Taiwan is home to some of my favorite styles of tea. From the buttery floral high mountain oolongs, to the honey flavored bug bitten teas, to the minty black teas, I can never get bored with tea from Taiwan. I recently found a new company out of Portland called Totem Tea, and immediately had to try their tea. When I got my tea, I spoke with their co-founder Dan Pappas, and immediately could see how passionate he is about tea. I particularly enjoyed their gui fei and their Ruby 18. Not only are they selling tea, they are carefully procuring tea that meets their standards. Totem is working to bring some of the highest quality Taiwanese teas to the United States as well as promote tea culture here. I was able to have a conversation with Dan to share with the T Ching Community:
What brought you to start Totem Tea?
Love of tea and love of Taiwan were the two main factors that brought about the desire to start Totem Tea. Tea had played a role for many years in what I would call an inner directed or focused life. Tea was an integral part of the practice of yoga, qigong and meditation. There is something to tea that is not easy to describe that has a stilling and yet enlivening quality. This need to slow down and be present can be enhanced with tea. This is not necessarily the case for all teas and all circumstances but it was the case for how we approached tea. Tea for us is the great confluence of human beings, earth and the transcendent/nature/Tao. If all three of these factors are not involved, no tea is produced.
This love of tea was met and reinforced by the love of Taiwan from our first trip. The country is beautiful, the people are exceptionally friendly, the food is great, the country is free and democratic. I could go on and on but suffice it to say, we were deeply impressed. The joy of the first trip brought about dreaming of the later trips and this desire to return supported the birth of the business.
How do you decide what makes a tea worthy for you to sell?
We developed a 5-tiered system for grading tea. This is something we would do informally before starting Totem Tea when we made purchases from different vendors.
Exceptional – This is the rarest and most difficult to come by tea. It immediately informs the drinker that something out of the ordinary is being experienced. An exceptional tea is the product of artistry on many levels from the cultivation to the plucking to the often hand processing of the tea. These methods are either generations old, passed from one tea master to an apprentice or innovative new techniques that have come about by inspiration, experimentation and even by natural disaster as resulted in the creation of the leaf-bitten teas.
The flavor profile is multilayered in an Exceptional tea that has many different things occurring at once. There is an aromatic component that accompanies the flavor profile which is complex and not flat or monotone. The color of the tea is pleasant and clear, the water is not dusty or cloudy. The leaves are clearly seen and not broken into tiny pieces but often contain the whole leaf bud with stem and two or more of the accompanying leaves.
There is a feeling of energy “qi/氣” in the teas as it is drunk which strikes the mouth, palate or throat and seems to wake up this area of the drinker. There is the sense that this tea had life and still contains the creative forces that went into its production. Tea comes from a plant but what becomes the tea that we drink must go through a multitude of steps to become a drinkable tea.
Regardless of all the descriptions of Exceptional teas, to truly know what one is, it must be experienced firsthand. That is what we set out to achieve through Totem Tea. All the teas that are listed on our website fall into the top two tiers on our rating scale being Exceptional or Very Good.
Very Good/Good – This tea category is not far from Exceptional, which on its own makes the tea extremely worthwhile but is either of a quantity more readily available to qualify it for Very Good as opposed to Exception or does not hit as many of the criteria of Exceptional.
Decent– This is a tea that is crafted with artistry and has a nice flavor profile and is common. Some people would refer to this type of tea as daily tea. The price is often very reasonable and its quantity year after year is reliably produced. This tea has good flavor but does not stand out.
Drinkable – This is a tea with flavor that is not bad but not good either. If it was placed in front of you, it might be drunk or might not without any strong feelings either way. It is what we would call flat, not complex but monotone.
Lowest Grade – Its taste, feel and appearance are not of a pleasant disposition and there is no energy left in the tea, it feels lifeless. It is a pass. All tea has some qualities of value and benefit but this is a tea that we would pass on.
What sets Totem apart from other tea vendors?
We sample all of the teas we list on our website. We do not have any teas that we buy and list on our site year after year without first tasting this year’s batch to insure that it meets our standards. We sell what we love to drink.
Before starting Totem Tea we would buy from different online retailers or locally and would often find around a 30% hit rate where we thought the tea was really good. What we wanted to do is only sell teas that we had already sorted through and aim to have winners with all that we sell. Each tea that is listed on our site stands in front of at least a dozen others that we passed on.
How do you see the tea culture in the US? Where do you see it in the next 5 years?
I see tea culture growing exponentially in the coming years, continuing its significant current growth trend. Tea provides a means to sit down and relate either to oneself or others around the table. Tea can act as a bridge between peoples and cultures. Almost all peoples the world over enjoy tea in one form or another, what better way for us to connect on this one planet with all the tumultuous change that is occurring in the world and politics?
I see this trend continuing. I think there will be growth in the tea house, tea room, tea cafe scene in the states. This will be a different model than the coffee house/cafe, these will be a place more for relating and relaxing. There will be continued appreciation of tea and all its benefits, health and otherwise.
What would you recommend to someone new to oolongs? How would you recommend them to brew the tea?
This field of oolong is immense. Start anywhere and slowly build up a mental taste-library for what you like. If the oolong is twisted leaf variety or coming from China I would suggest a quick pour off before the first infusion. Also I would use water just prior to boiling or if the water has boiled let it stand for a couple of minutes before first use. I would also use around a tablespoon of tea to 6-8oz of water with multiple infusions depending on the tea and taste.
The beauty of tea is that there is no ideal way for all people. Each person learns by experience how they like to brew their tea. Even drinking the same tea many people have different styles and preferences for what makes the best cup.
You recently got back from a sourcing trip in Taiwan, can you share with us a little bit about your experiences there?
The trip was as expected mind blowing and mind expanding. It involved going to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Fujian and Guangdong provinces to sample, and learn how to make oolong tea in the traditional home of Dancong Oolong, Anxi Tie Guan Yin and Wuyi Shan Oolong.
Answering this question could involve a whole separate article but in an attempt to summarize I would say that the world of tea is even broader than I once expected. Not only is it broader but there is constant innovation in how tea is produced and the flavors that are gaining popularity. It was my first trip to China and that alone was very educational. China has its own rules and ways of doing things not easily peered into by the outsider and non-Chinese speaker.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Tea is a joy. That might sound simple but I find it is the case that there is great joy in sharing, drinking and learning about tea. The blogging community, both the readers and writers, are doing a great service in advancing tea knowledge and culture. I would say to all your readers, please continue to spread the word.
Totem Tea can be purchased at www.totemtea.com