Meet Our Tea Masters

 
Tea Masters (5)Mr. and Mrs. Zhang are good friends of ours who grow very special wild black teas in the Yellow Mountain region. We met them back in 2011, when they were working in a tea market in the southern city of Shenzhen. Caiyou (Mrs. Zhang) and Xianna are from the same region and shared a love of Gongfu tea, so they hit it off immediately. Mr. Zhang had a shop in the same market as Caiyou, which is how he and his wife met, but he had an aching in his heart to return home. His dream has always been to save his local teas from the mass-production style that has been creeping into every aspect of production in China.

His passion for purity is one of the main influences on our decision to start bringing pure Chinese teas to America.

Mr. Zhang was born and raised into tea in the Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) region. His wife, Caiyou, is from the Chaoshan region of Guangdong Province, very close to Xianna’s hometown. They often debate about facts on tea and, quite comically, contradict each other when discussing tea.

Mr. Zhang is a tea purist, in the purest sense. His lifetime goal is to produce every tea in the Huangshan region by himself and do so without using any farming methods whatsoever. His family has been in the tea business for generations, but he is the first to try purely wild tea gathering.

While growing up in the tea business, he visited many plantations throughout the area. He noticed that most Huangshan tea farmers have special plots of land behind their mountainside homes where they allow their teas to grow freely. These semi-wild teas always tasted much finer and had many subtle notes that were lacking in the carefully-farmed, monoculture teas. He discovered that tea has the ability to soak up the essences (mainly flavors and aromas) of the plants that grow near them. He’s not sure how it happens, but he’s sure of the taste!

He also believes this ability might carry over to the molecular level, that tea plants might also soak up physical properties of neighboring plants. He believes this has an effect on the medicinal properties of teas. For example, if a wild tea happened to be growing next to a plant like ginkgo biloba, it would then contain some of the healing powers of the ginkgo plant!

He wants to bring these wild teas to the world market and offer others the chance to taste pure, wild teas, with all their subtle notes and flavors.

To do this he spent quite a lot of time searching satellite images of his hometown region and following up on rumors of potentially wild tea mountains. After mountain climbing for months, chasing every lead, he eventually he found a very old mountain tea farm that had been abandoned decades ago. He loved the look of the land and loved the fact that the whole place had gone feral once again, with many wild flowers and fruits growing among the hard-to-spot tea trees. He made an offer to the decedents of the old plantation owners, and now he’s the owner of a one-of-a-kind wild tea farm!

At the moment he only focuses on his favorite drink, Qimen Hong Cha (Keemun Black Tea), and he offers a high-mountain and low-mountain version of it. Every year he hires a team of temporary workers, and twice a year they ascend the mountain together, camping out as they search for the orange markers he’s left throughout the area. They pick the forest clean and bring the fresh leaves down on their backs to be processed into an unbelievable black tea.

His goal is to buy land in every section of Huangshan to produce all the region’s famous teas in a similarly wild fashion. We are excited to see what he comes up with next! We hope to aid him with this most noble quest, and we will continue to be friends and business partners for years to come.

 
Tea Masters (9)Mr. Zhu has lived his whole life in peaceful Dragon Well Village, just on the other side of the mountains from bustling Hangzhou city. Growing and processing Dragon Well tea is what he’s always done. He, his wife, and their young and playful daughter live down in the valley, with amazingly picturesque mountainside tea fields surrounding them on three sides.

He’s a family man and simple in his pursuits and routines. His life revolves around tea production in this sleepy town. Actually, tea-picking season seems to be the only time there’s any action at all in this serene mountain village. He, like everyone else in the village, simply desires to follow the well-developed Dragon Well production methods and uphold the stellar reputation Dragon Well green tea has had throughout the centuries in China.

And now that green tea drinking is on the rise throughout the world, he is excited about the possibility of his hometown becoming famous internationally, though he is concerned about globalization influencing his peoples’ simple way of life. He knows a great deal about Dragon Well history, traditions, varieties, and qualities. He can talk for hours about how to judge the quality of Dragon Well, and we know this from experience! He likes to remind people that he doesn’t consider himself an expert, though it would be difficult to find someone more knowledgeable on his tea. Regardless of the fact that he shies away from praise or attention of any kind, he is an expert and a fountain of specialized tea knowledge.

As famous as his local tea is, he is a humble man who doesn’t seem to realize the magnitude of the appreciation the world has for his craft. He doesn’t seem comfortable being a representative for his town and their world-renowned tea either, almost as if he doesn’t feel worthy. It’s the classic Chinese humility at it’s finest, and he won’t let fame or fortune influence his way of life.

As exciting as the globalization-fulled economic growth in China is for everyone, Mr. Zhu is comfortable with things staying the way they are. For the sake of tea drinkers around the world, we hope he can keep the Dragon Well traditions alive.

 
Tea Masters (4)Mr. Mo is from one of China’s most beautiful and famous regions – Guilin. He lives a quiet life in a village far away from the big cities. Tea is life for Mr. Mo, and he focuses on several aspects of the industry. He’s very knowledgeable about tea, tea culture, and tea production. Though Guangxi cannot compare to other ancient tea-producing regions’ fame, that doesn’t stop Mr. Mo from claiming authority on the subject.

He has a slow way about him, never in a hurry. At first sight he seems like the stereotypical grumpy old man, but he is very willing to talk with anyone about tea culture, despite his dour expression.

One of his personal passions is tea table carving. Being so close to tropical regions, it’s easy to get access to hardwoods that are ideal for table making, and he produces some amazing works of art. Each piece takes him a week or more to complete, and it’s sometimes more than a month for the really intricate ones!

He only makes tables on a made-to-order basis, but he doesn’t do special orders. If you want one of his tables, you just say the word and take what you get! A real principled artist, this guy.

He’s not too concerned with following traditions and likes to try new things with regard to tea growing, and with his tea tables. This is why Guangxi might soon set itself apart from the rest of China’s tea-growing regions. They don’t have hundreds of years of strict tea traditions to worry about, so they can freely experiment. Guangxi has its fair share of ancient local traditions, but tea is not among them.

In Guilin they like to use Guihua (Osmanthus flowers) in almost everything. It is a very fragrant, small, yellow flower that grows in abundance in the region and falls from the trees twice a year. The locals collect these small flowers and add them to everything from food to alcohol. These are the same flowers in our Guilin Osmanthus-blended green tea. Guangxi is famous for culinary innovation. They eat snakes, bugs, and pretty much anything that doesn’t outright poison you. They even use their sweet-tasting local black tea in the cuisine!

Beautiful mountain scenery, tourism, rice paddies, water buffalo, and eating everything you can get your hands on is the way of life in Mr. Mo’s world. It’s a must-see for any China travelers without the tea. Wonderfully-innovative tea production is just a bonus!

 
Tea Masters (14)Mr. Wang has never lived outside the Ya’an region of Sichuan Province, which was formerly the eastern edge of Tibet. He says that many Ya’an people identify more with Tibet than mainland China. Tibetan tea is grown here, and it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. Mr. Wang is a local expert on both tea production and history. His plantation is actually part of what UNESCO designated as a Chinese Intangible World Heritage site, and there’s a plaque on the front of the building indicating this fact. This honor was bestowed upon him and his business because they are keeping the 2,000-year-old Ya’an style of producing dark (post-fermented black) teas alive.

According to Mr. Wang, this style of production is very important to the world of tea and to the Chinese government. It’s what the Ya’an people spent countless generations perfecting, and he was reluctant to divulge too many details about the process of making their most-precious dark tea. Regardless, we did learn quite a lot about the production of Tibetan tea and about the history of the region from him.

According to Mr. Wang, there’s an ancient story about a 2,000-year-old king of Tibet being gifted tea leaves by a bird from the Ya’an region. He was suffering greatly from many undiagnosable illnesses, and God summoned the bird to help cure him of his ailments. The Tibetans then followed this bird all the way back to what is now Western Sichuan Province, and that’s where they discovered that tea was the magic medicine the bird had brought to them. Since discovering tea, the Tibetan people have valued Chinese teas above all but Buddhism, and they have been trading with Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces for tea ever since.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Tibetans were given green and black teas to take back to their home, which was a rough journey of more than 1,000 miles and took more than a month to complete. They had to travel up and down mountains, through the rain and snow, and across rivers. By the time they reached the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, the tea they brought had aged and changed dramatically in flavor! And the taste of this earthy tea was perfection to the Tibetans. The traders brought the tea back to Sichuan, and the tea growers immediately began working on a way to reproduce that wonderful aged flavor. Over time they did learn to perfect the process. This process is how all dark teas are produced, with slight variations depending on the region, and this is what the United Nations considers and important Intangible Cultural Heritage worthy of special protections. According to Mr. Wang, the world-famous ripe pu’er dark teas are produced using the Ya’an methods, which they learned from the Ya’an people in the early 1970s. It was a way to soften the strong flavor of Yunnan’s old-leaf teas, and it certainly worked out for them!

Mr. Wang and his tea production is at the heart of this Intangible Cultural Heritage, and he’s quite proud of his home and their important position in the world of tea.

 
Tea Masters (11)Mrs. Zhang has spent most of her life dedicated to the promotion of tea as an herbal remedy. She is a member of the Dai ethnic minority group from the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan Province, and she was born in the center of pu’er tea production in Menghai. Decades ago she started a small tea co-op with several other growers in the region, and today their pu’er tea “factory” is doing very well!

Her passion for tea began when she was a very young child. Yunnan Province is underdeveloped and quite isolated compared to other parts of China, but go back a few decades and you’d find things hadn’t changed much since ancient times. She was suffering from chronic problems regarding digestion, and one day the pain became crippling. Nobody in the village could help her, and she began to slowly waste away. They local medicine men didn’t even know what was wrong with her, and it seemed she had no hope of survival.

She wasn’t in any condition to travel down out of her mountain village, even if her father had had the means to pay for an expert to see her in the city. As a last resort, he pooled all his resources to get her the oldest tea leaves from the oldest trees on the mountain. The Dai people have always believed that the older the tree, the more potent the medicine it produced. He forced her to drink the bitter tea for weeks, and low-and-behold, it saved her life! She made a miraculous recovery and has since dedicated her life to spreading the word about the healing power of her local pu’er tea.

She is a fountain of folk knowledge, wisdom, and history. She has an obvious passion for tea and for life! She laughs and smiles with almost innocent joy for life, yet at the same time she’s a serious businesswoman who can talk numbers and manage her own deals. She can be very serious, talking with people and educating them on the healing power and wonderfully aromatic flavors of pu’er tea, and then suddenly she can smile from ear-to-ear and laugh out loud as she remembers a funny anecdote.

Her passion for health and her focus purity in her home’s most precious commodity is why we are so happy to work with her. We hope to bring the healing medicine of the ancient pu’er trees to America, and we hope it gets to those who might benefit from it. Her hope is that her efforts are somehow helping others the way the trees once helped, and are still helping, her. It’s a noble cause that we are proud to be a part of.

 
Tea Masters (1)Mr. Wu is an expert teapot maker from Xianna’s hometown region of Chaoshan. He is a 6th-generation clay teapot artist, and his Great Great Great Great Grandfather was a famous teapot maker back in the Qing Dynasty, circa 1840s! His entire family is in the teapot making business, and three generations are actively working the wheel today.

He lives in downtown Chaozhou, in the center of it all, and upon entering his home/studio you can immediately tell he lives for the craft. He’s very welcoming and seemed happy to put on a display of his skills for us to witness. It’s hard to get him away from his wheel, actually!

His home is absolutely filled with professional equipment, and there’s really little else besides teapot making instruments. He works on his wheel all day, whipping out pot after pot. He can make the base shape of a round pot in mere minutes, but adding all the finer details and putting it all together can take hours or even days to complete! The level of complexity determines the time required, and that in turn determines the value of the pot. Some of his finer pots go for thousands!

He learned from his father, who learned from his father, who learned his father, and down the line. And the skill only seems to improve with each new generation!

Yixing pots are the most famous Chinese clay pots by far, but the semi-secret craft of clay pot making is still very much alive in Chaozhou. Only those with local connections or a true passion for Chinese tea culture would even know of Chaozhou teapots, and to have one means you know a thing or two about tea culture!

To have one hand-made by a master you know by name, well that’s a different story all together. Mr. Wu’s skills are only improving with time. He says his style is changing as he gets older, and he hopes to one day match his masterful grandfather in skill. In good-old Chinese tradition, he won’t be considered a full master until he’s put his time in on this earth and earned the title.

We’re happy to be able to help him further his career and family legacy. It will be interesting to see how his art develops through the years, as China and Chaozhou continue to develop and combine modernization with ancient traditions.

 
Tea Masters (8)Mr. Deng is an Yixing local and grew up in the teapot-making culture of the region. He, his wife, and his brother run a porcelain factory which makes parts for industrial use. He’s left the day-to-day management of the factory to them so he can focus fully on his true passion, making Yixing clay teapots.

He studied for years, under a master, to learn the fundamentals of the craft. More recently he’s been focused on the subtleties of the craft. He, like many Chinese, is very humble. Whenever he receives praise for his amazingly skillful and carefully crafted pots, he politely declines the compliment and changes the subject. He has been at it for more than a decade, yet, as is the custom, he will not reach the Official Level of Master until he’s put in decades of work and been judged by his elders.

A single pot can take him a week or more to finish. He can now make a round pot in half a day or so, but he likes to push himself to new heights. His newest challenge is learning to master the square pot, which takes a thousand strokes on a single side to smooth out, and that’s after perfectly forming the base shape. After he can masterfully produce fine square designs with ease, he then plans to master the most difficult design: The long-handled teapot.

Mr. Deng’s meticulous work is something to behold. He sits in his little studio in downtown Yixing all day, with just a simple tool set and a desk lamp. Hundreds of his pots are on display in glass cases along the sides of his studio. He spends the day focused intently on his work, unfazed by the busy traffic just outside his door. He’s at it all day, too, only looking up to smile and say hello if someone pops their head into his workshop.

We were introduced through a friend, and Mr. Deng sent his son to pick us up from the train station, though we’d only spoken on the phone at that point. He and his family were warm and welcoming to us strangers from the beginning.

As famous as Yixing is for its teapots, they don’t seem to get a lot of tourist stopping in to the actual heart of the city. As is often the case in China, the local government has set up a tourist town outside the actual city, where busloads of tour groups pile out to marvel at the local culture and pay through the nose for “authentic purple clay” Yixing teapots. Mr. Deng informed us that the original purple clay is all used up or in the hands of individual teapot-making masters. He warned that any “authentic” Yixing purple clay teapots selling for less than thousands is not genuine. Today they use dyes and chemicals to mimic the original purple look, so be warned when it comes to picking an Yixing teapot.

He and his family were very happy to have us visit with them and learn about their homeland. They even offered to let us stay in their home, but we settled on having lunch at their house instead. His wife is a wonderful cook and full of stories about life in the Yixing region. It’s pretty funny to see the contrast between Mr. Deng and his wife, as he is very soft-spoken, and she easily dominates any conversation. Their son, though he says he’s not much interested in the old culture and teapot making, was also surprisingly knowledgeable about Yixing and made a wonderful guide.

The Deng’s told us to consider them family, which was very touching, and we will certainly be back to visit our new family soon.

 

Tea Masters (15)Mr. Wang is a character, to say the least. He’s what Xianna likes to call a “typical Chaoshan big man”.

He chain smokes, he jokes (often dirty) constantly, he’s full of energy, he can’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds, he’s like a mouse darting around, he knows everyone in Chaozhou and everything about its culture, he can down a cup of boiling-hot tea in a second… oh yeah, and the only beer he drinks is Heineken. On top of all this, he’s a great guide that expects nothing in return for his services.

We met Mr. Wang through a friend of a friend who told us this guy knows everything about Chaozhou, and he didn’t disappoint! When he heard there was a group (with a foreigner) looking to meet people in the Chaozhou tea industry, he and his friend drove right over to meet us. Within seconds we were in their car and getting a tour of what he considered the best spots in the city.

We met many local artists and artisans through him, and they drove us all over town. We topped off the day by having an extravagant dinner, and it was some of the best Chinese food we’ve ever had! Apparently Hong Kongers come to Chaozhou in droves just to see the Gongfu tea culture and do foodie tours. He also ordered a dozen beers without asking who was drinking and ended up finishing more than half of them himself!

He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and anything is fair game for a joke, dirty or otherwise. He likes to talk himself up too, but in an almost comically obvious fashion that makes everybody laugh out loud. The laughter doesn’t seem to phase him, however, as if he his self-admiration is just another joke of his.

It’s hard to get a read on Mr. Wang at first because he comes on very strong and shows you his true personality from the beginning, which most people don’t expect. Traveling China for years, we’ve seen our fair share of scams and shady businessmen looking to make a quick score, and they usually talk fast and talk big. Our first introduction to Mr. Wang was such a whirlwind that we were in his car before we knew what was happening. When we finally got a chance to talk amongst ourselves in the back seat, we were sure he was taking us to some out-of-the-way factory, just so he could make a commission. Boy were we wrong!

He might be a typical Chaoshan big man, but he was a wonderful host and took us exactly where we wanted to go and exactly where he said he would take us. We had a great time with him, and we’ll be sure to meet up for fine dining, Heineken, and of course tea drinking.

 

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