What’s your “origin” story about tea? In other words, what was the turning point when you decided to start a tea business? What are some of your favorite turning points in your life with tea?
That is a long story and oddly the catalyst for my business endeavor was a chicken and a truck. But to understand I need to start from the beginning.
I was fascinated with Asia my whole life, specifically India and China. I was an impossibly shy and nervous child who would hardly leave my mothers side, but I always said that I would travel to these places, though nobody believed me at the time. In college I began studying Cultural Anthropology and Art History. I loved both subjects, and found that they tied together incredibly well and of course made my longing for travel even stronger. Only a few years in I embarked on my adventures. I traveled with friends to a handful of countries, then decided to return on my own to the small town of Dharamshala (AKA McLeod Ganj) in Northern India, where the Dalai Lama lived. There I met a Tibetan refugee named Shedhe and fell in love. I lived there and with his family in rural Tibet for the next 3 years. During this time I was introduced to a new world of tea that I never knew existed. Shedhe and I eventually married and came back to the US together so I could finish my degree.
During my time living abroad, I encountered full leaf teas for the first time. Tibetan Hei Cha bricks were always in the pot of water that continuously boiled on the stove. I drank oolong tea, salted tea, butter tea, and so many more and was fascinated by how essential it was in the lives of the people I had lived with. I explored teas in ways I never imagined before, and that passion continued wherever we went.
Back in the US, I was finishing my degree and debating about what I would do when I graduated. I was learning the hard way that no matter how passionate I was about Cultural Anthropology and Art History, they were useless in finding a career. Shedhe and I wanted to ensure that whatever jobs we took, we could continue to travel back and forth to India and China to see family and friends. At one point we bought a used truck (see, I told you the truck would come in) and while waiting in the bank for the loan to be approved the man helping me asked what I did. I explained that I had recently returned from travel and was finishing my degree. He was excited and told me that his wife really wanted to visit India because she owned a tea company. “A tea company?!” I thought. “I wish I were cool enough to own a tea company.” Eventually the loan came through and we parted ways though the idea of a tea company stayed in my mind. A few weeks later, coming back from a family outing, my brother-in-law Chris asked if it was ok if we stopped at a co-workers house on the way home to pick up a frozen chicken (this type of thing happens in my family). Of course that was fine, and we stopped, talked to his co-worker Lindsey, and went on our way. On the way home Chris was telling me that Lindsey owned a small tea company that she was trying to sell. The pieces clicked into my brain and I realized it was her husband who I had spoken to at the bank and that business, which I thought to be the coolest career I could imagine, was for sale.
The idea of owning a business was daunting, but I realized that it encompassed all of the things I wanted. Flexible schedule for travel and children, creativity, and my love for culture and art. After some talks and negotiations Shedhe and I purchased the company in January 2011 and moved it into our home. We renamed the company Labrang Tea Traders in honor of the monastery that Shedhe was raised at in Tibet. Our first daughter was born in 2012 and the business slowly trudged along for the next several years while I was busy being a mom. Shedhe and I divorced shortly after the birth of our son in 2015 and I kept the business as he had a separate career. It was a difficult time to say the least, but eventually I got my feet back under me, and began to move forward and brought the business forward with me.
It had occurred to me in those years that not only did tea fulfill my love of culture and art, but also of plants. Blending encouraged me to research herbs and their uses. I had always been an avid gardener and enjoyed seeing what local herbs worked in tea. When I finally discovered that tea could be grown in Oregon, I was beside myself with joy. I scoured for tea plants and directions for their care but came up with very little. Eventually I found the US League of Tea Growers (USLTG) and enthusiastically joined. After nearly a year of hearing nothing from them I suddenly got an e-mail that they were regrouping and holding a meeting at the Great Mississippi Tea Farm. I hesitated about going, knowing that I could not afford it and the group had so far appeared inactive, but something deep in my gut would not let it go. I finally decided to just go, not knowing that the trip would change my life as I knew it. Immersed in the lovely people from this group I felt I had finally found my calling. The group had indeed fell inactive but people wanted it to come back, they just needed someone passionate and energetic enough to do it. Not realizing it for months, I realized that I had become that person, and over the next several years I revived the small non-profit into a functioning group.
I had lived most of my life my life feeling that I did not belong, and for several years I had thought that I would find happiness in another culture. Little did I realize that no matter what I did, I simzply could not fit in. My own skin betrayed that I was an outsider, and I was far too independent to fit into the model of a woman in the old world cultures I had lived in. I was too different and tried though I did, I was cast out of the community I had tried to find home in the second I divorced my husband. It took me a while to feel ok in my skin again, but over time I realized that I had been fighting my own identity the whole time. I began to realize that it was ok to be American, to be happy in my home of Oregon, and to hold that identity of the white American girl. Tea had always been something that bound me still to Asia, and during the time when my identity was fractured, I wondered if my relationship with tea would also be. But then, upon the discovery that tea was being grown, produced, studied, and appreciated in the US as well as around the world, I finally made sense. Tea had always encompassed my passions, and finally, I felt it encompassed me as well. Tea is a plant that thrives all over the world, adapting to the climate and people it is around. Tea is a unifying force that connects people all over the world. Tea brings nourishes as well as comforts. Tea feels like home. Tea helped me find peace within myself.
“Promoting tea is my way of promoting a better world” (from your website) – What are some of the ways you personally experience tea contributing to a better world?
My father ran the local chapter of St. Vincent de Paul, and used to tell me that the goal in life was to “leave the better world than you found it.” He is well known throughout our community as a friend to the homeless, a master recycler, fixer of problems, etc. His influence was very strong on my determination to have a career that helped instead of hindered the world and all of the creatures in it. To me, tea has many opportunities to promote the physical health of my community (by drinking tea instead of juices, sodas, energy drinks, etc), mental well being (the ritual of making tea is often used as part of a meditative practice), as well as an interest in herbal remedies and the interest in sustainable agricultural products. When grown correctly, tea can have a very low carbon footprint, and can have a very helpful impact on low income communities seeking a way to bring commerce to their village. It is also steeped in cultural tradition, and is a catalyst for cultural preservation as well as intercultural exploration. Plus, as all of us know, tea is a wonderfully adaptive beverage that can assist us in our busy lives through helping with mental clarity and alertness. These are just a few of the ways that I believe tea benefits the health and prosperity of our world, and I feel good being in an industry that promotes this in a healthy way.
You are currently promoting tea in many different ways. Your tea business is both retail and wholesale, you are a tea grower and an organizer of other tea growers in the U.S. So you have a uniquely broad perspective on tea and tea drinkers. How do your experiences on the agricultural side of specialty tea help you better serve your customers?
Learning about the growing and processing of tea, as well as the daily realities of living on a tea farm have been invaluable to my understanding of the world of tea as a whole. Not only does it tell me how life is for the most important people in the tea industry – the farmers and producers – but it also tells me why our tea tastes the way it does. In the industry talk about the importance of both terroir and processing. But we do not talk about how much of a difference lays in the age of the tea plants, the fertilization methods of the fields, the plucking style, etc. All of these factors and so many more influence the end flavor of the tea. My original understanding of tea was completely upended when I began really studying the tea from seed to cup. Now I am able to source and educate my customers in ways that I previously could not.
And how has growing your own tea in Oregon and being part of the League of U.S. Tea Growers made a difference in how you choose tea sources to sell? Your commitment to selling only sustainably grown teas must be challenging as a retailer. How do you like to share the stories of tea farms around the world with your customers?
One of my favorite parts of owning a tea company is teaching people about tea. I love being able to share with my customers my experiences actually harvesting and processing the tea from places like the Great Mississippi Tea Company, and for the places that I cannot actually visit, I am able to give people a good idea of the techniques practiced on the farm due to having studied a wide range of teas and processing methods. I make contacts across the world to discuss methods of tea production in different environments and factories. Though there is no one way of ensuring sustainability short of being the producer yourself, I work as hard as I can to ensure that my products are having a positive impact on the communities and environments in which they are made.
One of the most unusual tea regions you have in your store is the Republic of Georgia. What drew you to the relationship with this lesser-known country of origin? Is buying tea from regions with whom we may have some political conflict a way that we can connect with the people and support them?
The Republic of Georgia is an area that I have been fascinated by for several reasons. For one, it is a country with a very complex political history, and the political changes have severely impacted its production of tea. It is an interesting example of how much influence culture and politics can have on tea – and vice versa. Plus, the specific group that I work with, Renegade Tea, is trying to redefine the tea produced in the Republic of Georgia from its previous reputation of producing only low grade tea, to a producer of high quality specialty tea. The company was started by a group of young professionals who had no previous knowledge of tea. Thus their learning process was similar to those in the US. Their climate is also very similar to that of Oregon, and it is an interesting example of production outputs because it has a clearer parallel to the conditions of Oregon than many of the traditional high production countries such as India and China. Though the country was once a part of the Soviet Union, it is now independent and not an adversary of the US to my knowledge.
Images graciously provided by Angela McDonald and used with permission