Loose Leaves, Open Ends - Part II
Part 2. Winding Pathway, Humble Master
Missed Part I? Follow this way.
Ok, where were we? I had received a vague invitation via text to ‘talk about tea’ in an area of China I’d hardly ever heard of, and I was expected in Pu’er, to visit Marty’s team at Torch Coffee Labs. All traveling to and fro was likely going to be up to me to figure out, including hotel stays, local navigation in a foreign language, and any other negotiations that an international cross-country trek might unexpectedly include. I like to think I’m pretty good at adapting to situations, but these were big asks—I was feeling in over my head already.
That pressure made it seem even more serendipitous, then, when I met a new friend by the name of Sibyl (Lu Qing Qing). We had run into each other on a language learning app that paired native speakers of different languages to exchange culture and language skills. Sibyl was just out of college, and wanted to expand on the English she had learned in school, as well as connect with people from countries beyond China. As we navigated language barriers, I told her about the upcoming trip of China, my hopes for the people I might meet, and my goals for bringing sustainable tea sourcing back to Minnesota.
Dear friend and English extraordinaire, Sibyl
Sibyl really took to the idea of the adventure. Having not seen much of China outside her home province of Shandong, she asked if she might tag along to serve as a translator and navigator. I was more than excited for her to join the ranks of the journey. My Chinese was about as proficient as a native 3 year old, while Sibyl spoke English with the eloquence of a 10 year old. We decided to look at it as a combined 13 years of experience, though, which really added up to a recipe for success.
She saved the trip—none of it would’ve come together without her. Knowing I could rely on her help, I boarded a flight with high hopes and an open mind.
I’m finally there, feeling a lot riding on my shoulders. I knew I could offer some expertise in the field of coffee, but I figured my tea credentials could seem a bit less legit to anybody who really knew what they were talking about. But I didn’t get too discouraged by this. I love that feeling of being in a brand new domain—the boundless chaotic possibilities are exhilarating to me. Despite everything, I felt ready to do whatever this was going to be.
Overeager me and always-ready Sibyl out of Beijing
Sibyl met me at the Beijing Airport. From there, we set off to see my friend Sam Bydlon—the friend I met over the bartop at Wesley Andrews. Sam graciously toured us around his favorite places in Beijing. After walking the city a while, we had to make a move toward one of our destinations. Since neither invitation was to an actual tea farm, we tried to figure out what route through China was most likely to bring us the opportunities we hoped for along the way. Beijing being in the northern half of China, and therefore much closer to Dalian than to Pu’er, was the almost arbitrary deciding factor. It seemed to make sense to visit this Peter character in Dalian, and cross our fingers that doors would open along the way.
A ticket to adventure
Peter got a hold of us once we had reached Dalian—he wanted to meet up at a local cafe. The shop was positively tiny, Sibyl and I were a third of the shop’s entire capacity. The joint was run by a Canadian named Brian, a friend of Peter’s in the area. After hearing the reason we were there, Brian clues us in a little bit as to just who we were here to meet up with. Apparently he was incredibly involved in the tea industry, but had the air of being involved in a lot of different industries and practices. He was a loyal friend that could be counted on, as Brian had found firsthand when he first moved to the area from overseas. And the guy was really sharp. Those were the three things we knew about him before he came through the doors.
Peter tosses us some baozi (steamed buns), and cracks the conversation by instantly inviting us to accompany him to a wine convention in the area. Obviously, we accept, though this was an even faster sweep into the fold than I anticipated. Peter’s friend picks us up in less than ten minutes, and Kuai Le Kuai Le (quickly quickly) the day develops. We arrive at the convention space, and instantly it becomes clear how out of my league this all is. Wealthy nationals loitering in the walks of wine stalls, presentations taking place in various rooms throughout the building, and tons of pamphlets whose contents are hopelessly locked behind the thousands of Chinese characters I’ve yet to learn. I stick as close to Peter as possible, who seemed intrigued only one of the seminars taking place. Sibyl and I follow him in, and find ourselves in a tasting. The presenter is walking us through ten different glasses of fermented reds.
An intimidating terrain
I have absolutely no clue what is being said, but Peter is well aware of my tasting experience—he’s not letting me off the hook on linguistic standards. He asks me my thoughts on each of the wines, slowly giving me hints about what is being presented through Sibyl. Then, tasting one of the flights, he puts a test to me. “Two of these wines come of the same grape, but one is dehydrated. Can you tell which?” I’m lucky that palates are cross cultural. I point out the wine that I think is dehydrated, and Peter only nods before turning his attention back to the seminar. Throughout, he continues to ask me questions about the cups—pricing, origins, etc. I had no clue whether my answers were acceptable to him or not, but he asks us to join him for dinner with the sommeliers afterward.
The restaurant, I assume, is the best French cuisine in the area. I take in a lot of social dynamics wordlessly. The postures of each attendee, seating positions, wardrobe—all of it tells a story, and the most interesting one is Peter’s. He’s the only one (besides Sibyl and I) not in formal attire. He’s in shorts and a t-shirt. His posture is open, relaxed, comfortable, and he hardly seems worried to contribute anything to the ongoing conversation. And yet, after every few sentences or so, a glance is given his way, as if the other attendees are constantly seeking his regard. Eventually the trigger word, cha (tea), wakes my senses, and I try to tune in as best I can. As the conversation shifts, it begins to make sense to me. I don’t quite know how to describe why…it’s not that my vocabulary was stronger in this topic or anything…it’s just that, with tea, as well as with any other world of sensory information, there’s a unique flow that you can pick up on.
Someone noticed that I was keen, and asked about whether I understood any of what was being said. Once more through Sibyl, I answer that the conversation was revolving the unique connections between tea and wine, in both flavor and production, describing a few of the details that resonated with the cadence of their discussion. Everyone was shocked (myself the most) that I was basically dead on. But I didn’t magically become fluent through a lucky bit of intuition—and so I zoned back out into observing posture and dynamics afterward. As the meal wrapped up, everyone was invited to Peter’s house for a tea class the next day.
The next day, we were asked to arrive at Peter’s house around noon. Peter’s wife, Jennifer (English name) greets us and shows us around the house. She is a doctor in Dalian, and Peter claims her palate to be even sharper than his own when it comes to green teas. The house itself is beautiful. Natural stone inlayed in the floor, warm wood hugs the walls and banisters, while eastern sculpture work dabs the edges. The entry is centered around a large wooden table, meant to bring tea tasting and hosting to the forefront of visitors’ stays. Upstairs a path winds through a greenhouse, until finally arriving at a long, communal table—more hosting spaces. I marvel at the house’s ethos. This is a place meant for sharing and hospitality.
Peter (left) and Jennifer (right) at home in Dalian
Back downstairs, Peter has begun his presentation for the sommeliers. This time, though, the tasting cups are filled with coffee grounds. Brian is there, too, who is helping to translate Peter’s presentation to me, all the while offering some of his own insights.
Brian getting coffee aromas
The day then turns to tea. Peter places some varieties on the hosting table—sheng pu erh and shou pu erh. He briefly explains the differences between them, then the general process of tea tasting. After a few minutes, however, Sibyl and Brian’s translations begin to become a bit more sparse, and Peter’s dialogue starts to far outweigh the amount of English I’m hearing from my partners. I’m getting the feeling that certain details are being omitted from me. When we finally step up to begin the tasting, I understand why. Peter gives me a direct instruction.
“I want you to rate each of these teas in terms of buying price.” Another test, but unlike the wine examinations, this one has real stakes. Tea was the reason we were here—this was a making or breaking point in the journey.
I carefully examine the teas, taking in their unique hues and aromas. Then feeling them in my fingers, until finally tasting the steep. I’m nervous, but I have to come to a decision. I give Peter my response, hoping not to have come here for nothing. Two of the teas were a medium quality: cheaply priced, without any outstanding defects present in their cups. Two of the teas were of a premium quality, but one is easier on the palate than the next. “This cup is easier to sip—I like it more. However, this cup is the most expensive of the lot, with more unique characteristics.” Peter hears my responses, and gives me an approving nod. I couldn’t believe it—I was in.
The tests continue until dinner; I pass a few and fail a few, too. But Peter asks me to come back over the next morning to talk. When I do, we sit around a small cylindrical stove. It has an air shoot at the bottom to fan coals over the top, and Peter slowly fans the contraption as it heats a tea kettle placed on top. This method of tea brewing goes back to the Song Dynasty, and is still prevalent in Guangzhou, where Peter grew up. Over tea, he tells me about his life, about the path that led him to Dalian, about the dreams he has to become a linking force between tea, coffee, and wine produced in China. Jennifer comes in and joins us. She tells me that Peter very rarely drinks tea in this way, due to the sentimental nature it has for him. It’s something he saves for very happy occasions. I’m honored to be sitting there, far across the world from home—and the absurdity that I’ve been invited this intimately into another’s space humbles me.
Then Peter asks if I want to apprentice under him.
“The master-apprentice relationship is like father and son. When you are in China, I will be your shifu, and you will take what you learn back with you to America.” I graciously accept, caught in the moment, humbled once again.
“So then, what are your plans for the rest of the trip?”
I admit that my only other destination is Torch, and I had planned to make my way there slowly, and simply see where the winding road went. Peter cuts in before I can explain.
“So easy!—” (His favorite English phrase) “—you will go to Rizhao, then Qingdao. I have friends there who will meet you—show you their farms. You can buy tea from them if you like, but what’s important is that you observe the differences between the two areas. They are very close together, but produce very distinct teas from one another. Then, get to Kunming, and take a bus down to Pu’er—I have more tea farmers there you should meet, and a coffee farmer as well.”
"—like father and son."
I’ve often said that having no plan is the best plan. But here, I couldn’t have been more wrong—because this was the best plan. Definitely this. Sibyl and I began to make our way through the winding roads of rural China, stopping off along the way at different farms, taking in the scenery, and being swept off our feet by the beauty of it all. At every stop along the way, we were welcomed with open arms, delicious teas, and thoughtfully prepared meals. I began to understand and respect the reciprocity that Peter had garnered with each of his friends. Every reception was another proof of Brian’s original description—Peter’s reputation among his peers and friends was one of affection and respect. We toured tea gardens, learned and processed teas with the farmers, had tea tastings in private homes, and talked late into the night, until our trip finally found us in Pu’er.
Stops through a welcoming countryside
Marty met us at Torch Coffee Labs, and our pilgrimage was finally at an end. There was one last surprise waiting for us, though. Marty explained that he wasn’t much of a tea expert, though his coffee knowledge had connected him with the local growers in the area.
“There’s a local lady I know who comes by. She grows coffee, but she also keeps a tea garden. I can send you to her, if you’re interested in connecting.”
This is how we meet Ying. Ying has two small tea farms (4 and 6 hectares respectively) and a small coffee farm (4 hectares). She is about 70, and is perfectly fluent in English. As it turns out, she started these farms as a retirement project after a long career in Beijing’s international finance industry. Why the sudden shift in direction at what some would call the sunset of life? Well, because her friends and family wanted to drink organic tea, and knew they couldn’t trust any of the certifications on the general market. Only a small portion of a farm has to be organic in order for the whole operation to be considered organic (it’s a dicey, long-winded topic for another day). So Ying decided to buy some farms, turn them fully organic, and begin tenaciously learning how to process teas. She learned all kinds of processing, too—Blacks, Sheng Pu Erhs, Shou Pu Erhs, Whites, Oolongs.
She had a full quiver of tea leaves, but one in particular really spoke to us. It was called the Moonlight White Tea. When I tasted it, I was brought back to the first coffee we ever got right at the Roastery, from Don Cesar in Costa Rica. After so much trial and error (when you’re just starting out, it’s more like trial and error and error and error), there’s a special, indescribable moment where you know you’ve finally hit the bullseye, and discovered something great. You could sense this exact feeling in Ying’s tea. Nowadays, she is producing black teas, pu erhs, and even yellow teas, all with the craftsmanship of a true master. I am honored that our meeting has brought a true friendship between us, and that she considers me one of the friends and family she started the farms in order to sell to.
Sinensis fields forever
So now, we returned to Pu’er. The trip was finally coming to a close. So many things to try and describe and tell, but this is already likely too much. Mostly, what I want to describe is how lucky and grateful I am to have been taken on such a miraculous trip. There is a certain responsibility it takes when going forward after a life experience like this one: it requires careful stewardship of the gifts that have been given to you, even if they are as ethereal as the simple intimacy of somebody’s evening. Returning to America, I knew I wanted to do everything I could to hold onto the things I had been taught with care and respect. That’s something I’m still always thinking about in the day-and-day of Wesley Andrews.
Back in the trip a bit, before I left Dalian, Peter left me with a generous amount of tea from his personal collection, including that Sheng Pu Erh I enjoyed so much. He asked that I share the teas with my guests and friends, and introduce them to “good soup”. And while those teas have been used up and appreciated in the two years since my first trip to China, this is the same spirit we work in now—the same spirit we have as we look to open another new chapter in our tea journey as a company in the late winter of this new year.
As we size up 2022 and find ourselves once more able to source tea from our friends after the harsh difficulties of harvesting in 2020 and 2021, we want to bring this same lent hospitality to our friends and neighbors in Minnesota and beyond.
In the coming months, we will be introducing Ying’s teas to Minnesota once again, alongside other leaf varieties in partnership with our other farming friends Sibyl and I met while traveling those Chinese backroads.
Everything is a collaboration, and a beautiful coming together of hands. I still talk with Ying and Peter, despite having been hard-pressed to visit since COVID-19 has changed the world for a while. Sibyl is now an essential ongoing part of Wesley Andrews. She continues her tea training with Peter in Dalian, and handles all the preparation and shipping processes for our tea orders across the Pacific. And Marty’s team took Sam, our coffee director, under their wings for a while, too. Nothing about what we do would really work out if it weren’t for all of this help coming from all parts of the world. I, and the rest of us at Wesley Andrews as well, hope most of all to share the work of all of these people.
Thank you for reading.