A Journey Through the World of Tea

Featured Company

Featured Tea Company: Samovar

First of all let me start by apologizing for the rather long hiatus. With school and my father being sick, things got a little busy. Thank you to all of those for the prayers and wishes.

Today’s post is something I am rather excited about, today’s featured tea company is Samovar. For a little history on Samovar and how it came to be you can read their story here.

I’d like to thank Jesse for taking some time to answer a few questions.

Where are you located?

San Francisco

From what Country’s do you get your tea from?

China, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa, United States, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos

What do the customers mean to your company?

Everything. There is no company without our customers. We exist to share the tea experience with our customers.

What are some of the difficulties with selling tea?

Teaching people that good tea is so simple.

This is a three-parter. What tea does every one order?What  tea would you suggest for tea newbies?What is your most uniquetea?

1.They are all different, just like every person is different.

2.Ryokucha, Earl Grey, Ocean of Wisdom, Downy Sprout, Nocturnal bliss, Samovar breakfast blend, Moorish Mint

3.Nishi Sencha, Bai Hao Oolong, Masala Chai, Ryokucha, Royal Garland, Maiden’s Ecstacy

What makes your tea company unique?

We are not a tea company. We are a company that is here to foster positive human connection. Tea is our vehicle, and the means which we achieve our mission: creating this connection. We are also unique in the deep artisan relations we have with our suppliers, and, the fact that we are the only tea company in the country with the high caliber of tea that we offer, and make available in 3 urban locations, and on a website.

In three words, can your sum up the culture of your company?

Positive Human Connection.

What is the companies mission?

See above. Also, please check out our mission page which speaks to our unique culture.

Be sure to check out Samovar on Facebook and Twitter.


Featured Tea Company: Imperial Tea Court

Q- What’s the history behind the company, how did you get your start?
A- The original Imperial Tea Court opened in San Francisco Chinatown in 1993. It was started by Grace and Roy Fong. Grace is a native of Beijing while Roy is from Hong Kong and was previously working as a tea wholesaler. They opened Imperial Tea Court to bring the finest Chinese teas and tea ware as well as their experience of traditional Chinese tea houses and tea culture to North American tea lovers.

Q- Where are you located?
A- While the original Chinatown tea house has closed, there are two Imperial Tea Courts in the Bay Area, one in the San Francisco Ferry Building and another in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, adjacent to Chez Panisse. In addition, the spirit and fine teas of Imperial Tea Court are available to a global audience on the Imperial Tea web site.

Q- From what countries do you get your tea?
A- Imperial Tea Court is focused on the finest green, oolong, and puerh teas from China. These teas are personally selected by Roy Fong on buying trips to China. Unlike most Chinese tea vendors in the U.S., we do not rely on middlemen. Because of customer interest we also offer a few top-quality Japanese and Indian teas. In addition, Roy is preparing newly acquired ranch land in Northern California as a tea farm. We look forward to offering customers some unique California-grown teas when the plants are mature in a few years.

Q- What do the customers mean to your company?
A- It’s all about the customers! Our greatest pleasure is opening the eyes of Western tea lovers who may not know about the extraordinary history of tea culture in China and the exquisitely rare and delicious historic teas of China.

Q- What are some of the difficulties with selling tea?
A- One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the common view of tea as a quick, cheap beverage. It’s a tribute to the tea plant that even the processing remnants that are used in commercial teabags have a pleasant, refreshing taste. Imagine how much more potential there is in fine tea leaves carefully picked and processed by trained professionals. Cognoscenti in China pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars per pound for the rare teas that we offer in our tea houses.

Q- This is a three-parter. What tea does everyone order? What tea would you suggest for tea newbies? What is your most unique tea?
A- Our two most popular teas are our Organic Everyday Green, a delicious and affordable green tea with the additional health benefit that it’s certified organic, and Roy Fong’s signature Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, a richly flavorful oolong tea that Roy personally processes with traditional firing techniques. For newbies we recommend the Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin. Packed with flavor and aroma with both floral and roasted notes, this tea appeals to a wide range of palates and is truly an awakening, for people used to teabags, about what they’ve been missing in terms of fine tea. Our most unique tea is unquestionably our incredibly rare Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple-Tip Puerh, which was produced entirely from the first leaf-buds of a grove of ancient wild puerh tea trees deep in the tropical forest of China’s Yunnan Province. The leaves are so full of nutrients that they’re actually a reddish purple color, rather than green, and the tea tastes sweet and fruity with no bitterness. This tea is delicious to drink now but will continue to improve with age over many decades, similar to Bordeaux wine.

Q- What makes your tea company unique?
A- What truly sets us apart is Roy Fong’s 25 years of experience in Chinese tea markets, his deep contacts with Chinese tea producers that give him access to teas that simply aren’t available to the average buyer, and our commitment to offer some of the world’s finest traditional Chinese teas to our customers.

Q- In three words, can your sum up the culture of your company?
A- Our tagline says it all: “Experience the tradition.”

Q- What is the company’s mission?
A- Our mission is to share some of the world’s rarest and finest tea with our customers and spread the appreciation of Chinese tea culture around the globe.

Be sure to check Imperial Tea Court on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured Tea Company: Chicago Tea Garden

Q- Chicago Tea Garden, how did it come to be?
A- In 2005 I was fortunate enough to join a trip through my university to China. We spent 40 days roaming around China, the last 10 days I spent by myself starting from Hangzhou and ending in Beijing. Tea was everywhere, men were playing mahjong on street side sipping from gaiwans, tiny shops on nearly every corner served tea gongfu style. I happened upon a small tea shop south of the forbidden city in Beijing where a woman taught me the gongfu tea ceremony, she did not speak English and I did not speak mandrin – tea bridged the language barrier. Later, in 2008 I backpacked most of Southeast Asia, I started in Fiji and traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and India. Each country had tea and their own culture surrounding it. When I came back to the states, I wanted nothing more than to spread the culture and history behind great tea.

Q- Where do your teas come from?
A- Many of our teas come direct from small farmers in Japan and China, the pu-erhs were purchased by David Lee Hoffman and were aged in his man-made tea caves in California.

Q- What do the customers mean to your company?
A- Without my customers, Chicago Tea Garden wouldn’t exist. I have made many friends through my business, and I treat my customers as if they were my good friends. So to answer the question, my customers are my friends.

Q- What makes Chicago Tea Garden unique?
A- We are able to sell many unique teas that some larger companies cannot sell due to availability. We buy in small quantities, many times — we are buying all that a farmer has to offer. Larger companies have a greater demand – so they must buy in huge quantities, top quality tea is not always available in such quantities. We hope that we find our business to be scalable by adding more teas to the selection.

Q-  In three words, can your sum up the culture of your company?
A- peace, love, tea

Q- This is a three-parter. What tea does every one order? What tea would you suggest for tea newbies? What is your most unique tea?
A- Surprisingly enough, there is not one tea that everyone orders, it varies from order to order and some teas peak as reviews are written online, or if a tea becomes popular on Steepster. For a tea newbie, I suggest our Golden Bi Luo. It is a yunnan black tea and it has been good at changing people’s minds about black tea when they are used to bagged black tea. For starters with pu-erh I recommend our Camel’s Breath pu-erh tuocha or our Wild Orange pu-erh. In general though — all of our pu-erhs can be a considered beginner pu-erhs. I don’t consider myself a pu-erh expert. I think that I would have to live several lifetimes in order to become a pu-erh expert and to offer a selection competitive to a store like Yunnan Sourcing. Our most unique tea of the moment is our Kamairi Cha, it is a pan-fired green tea from Japan hand-made by a man well-known in Japan for producing this type of tea. This is the first time his tea has been sold in America. (Can’t forget the New Zealand Oolong too!)

Q- What is the mission of Chicago Tea Garden?
A- To provide the best quality teas we can find at an affordable price while respecting and supporting the farmer.

Don’t forget to Like them on Facebook or Follow on Twitter.

Featured Company: Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations

Q- How did Obubu Tea Farms come to be? What’s your History?
A- Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations was established in 2004 by Akihiro Kita (our president/farmer) and Yasuharu Matsumoto (our VP/sales manager), but the story goes back much further. Akihiro, or Akky, was a college student in the early 90s searching for his calling. He took a part-time job working in the fields of a tea farmer in Wazuka one summer, and tasted farm fresh tea for the first time. This was raw tea, or aracha—tea leaves before they have been sorted and blended by middlemen. This was tea that only farmers get the chance to drink with all parts of the leaf including the leaf stems and leaf hairs. Akky fell in love and made tea farming his life’s work.

A decade later, Akky was ready to begin selling his own tea, and decided that tea lovers should also have the opportunity to drink the tea that he fell in love with. At the same time, Japan was beginning to realize that long-term trends in aging, population decline, and urbanization meant that the agriculture industry, which was kept largely in the hands of independent, small farmers by Japanese land laws, was disappearing. Farmers were getting older, and their children were moving to the cities for less physical lifestyles.

In Wazuka where Akky had learned to farm, the town was predicting that the already elderly population would reduce by more than half by 2030. In Wazuka, where tea had been grown for 800 years, a question was on everyone’s minds: Would there be anyone left to farm tea?

Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations was formed in this context to not only begin marketing farm fresh tea to tea lovers in Japan, but to “make farming fun”—our mission statement—raising consumer awareness of farmers, and hopefully inspire a new generation of tea farmers.

At the same time, Yasuharu, or “Matsu”, felt that Japanese tea should not be limited to Japan, but could be a major contributor to global tea culture. He initiated annual tea tasting tours around the world, and in 2009 he met Ian Chun, a freelance marketer who had just moved to the U.S. after a decade in Japan. Akky, Matsu and Ian collaborated to create Obubu’s English website and began efforts to bring more foreigners to the tea fields through private and group tours, and internships.

Q- Where are you located?
A- Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations is located in the town of Wazuka in southernmost part of Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Tea grown in the Kyoto region of Japan is known as Ujicha, for the city of Uji made famous by the Tale of Genji. Wazuka valley itself is famous for producing the highest quality of Uji sencha, but does not produce gyokuro tea very well. The town is about 1.5 hours by train and bus from Kyoto, and about 30 minutes by train and bus from the ancient city of Nara. The difference that hour makes from city to countryside is dramatic!

Q- How does Japanese tea culture differ from other tea cultures? How does your company share Japanese culture with the world?
A- While tea in Japanese culture is a fascinating topic that I would love to go into, I’m going to assume you are asking about the culture of Japanese tea. The most obvious difference from a Western point of view is that you might have dozens of different teas in a shop, or even bottled teas in a supermarket, and they would all be unsweetened, unblended (with fruit and other flavors) green tea. People in Japan appreciate differences in the taste of green teas that are too subtle for most Western tea drinkers. So, when you get into premium quality green teas where even Japanese have a difficult time discerning the subtle differences…

The other interesting thing about Japanese tea is that it also includes a lot of non-tea leaf teas: different kinds of wheat teas, cherry blossom tea, corn tea…yes, corn tea (okay, maybe corn tea is a novelty adopted from Korea).

Our company’s secondary mission is to spread the culture of Japanese tea around the world. We started doing this by traveling to Europe and America to give tea tastings during the winter off-season, and partnered with Matcha Latte Media early this year to launch ObubuTea to finally sell our tea directly to tea lovers. Ian at Matcha Latte Media is furiously translating the content that we have on our website, and often questions us about knowledge that we take for granted here in Japan.

Q- What make Obubu Tea Farms unique?
A- First and foremost, Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations is unique because we sell tea farm fresh—at a state before it gets lost in the leaves of other farms at brokers and blenders. For experienced Japanese green tea drinkers, the difference will be obvious—the tea is stronger when steeped for shorter times. For inexperienced drinkers, rest assured knowing that you are not getting sencha with low quality leaves blended in to increase volume. Because each sencha tea comes from a different field, you will also be able to compare the result of different growing techniques—shaded vs unshaded vs fields of Yabukita plants vs mixed variety fields.

However, what is most important to us is the fact that we are attempting to speak and interact with the tea loving public directly. To this end, we also encourage people to support us by subscribing to our Tea Club. In Japan, club members are encouraged to think of themselves as tea field owners, with their monthly subscription paying for a return of tea sent every two months. As “owners” the club members are also encouraged to come and visit their tea fields, and we hold many events every year to teach and raise awareness of tea farming. Outside of Japan, of course, we try to avoid the legal ramifications of marketing club membership as tea field ownership, but the basic concept is the same.

Q- What difficulties do you face when if comes to selling tea?
A- Businesswise, avoiding large-scale distribution is challenging. There are two reasons for avoiding large-scale distribution: 1) in order to maintain a more direct relationship with customers and 2) the delicacy of the tea leaves means that stock should be refrigerated if not frozen until sale. Premium quality tea has not reached a level yet where large retailers are willing to have a refrigerated area for teas.

Not blending our teas also means we (well, mostly Akky as he is the farmer) need to work hard to ensure consistency and quality in each year’s crops. Brokers and other middlemen blend their teas in Japan in order to both create a unique taste to their senchas but also to maintain consistency. The practice shelters consumers and forces farmers to bear the risk of bad weather, plant disease, insects, etc. It sounds cruel of course, but this is standard practice throughout the world in all industries, and in the end, is good business practice for everyone on the whole. Still, we encourage you to always support local farmers (and their workers) by buying local when possible.

Q- What tea does everybody seem to order?
A- We’ve been pushing our Genmaicha pretty hard lately, and have had great response. We don’t use bancha but rather our Sencha of the Autumn Moon which means our Genmaicha is just a little bit of a luxury. Our most expensive tea, Kabuse Sencha, would be the next best selling—those in the know want the best!

The next thing we’re going to put on the market is matcha tea powder for baking. We have a Premium version of the kitchen grade matcha, but it’s still quite expensive. Our new version will be using a different, more rough, grinding process which will allow us to produce in greater volume while retaining a reasonable level of quality for baking purposes. There aren’t enough matcha roll cakes at bakeries here in the U.S.!

Q- What is the Mission behind your company?
A- 1) To make farming fun by creating connections between consumers and producers
2) To contribute to the spread of tea culture by introducing Japanese tea and providing advice to other farmers around the world

Kyoto Obubu Tea Plantations has been kind enough to give our readers a special 10% discount on their products by entering the code: Tyros10 in the coupon field when you check out.

Also be sure to check them out on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured Company: Utopian Tea

Q – What’s the history behind the company, how did you get your start?
A – Utopian Tea is relatively new, as far as our site going live this April, 2010, however planning started about 9 months prior, sometime in 2009. As someone who has had an entrepreneurial mindset and experience since the age of 10, I’ve put years of reading all of the business magazines, books, practices, and past experiences into full gear the past few years, trying my hand at looking for something about to get big, specific to this day in age, where creating a business on that something would put myself ahead of the game, before it’s too late.

Last summer, I realized that that something is one thing I’ve always loved, loose leaf tea. I was on a roll, ready to learn the business end of the tea industry – I spent months learning about every single wholesale tea company I could find in America & Asia. I talked to owners of a local tea bar about their sources of teas. After learning more about them and actually finding myself talking to actual individual tea plantation owners (some of which are not at all fluent in English), it was an easy choice to stay far away from wholesalers, and only do business with real tea providers in Asia, directly from the plantation. During this time, I tested several teas that American-based online tea companies offer, and decided that I’d only obtain higher quality tea, for competitive advantage, and simply to only provide excellent product to fellow tea enthusiasts.

I also created my second tea site, TeaHacker, that would exist for several reasons, mainly to force myself to research tea to an even deeper level, while sharing my finding with new and seasoned tea enthusiasts. Once I narrowed down the samples I’ve received from my chosen tea providers, I was ready to order several kilograms of the highest quality of each type of tea I found would suit best as the first wave of teas to start Utopian Tea. I develop my own sites, and learning the ins and outs of an e-commerce style site while applying psychological understanding to the design details was a project all of its own. After nearly a year of gathering information and putting it into use, Utopian Tea was born.

Q – Where are you located?
A – We’re based in Charlotte, NC and the surrounding area of Lake Norman. The behind-the-scenes work takes place in a few prime spots around here, whether it’s the facilities we store the tea (long-term & short-term locations), which of us are packaging tea for the given week, maintaining the website, and keeping relationships at full with our great tea providers. I take care of making sure that everyone who orders our teas has the best experience and speedy shipping.

Q – From what Country’s do you get your tea from?
A -Our current oolong & green teas come from plantations based in the Fujian Province & Wuyi Mountains in China. We’ve got plans to expand our tea selection, and depending on which kinds we choose, new locations will be added to this list.

Q – What are some of the difficulties with selling tea?
A – The biggest difficulty isn’t so much the actual selling of tea, but the fact that tea is an international industry, communicating with tea suppliers in Asia isn’t as efficient as it would be working with American tea suppliers, primarily due to language and time differences. Collaborating a new purchase of certain teas from certain suppliers, or building relationships with new plantations can be a tedious and timely process. It’s a game of its own, really. Luckily, I’m fascinated with this type of interactions, seeing that there’s so much to learn, and they’re always very well-prepared, professional, and very happy to let us sample new teas before we buy them. It’s well worth the extra effort, since tea quality is extraordinarily high-grade.

Q – What does everyone order?
A – Our oolongs sell more than the greens we now offer, but everyone simply orders what they are more into on a personal level. Since everyone has their different tastes and expectations, some claim our Green Spiral or White Monkey Paw teas are their favorite teas for life, while others say the same about our oolongs. Our tea’s are very special in their own ways, however our premium grade Iron Goddess of Mercy has gained the most hype as most peoples’ favorite.

Q – What is the companies mission?
A – Utopian Tea’s purpose is to provide two things better than anyone else: Exceptional Service, and Premium Quality Tea, at better prices. Modernizing tea, while helping people ensue a minimalist approach towards tea, as well as life, is another goal. Too many companies have fairly mediocre tea, bought from American wholesalers, wrapped in commercialized, flashy packaging, given a catchy name, then sold for a price well beyond the actual tea’s worth. These places target consumers who don’t know better. We do the opposite – provide the highest quality tea in very simple, minimalist & eco-friendly pouches, keeping the price of our better stuff easily accessible. This is to keep focus on the actual tea itself, without any unnecessary distraction. We simply obsess about providing excellent, sometimes surprising service to fellow tea enthusiasts, while inviting more people who are new to this wave of tea culture.

I’ve personally been amazed by green tea in 1st grade, when our teacher brought back some sencha and steeped some for our entire class, and shared about her trip to Japan and some history on tea. I was fascinated with tea at an early age, and since then I’ve been in-the-know about this sub-culture of Asian tea, direct from the source. Now I enjoy providing this tea at Utopian Tea, and sharing what tremendous teas we’ve come across.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions and share some of our culture at Utopian Tea.

– Stephen Wise
CEO of Utopian Tea

Visit Utopian Tea’s website and connect with them via Twitter and Facebook.