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.