Today I sold my car. Tomorrow I’m going to pack up my house and put all my belongings in storage. At 9 AM the following day I’m going to get on a plane for Taiwan. I plan to spend several days there finding tea farms and teaware, and then take an actual boat across the Strait of Taiwan to mainland China.
That’s where the other half of my job takes place – going to China is the soul of importing Chinese tea. In America it’s all marketing, accounting, budgeting, planning – but China is electric. Everything I do in America is for the sake of what I do in China, which is exploring, searching, discovering, hunting. It’s the best part of being a tea importer – and the hardest.
My esteemed colleague Elyse recently wrote an article distinguishing between “commodity” tea – tea grown industrially on huge plantations and processed in enormous factories – and “specialty” tea. Specialty tea means tea grown, picked, and processed using traditional methods, which are inherently small-scale and therefore relegated to the provenance of small farms. To get that tea, I need to know those farmers, and be on those farms, and that’s what I’m going to go do in about 30 hours.
In Taiwan I’m free as a bird, I don’t really know anyone there, and I haven’t spent much time in Taiwan before. I don’t know what to expect and that suits me just fine. Taiwanese oolongs, in terms of abundant floral fragrance and near-universal appeal, don’t shoot crooked. If you throw a rock in any given Taiwanese tea shop, you’re likely to hit something worth drinking.
China is different in so many ways. For one, it’s much more rugged. It’s loud and polluted in the cities, underdeveloped in the country, and everywhere babies are pooping, diaperless, in public. China is not for the faint of heart. And unlike in Taiwan, I’m not just exploring and finding new farmers in China, I’m visiting and maintaining relationships with my existing farmers. I know them, I trust them, and if I’m going to find a new tea, maybe they know someone who grows it. Tea farmers have tea farmer friends. They all hang out.
That means I’m not going to just wander at random: I don’t have enough time for that, because, unlike my last sourcing trip, I have a highly demanding business to get back to. Since I last went to China in the spring of 2013 for the express purpose of finding tea, West China Tea has gone from being a vague idea to a wholesale business, a full service teahouse, and the tea lounge/tea booth at dozens of festivals, events and a farmer’s market. I can’t afford to float around China like a tea-drunk bumblebee anymore. China is where tea, and tea culture, originated, and they accordingly have some of the most outstanding and remarkable tea in the world. They also have a lot of gnarly commodity tea that will literally poison you if you drink it. Last time we had to sift through plenty of commodity tea – sometimes 18 varieties in a day – and there were some days we didn’t find one good tea. My friend Steev actually threw up once. I don’t have time for that kind of nonsense.
The slow boat to China will leave us in Xiamen, a coastal city with lots of tea shops. There we will rendezvous with one Ms. Li, a purveyor of white tea. Her husband is a Phoenix tea master from Chaozhou, part of a longstanding family tradition, who uses the difficult and exacting Tang Bei process to cure a variety of Wuyi and Phoenix oolongs. If it’s not too far, I want to visit Fuding, where white tea comes from, from whence we will make our way southwest to Chaozhou, where the art of gong fu cha was born in the fragrant shadow of the Phoenix mountains.
I say ‘we’ because I will be traveling again with my co-conspirator Steev Odell of Rabbit’s Moon Tea, an ethereal tea hermitage nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains. I will also be joined by Mary Cotterman, who is the most talented potter that I personally know and one of a very small number of American artisans who can craft functional gong-fu teaware. Chaozhou is the home of gong-fu cha and also gong-fu teaware, and they have a very distinctive style of unglazed teapot made of their own local red and brown clays. Like the more famous Zisha “purple sand” teapots of Yixing, these tiny Chaozhou pots also absorb the essence of the tea made in them – usually Phoenix, Wuyi, or Anxi oolongs – and improve the flavor of tea prepared in a well-seasoned pot. They differ greatly, however, in construction. Unlike the Zisha pots, which are hand-formed with an arsenal of tiny wooden tools using a crazy process that defies concise description, Chaozhou pots are “pulled” into being from a spinning lump of clay on a wheel. Mary throws on a wheel and it is our intention to find her a local pottery master to study with. That would make her, to the best of my knowledge, the first Westerner to ever study the Chaozhou technique for making teaware.
Beyond that, lie the misty jungles of Yunnan, where wild and ancient pu er tea trees grow on the mountain peaks. The oldest I’ve seen are 1,000 years old, but I hear there are older. My Yunnan farmers on Nannuo Mountain produce some very clean and powerful tea from these ancient trees, black and white tea in addition to sheng and shu pu er. They even have a purple tea, a mutant strain that appears to have unusual health properties beyond the scope of normal tea. I buy and sell more tea from them than any of my other farmers and they are also the ones I have the oldest and closest relationship with.
Also on the itinerary are the iconic Chinese-ink-painting peaks of Yangshuo, in Guangxi, where 7 Immortals green tea is grown and baskets of Liu Bao tea are cradled in smoky kitchen rafters quietly aging, sometimes for decades. The cloudy forests of neighboring Sichuan’s central mountains are green with tea, including dozens of local varieties unknown outside the town where they are produced. Mt. Mengding, where tea was first cultivated, produces the exquisite yellow tea Huang Ya as well as their own aged tea, loosely-pressed bricks destined for export to Tibet.
The take-away point is that, for a tea lover, China is a magical fantasy land of wonder and amazement, not only because the tea itself is exciting but because good tea grows on remote mountains and finding it is necessarily an adventure. The Chinese have a saying: “The best tea comes from beautiful places”. You can follow us on our trip at http://www.westchinateacompany.com