Beyond the Leaf
Perfect tea rows
“Are we lost?”
“Um, a little bit.”
I was perfectly okay with his response. It gave me a chance to catch my breath after the steady upward climb. Besides, the question “Are we there yet?” never crossed my mind.
I was hiking up Horse Head Rock in the Wuyi mountains with my host Daniel, fortunate to be back in China for the second time this year. There was no managed trail, just a series of paths through a seemingly endless outcrop of tea bushes (I would not exactly call these “tea fields”). I do not know who they belonged to, but the plants and the land were being actively managed.
Sometimes they are perfectly manicured rows like we so often see in photos (like the one above). Sometimes they were allowed to grow bigger and more wild (like this one).
Wild tea bushes
Our destination, Horse Head Rock, has a temple built into the base of it. According to Daniel, a single Taoist monk lives there alone. He receives no government funds. His sustenance comes from donations and what he can manage from the garden. If you enter, he might serve you tea - if he likes you. Daniel says he’s not very nice, but also expressed reverence for someone who has chosen to forgo modern life and live the most simple of existence. If he’s lying to me and this monk is living the bourgeoisie dream, I’ll never know since foreigners are not allowed inside.
Horse Head Rock
The Wuyi mountains of Fujian are famous for their oolongs known as “rock tea.” Traditional features are long, dark, twisted leaves, middling oxidation levels, and at least a light degree of baking (usually more). The best known styles of rock tea are Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), Shui Xian (Water Sprite), or Rou Gui (Cinnamon). When buying a Shui Xian or Rou Gui you are purchasing teas made from specific cultivars of those names. But the title Da Hong Pao is sometimes given to a tea not from one of its original cultivars and instead is meant to reflect a traditional rock oolong style. (I learned there is dispute over what is the original Da Hong Pao cultivar, nothing like a good “tea fight”).
Cupping rock oolong samples back at the office
As famous as these teas are in China, they are almost unheard of in the U.S. (only Chinese tea enthusiasts would even recognize the names). This is partially due to large demand at high prices for rock tea inside China so very little is exported. But you do not have to be a tea snob to figure out that these teas are easy to love. Though cup profiles will vary widely, the common characteristics tend to revolve around flavors we find in our holiday comfort food – citrus sweet, warming spice, and deep toasty flavors. It’s approachable enough to invite you in, but sophisticated and entertaining enough to get you to stay.
-Michael Lanner, TeaSource Operations Manager
Michael being entertained drinking rock oolongs with Daniel Hong and Liang Gui in Wuyi, Fujian, China
Travelogues and stories about sourcing tea all over the world.
A cool part of owning a tea company, given the fact that tea wasn’t grown in the U.S. until recently - is that you have to go where the tea is. Since the beginning, that has always been part of the plan: go to tea country, walk the fields with the growers, be in the factory as they make the tea, choose the teas I want to buy right there as they are being finished, and bring those teas directly back to the U.S.
We started doing that in 2001, and every year since we have tried to move further in this direction. In 2001 this was a little unheard of; in 2018 it is called Direct Sourcing.
One of the best parts of direct sourcing is meeting and building relationships with the people. Tea folk are linked by a love of tea. And this love of tea bridges all barriers: language, culture, and generational.
Here is a quick overview of some of our tea travels and Direct Sourcing we have done over the last 20 years. At this point, I have visited all of these locales numerous times and built relationships and friendships that are as strong as a hearty Assam.
There have been numerous trips to Taiwan over the last 20 years. The first was in 2001. This was my first trip to tea country.
Taiwan 2001, with 3 gentlemen who know a lot more about tea than I do: left to right Mr. Hsieh (we are at his tea packing factory), me, Mr. Fong (the patriarch of Bao Zhong production in Pingling village in northern Taiwan), and Mr. Jackson Huang, one of the great tea masters in Taiwan.
Jackson Huang and Mr. Fong have been continuing sources of inspiration and education to me for the past 17 years. They also got me drunker than a skunk one afternoon at Mr. Fong’s great grand-daughter’s restaurant on his “home-made wine.” But that is a different blog post.
A man who loves tea, Mr. Fong is the recognized Bao Zhong tea master in Pingling village in northern Taiwan.
Taiwan is beautiful, but arable land is scarce so they squeeze in tea fields whereever they can. Above are a couple of tiny tea fields shoe-horned under a small hillside containing ancestral burial tombs.
Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
The next country I visited was Ceylon in 2003. I have since made a number of trips to Ceylon. This island nation is located off the SE tip of India. When Europeans first “discovered” Ceylon (people had been living there for centuries), they thought they had discovered the literal Garden of Eden because they couldn’t imagine any other place being so beautiful.
The only thing that surpasses the beauty of Ceylon is the friendliness and hospitality of its people.
Tea pluckers at the Rothschild Estate in central Ceylon.
Some much less skilled tea pluckers at the Lumbini Estate (that's me on the left and my wife Liz on the right).
TeaSource has a special relationship with the Lumbini Tea Estate. They have helped us and we have helped them many, many times over the years. They are friends first and foremost and business partners second. That happens a lot in the tea industry. And they just happen to make the best tea in Ceylon.
While we were exploring the entire Lumbini Valley, we ran into children of employees of the Lumbini Tea Factory. The owner and director of Lumbini, Chaminda Jayawardana, is in the background-center in the green shirt.
In 2017, we were honored to be part of the ground-breaking ceremony for a new crèche and school for children of tea workers at Lumbini. TeaSource is proud to provide financial support to this crèche and school for the foreseeable future.
China is the birthplace of tea, despite what certain Anglophiles might say.
At least 15 of China’s provinces make tea. They all make different teas, have different tea cultures, and all think their tea is the best tea in China. So this is a very brief overview of the many tea trips to China that TeaSource has made. The people we meet and the teas we source are inexorably linked.
In 2005, I was invited to speak at the World Tea Forum in Beijing. This surprised the heck out of me. My first thought was that they just wanted a white guy, so I typed “Tea guy in America” into Google and my name came up.
Giving my speech with a simultaneous translator was a very interesting experience, especially for someone like me who talks with my hands and tends to stray from the script a lot.
In 2013, I was part of a U.S. trade mission to Puer, Yunnan, China. Ms. Zhao Yujie of Yunnan, China (above) has become one of our absolute favorite tea suppliers. She and her husband make the most incredible puers and black tea.
People who say “wine country is so beautiful’ clearly have never visited tea country. Just look at the rolling tea fields in the mountains of Sichuan province in south central China.
Japan is the second nation to have adopted tea in the 8th century. I made my first visit to Japan in 2005 and have been back a few times since.
Mt. Fuji in the background with many tea fields (and gigantic fans) in the foreground.
In 2012 I was invited by Japan’s Dept. of Trade to visit and meet with tea growers. It was a wonderful experience and allowed me to develop new relationships with old family-owned tea companies. One of them was the Otsuka Green Tea Co., who have since visited us in Minnesota. They are one of our favorite Direct Sources for green tea.
Women plucking leaves for Otsuka Tea Co. Karigane is one of my favorite teas from Otsuka.
The Japanese are probably the most innovative of all the tea producing tea nations. This is a tea plucking machine I saw being used near Shizuoka, Japan. Most good tea is still hand-plucked, but finding the labor for that is getting more difficult. This machine can pluck tea almost to the level of quality and care of a human tea plucker. It reminds me a little of R2D2.
India has been making tea since the 1830’s. TeaSource has imported teas directly from India since around 2006. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t visit India until 2012; but I’ve made up for it ever since.
Dawn in Assam at the Nya Gogra Estate.
Plucking on Darjeeling mountain sides.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the best parts of going to tea country to find tea is the people you meet along the way. Dilma saw me and my friend walking down the dirt road in a tiny village on the Darjeeling/Nepal border and invited us in for tea.
Dilma offered us black tea or milk tea. I chose milk tea. She ran outside, milked her cow, brought in the milk, and made one of the most marvelous drinks I have ever had.
Tea isn’t just about an amazing beverage; it is about the amazing people and cultures that are intertwined with that beverage. I am incredibly blessed to be a witness to and a tiny part of that.
St Anthony Village store, 2004
We opened the second TeaSource store in St. Anthony Village near Northeast Minneapolis. This is a much larger space than the St. Paul store because we wanted to blend tea, handle web orders, and sell to wholesale customers from there.
It went from this…
It was so nice being able to hire contractors to do most of the work this time.
We built a classroom in St. Anthony, because we will always believe in teaching about tea.
David teaching a Tea 101 class at St. Anthony.
Sarah working on web and wholesale orders at St Anthony.
Eden Prairie store, 2011
Our third retail store in Eden Prairie is our biggest retail location.
We strive to be good neighbors and active members of the community. In Eden Prairie, we have hosted tea workshops, Zumba class, writer’s workshops and tea, singers’ workshops and tea, Tea Drunk with Bill, and many other events.
Tea Masters Series
In 2009 we began the Tea Masters Series. I have always considered myself very lucky to be able to learn from some of the greatest tea experts in the world; folks who often grew up in the industry and who know a lot more about tea than I do.
These people also tended to be incredibly gracious and generous with their knowledge. I knew TeaSource customers would love to meet, learn from, and share tea with them. That was the genesis for Tea Masters.
TeaSource has hosted Tea Masters from: Taiwan (twice), Japan, Sri Lanka, India, China (twice), and California.
Thomas Shu spreads the love of Taiwan oolongs wherever he goes, Tea Masters series 2013.
Chaminda Jayawardana, owner/director of Lumbini Tea Factory, conducted a Tea Masters workshop at the TeaSource warehouse in 2016.
TeaSource Outreach & Education
As a company, we are committed to outreach and tea education in our communities and greater Twin Cities area.
We LOVE being part of the Great Minnesota Get Together!
I see our participation in the Minnesota State Fair as preparation for my post-TeaSource career; selling Ginzu Knives and Vita-Mixes under the Grandstand at the State Fair.
Our crew of runners for the St. Anthony Village Fest Parade, circa 2010.
Tea workshop at the Highland Park store.
Within six months of opening the St Paul store I had chefs, restaurant owners, and coffee-shop operators knocking on my door asking me to sell them tea for their customers.
We now have wholesale customers from Alaska to Barbados and many places in-between. We sell to businesses that are in the business of re-selling the tea, either loose leaf tea in bulk or preparing it as a beverage.
Our wholesale crew, David, Michael, and Eri.
In 2014, we opened the TeaSource warehouse and office in Roseville, MN. We do all of our order fulfillment, tea evaluations, tea blending, receiving/shipping, and administrative stuff there. It is a climate controlled, organic approved 10,000 sq. ft. space that we were able to design from scratch to meet our needs including “clean rooms” to handle all tea blending and packaging.
“Cupping up” (evaluating and making buying decisions) a few of the hundreds of tea samples we go through each year.
A small container of tea from China.
We launched our first website in 1999 (thanks Matt). You couldn’t even buy tea on it - it was purely informational. But it was a start.
We launched our first reasonably decent website in 2009, along with this slogan:We try to poke fun at ourselves when we can...
TeaSource in the Future
Sometimes people ask me what I do for a living. I usually respond “I’m a tea merchant.”
Basically my job involves playing with tea and being nice to people. That’s what TeaSource is all about. We don’t plan to change direction.
The success TeaSource has enjoyed over the last 20 years is not because of me. It’s because of all the people who have supported us, taught us, supplied us, worked with us, and patronized us. My deepest thanks to you all.
The first TeaSource shirt.
Front and back of the shirt.
This shirt was given to me by colleagues when I quit the corporate world.
Most of my colleagues knew of my checkered and varied work history and my search to find a calling that satisfied and fulfilled me.
My mother saw it differently, having said to me on numerous occasions, “Can’t you hold a job?” Eventually I found a job that I wanted to hold for a long time: TeaSource.
The last career I had before TeaSource was in the wholesale grocery business; training independent grocers (mostly family owned single store operators or very small regional grocery chains) how to open grocery stores, and how to operate their stores and their business more effectively.
As I got more and more into the world of tea, it occurred to me that what I was doing for the past 8 years with grocery retailers was the perfect training ground for opening a retail specialty tea store.
So, as I approached my forties, I started thinking about how cool it would be to have a tea business.
For more than 20 years I had been fascinated, perhaps even obsessed by tea. One of my previous careers had been as a librarian at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where I had learned how to do serious academic research. So for a long time I had been researching everything I could about tea.
I started TeaSource in a spare bedroom and a tiny bit of packing space in a food warehouse in NE Minneapolis, MN. I ran it solely as a mail order catalog (I produced the catalog myself at Kinkos), sold tea to family and friends, and did lots of tea tasting around the Twin Cities; kitchen stores, specialty food stores etc. I sold packages of tea along the way.
One of the early TeaSource catalogs.
After a year of doing this while still working my full-time career, I realized that “this tea thing” (as some friends referred to it) was either the most time consuming hobby ever imagined or I should just quit my career and jump into the world of tea full bore.
I knew one thing with certainty; I wasn’t going to get braver as I got older.
So I found an empty retail space in the Highland Park neighborhood of St Paul. I signed a lease, turned in my 30 days notice, and embarked on the 3rd scariest thing I have ever done.
Highland Park TeaSource location on south Cleveland Ave.
I did most of the remodeling work myself (except for the electric and the cabinetry - those areas actually require a high level of skill). I was pinching pennies. My operating budget was my life savings and my retirement fund. So (with a little help from my friends) I did the demo, the drywall, the construction, the flooring, the painting, etc. We had a crazy 75 days of dust, demolition, and exhaustion.
Highland Park TeaSource store on July, 1998, fifty days to Grand Opening.
Many thanks to Steve S., John W., Greg P., Jim G., Beth A., Kit C., Keith W., Kathy W., Sean D., Megan D., and anyone else I am missing.
Our grand opening was Sept. 5th, 1998.
Highland Park TeaSource, the early days. Hanging the ceiling over the counter was a piece of cake...not! And yes, I did make those copper-topped tables.
TeaSource in Highland, circa 2002. Remember those tea chests lids on the wall?
My wife Liz has been unbelievably supportive throughout this whole journey, even pre-TeaSource when I was taking over whole kitchen cabinets with strange tea packages and tea paraphernalia. From the moment I told her I was thinking of quitting my career and opening a tea business up through this year when we have been incredibly busy dealing with new federal laws and regulations impacting our business, she has been behind me.
Patience, support, flexibility, and creativity have been among the gifts she has given me. She’s been amazing.
The first couple of years were rough. Most folks had never heard of a tea store before. So that meant lots of education, proselytizing, sampling, etc. was necessary. Initially, I had one employee besides myself, Jen H. She was there during construction and for many years afterward and was key to getting TeaSource integrated into the neighborhood.
We had a number of colleges nearby so we employed lots of students in the early years. We have always been really lucky to have great employees, many of whom have been with us long-term.
We do tend to start them off young.
Circa 2003, my daughter Mag surveying her domain.
Remember my little wall of tea chests? Today wooden tea chests are no more. They are just a part of tea history.
In addition to the challenges, there were also a lot of successes, acceptance, and love shown to TeaSource in the first couple of years.
Thanks to the many, many people, staff, suppliers, neighbors, family, and customers who survived those first 2-3 years and began to establish a tea foothold in the Twin Cites, providing a solid foundation from which to spread our message.
You could say TeaSource was born in Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales (United Kingdom) on November 15, 1840, when Augustus Waddington was born. He was the first Waddington to go into the tea business.
Augustus was not the first born male child (look up primogeniture on Wikipedia), so he was destined to leave Wales in search of fame and fortune. He arrived in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka, in 1868 to work in the coffee industry. The following year the Great Coffee Blight of 1869 struck Ceylon and in short order wiped out the entire coffee industry. So all those ravaged coffee plantations were converted into tea estates.
Augustus stayed in Ceylon for 10 years working at more than eight of the early tea estates.
Flash forward; I founded TeaSource in my spare bedroom in 1997. In late 1998 (more than a year after I founded TeaSource) I ran across Augustus’ unpublished memoir in a box of old family memorabilia, which no one in my family knew about.
The unpublished memoir of my great grandfather.
Buried in this memoir were about 15 pages describing my great grandfather’s time in Ceylon. Including some cryptic references messages to his brother Henry, who was in southern India.
Map of Ceylon and south India, where 2 brothers were working in the tea industry in the late 1870’s.
During this same time, i.e. the beginnings of TeaSource, I immersed myself in tea knowledge. I was able to purchase a copy of the original reference work on tea, All About Tea, by William Ukers, a 1,127 page two volume book on tea, published in 1935 and out of print for decades.
The original reference book on tea.
The inside front cover of Ukers, All About Tea.
Published 1935, and still on the book shelf of most tea professionals. And as I was working my way thru this tome, on page 143 I ran across this:
Apparently Henry stayed in the tea industry for most of his life (unlike Augustus who left Ceylon and moved to Kansas after 10 years).
Then a few years laterout of the blue, an employee came to me and said, “Bill, there are a couple of customers who would like to talk to you.” Being a good Minnesotan, I assumed I had done something wrong and they were there to complain.
Instead, they turned out to be regular customers who greeted me with smiles and handshakes and compliments about TeaSource. They were the ultimate Minnesota Snow Birds - spending summers in Minnesota (her birthplace) and winters in southern India, the Nilgiris (his birthplace). On their most recent stay in India in the city of Coimbatore (the center of the south Indian tea trade for the last 100 years), they had dinner at the Coimbatore Planter’s Club.
Above, the official history of the Coimbatore Club book.
(I have to digress here for a moment: when the British established tea plantations anywhere in the world, they would very quickly also establish “Planter’s Clubs” where the British owners and managers of the plantations could go to relax, drink, race, gamble, socialize, scandalize etc. Think Downton Abbey with a dash of Mar-a-Largo thrown in.)
These TeaSource customers, while walking down the hallway lined with all the historical information about the Coimbatore Club, ran across plaques showing all the past presidents of the Coimbatore Club going back to 1910. Lo and behold, there was H. Waddington, President from Sept. 1920 thru June 1921. They took pictures of the plaque to bring back and share with me.
Mr. H. Waddington, Sep 1920 – Jun 1921
Photo in the Coimbatore Club book. It is likely Henry Waddington is in this picture.
So after an 80 year break, the Waddington family returned to the tea business: from my spare bedroom in 1997 to the first retail store in 1998.
And we keep rolling forward today.
By Sean Miner | Eden Prairie Sun Current