a dead painter, or some rare violin. We are talking about tea, and tea that could be purchased by people in China. Astounding still, even as tea sales in the U.S. have skyrocketed over the last ten years, and the U.S. has become the biggest importer of tea in the world, fine Chinese tea remains elusive for American consumers. In fact, America has become obsessed with green tea for health reasons, and a lot of very bad green tea gets sold in America every year. So much so that most Americans see it as a medicine that has to be endured for better health, even though it is an awful experience for them. How crazy is that?
Here are some more questions that I find fascinating:
- If China is where tea originates and China has the most developed tea-making techniques and the largest variety of teas in the world, why does China play such an insignificant role in the international market?
- Why doesn’t the international market adhere to Chinese standards for judging the quality of tea?
- Why is tea education outside of China so limited when there are many universities in China that offer advanced degrees in tea science and culture?
- Why do foreign companies still follow the sourcing practices that haven’t changed much since the Qing Dynasty even though China is the #2 economy in the world?
Sure, I have my answers to these questions, and I’m sorry if you have read this expecting me to offer up my conclusions, but I’m not going to do that here. More to the point, there are still enough mysteries to keep my obsession alive. The questions are the important aspect of my obsession. I have a lot more than these few that I have presented here. What I would like to suggest to you is that you look for questions, and start asking them, and if you are getting answers that you are not satisfied with, then you have the basis for a healthy obsession. The Chinese say that you can study tea all of your life and not discover all of the names for all of the teas. Here is a question to start with: Why are people in the U.S. primarily buying blended and flavored commodity tea that represents such a tiny spectrum of experience possible with unflavored, unblended Chinese tea? All of these are Chinese tea mysteries waiting to be solved.
Austin Hodge is the founder of sevencups.com.