A Thirst for Tea Knowledge Leads to Asia

January 31, 2012 – PETE DULIN, Special to The Star. Two Kansas City tea entrepreneurs travel to Asia to steep themselves in ways to grow, process and serve an ancient beverage.

Silver Needle King and Jasmine Snow Dragon sound as exotic as their origins.

Kansas City tea merchants Zehua Shang and Paula Winchester have each traveled to mountainside farms in Asia where these premium loose leaf teas grow. Long journeys to China and Taiwan enable them to learn and share firsthand knowledge of how tea is harvested and produced.

The adventure is a stimulating experience from farm to teacup.

The Tao of tea

Zehua Shang bows his head toward a petite cup, inhales the fragrance of white tea carefully aged two years and sips the russet-colored liquid. Sitting in his Crown Center shop, Shang Tea, he understands firsthand the time and effort it takes to savor white tea that is grown on his family’s 20-acre farm in Fujian Province on China’s southeastern coast.

Compared to the black and green varieties that account for 99.5 percent of all tea consumed in the U.S., white tea is a drop in the tea pot. According to the Tea Association of the USA, over 154 million Americans drink tea on any given day. For Shang, that number means plenty of opportunity exists to introduce people near and far to the merits of his tea.

White tea originates from three counties in a region of Taimu Shan, or White Tea Mountain, within Fujian Province. Established 2,600 feet above sea level just below the summit, Shang’s farm is situated at the highest elevation of nearby tea farms. A steep, stone-lined path leads to the farm where tea bushes are arranged in rows along terraced plots. A scenic mountain range, alpine lake, ponds and rivers surround the farm. Pure mountain air, water and soil contribute to the tea’s high quality.

“Because the air is so cold, the tea bushes grow slowly,” Shang says. “The flavor is more concentrated.”

Shang based his retail tea business in Kansas City for personal and practical purposes. He met his girlfriend, Shannon, in 2000 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was studying English and was invited to work as an assistant to the director of ethnography. He married Shannon a year later. Originally Shang considered San Francisco, Chicago and other cities to launch his tea shop, but decided to settle in his wife’s hometown.

“Kansas City was more affordable to start a business,” he says.

Now Shang and his wife balance the challenges of work, home and raising two daughters throughout the year. He travels to China for month-long visits to the farm in March, May and September. There, he works 14 or more hours a day with his family and seasonal workers.

They have a small seasonal window of 75 to 80 days out of the year to harvest and process leaves destined for tea pots and cups half a world away. Working on the farm enables Shang to assess the current crop, manage the tea production process at all stages and to visit family.

“I love my job and the tea farm,” he says. “I love to work with the people there. Good tea depends on how much love you put into the tea farm.”

Shang encourages customers to sample tea in the shop before they make a purchase. He also sells tea online and provides detailed information on his website.

“I want them to try it first and make sure they like it,” he says. “Emphasizing money is against the principles of the Tao of tea. There is no rush to push the customer into buying tea.”

The Tao, or way, of tea is poetry in practice, a ritual of pouring, sipping and sharing the warmth of tea with others. Distilled to its finest qualities, Shang’s Tao involves an observance of beauty, simplicity, harmony and respect to embrace the etiquette and ideology of tea.

With each cup offered to visitors in his shop, Shang educates them about the tea’s origin, variety and flavor profile. Shang explains that white tea has less caffeine than other types of tea, soda or coffee. He adds, “High-quality tea tastes clean, smooth, soothing and flavorful.”

He wants people to gain an understanding for the Tao of tea as an approach to life. Selling his tea is part of the introduction. The cycle begins by growing and producing a superior product. Shang’s premium white tea is certified organic by Chinese authorities. He forgoes use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers because the chemicals would affect the tea’s subtle taste.

His Silver Needle King has a rounded mouth feel and mellow taste. White Peony King is silky, golden and slightly savory. Shang contracts with Chinese farmers for the fragrant jasmine and orange blossom flower buds used in some of his teas. Other flavors include wild honeysuckle and chrysanthemum grown and gathered near his farm.

Shang pauses between cups of tea to describe his farm where, at high altitude, fog forms even on sunny days like cold breath from a dragon.

“Fog descends from the mountain each day around 3 o’clock,” he says. “The air is so heavy you can hear the sound of fog as it falls.”

The tea traveler

Paula Winchester goes out of her way to make tea.

In mid-October last year, she boarded a flight in Los Angeles, crossed 14 time zones and traveled nearly 7,500 miles as the crow flies. She convened with a tea master and other students in Taipei, Taiwan, a day later to learn how to harvest and process tea — a beverage with a history nearly 5,000 years old — at three plantations during a nine-day study tour.

The adventure was her third tea-oriented trip to Asia.

She visited China in spring 2008 followed by a journey to Japan a year later. Her latest journey introduced her to oolong teas from Taiwan’s Wen Shan, Li Shan and Ali Shan regions. Located near the Tropic of Cancer, the region’s mild weather and cool mountain air is ideal for growing tea.

Winchester’s interest in tea is an extension of her love for plants.

“I love plants and nature,” she says. “It’s part of my being.”

In 1969, she launched Herb Gathering to grow and deliver fresh-cut culinary herbs to local grocery stores. She started Twelve Winds Tea Co. in 2007 to sell premium, hand-crafted loose leaf teas and tea accessories from China. Winchester’s Asian tea trips serve as part field research and part vacation from running two businesses.

During her trips, Winchester asks questions as often as she takes notes.

“Talking about plants is a time when I really shine inside,” she says. “I know a lot about plants and how they propagate.”

After harvesting, lightly bruising tea leaves by hand or machine exposes essential oils to oxygen. The degree of oxidation affects the color of the leaves, and the tea’s aroma and flavor when steeped.

When she made Sun Moon Black tea at Wen Shan tea plantation, fresh-picked leaves were withered outdoors in the sun and then sifted by hand every 15 minutes during a 90-minute process.

“The leaves stuck to my fingers as the essential oils were pressed out,” she says.

Next, while indoors, Winchester sorted 4 pounds of leaves into two piles on a bamboo tray. For hours she sifted, flipped and fluffed leaves to promote even oxidation as the floral aroma intensified. The leaves were tossed into a tumbling machine that stops the oxidation and seals the edges.

During pan-firing, leaves are placed in a stainless steel oven at 300 degrees for 5 to 6 minutes. Finally, the tea is rolled on a conveyor to reduce volume and moisture content, aged, and eventually packaged for sale and consumption.

Throughout the production cycle, the master tea artisan evaluated the aroma and texture until the leaves were ready. The entire process began at 9 a.m., continued day and night, and wasn’t completed until well after 1 a.m. the next day. Given the worldwide demand for high-quality tea from Taiwan and China, many plantations use an automated production process. Winchester experienced a tea-making ritual that is hundreds of years old, normally used to prepare only fine teas.

Winchester’s motivation for travel was not to sell tea from Taiwan, but to experience the Taiwanese way of tea.

Over the past few years, she has taken a series of classes from the Specialty Tea Institute to learn about tea. She eventually earned certification as a tea specialist but spent a small fortune in the process. To gain further expertise and learn more, she craved firsthand knowledge.

“I have to travel to see and smell the tea,” Winchester says. “I wanted to go to the country of origin. It’s more fun to sit on a bus with a dozen people like me to discuss tea and learn what they know and where they’ve been.”

She also wanted to experience what the people, scenery and food is like in other countries.

“Words don’t get in the way,” she says as her hands gesture in the air like darting swallows. “I’ll use sign language to communicate.”

Back home, Winchester has shifted Twelve Winds Teas away from grocery store retailing. Maintaining retail accounts, vying for premium shelf space and facing thin profit margins proved unappealing. Instead, she only sells her premium teas online and hosts tastings and demonstrations at events.

Tea and fresh herbs continue to fuel her dreams for the future. “I want to continue to travel, lecture, host workshops and one day host a tea festival,” she says.


Originally published in The Kansas City Star, January 2012.

http://www.kansascity.com/2012/01/31/3399910/a-thirst-for-tea-knowledge-leads.html – Article is now archived.


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