In 2015, Verdant Tea turns five. Five years is a long time. Remember 2010? Back when only students could be on Facebook and Netflix was all about those DVD’s in little paper envelopes? It has been a wild ride since 2010 to bring us to where we are today. All the reminiscing got us thinking about one of our greatest and earliest loves: pu’er. We think we’ve changed a lot in five years? Our pu’er has changed just as much. We still have a reserve of a few pu’ers that truly inspired us at the very beginning of our project, and we’ve been checking up on them every year.
To celebrate turning five, we got the crew together- after five years it is still just five of us all together- myself, my wife Lily, our resident web genius Geoffrey, our fulfillment wizard Lauren, and the dynamic Kelsey who helps out with all the customer service while also acting as designer and photographer. The five of us broke out our two favorite pu’ers from the very early days to taste in our brand new tea shop space and try out the new gongfu set up.
We were all amazed at how much our beloved Farmers’ Coop and Yiwu have grown. In just the last year, both have taken on a deep red color and rich full mature flavor all their own. And yet, deep down, they still have everything that we fell in love with in the first place. All of their strongest and most thrilling notes have crystalized in the pu’er, and new complexity has emerged to bolster the texture and aroma that we loved.
We got to talking about how much the teas have changed, and ended up realizing how much we have changed since we started the project. We realized that aging and growing pu’er isn’t all that different from growing a business.
Aging pu’er requires putting the very best in no matter the cost: great pu’er begins with crafting by hand, taking the time necessary to do it right, and maintaining an environment that encourages positive change. Business is no different. To grow into something worthwhile, you have to start any business with a commitment to do good. A business needs to have a strong and compelling reason to exist, a true need that it meets. To fulfill those goals, a business needs “hand-crafting.” Growth never fits a formula or a spreadsheet. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities, even if the path takes the business on unexpected stops. Everyone working together needs to be ready to not just adapt to change, but to love it and embrace it.
Good in, Good Out
If great pu’er requires great leaves, then great business requires a reason to exist beyond making money. This project did not begin as a business – instead, we started our work as educators, sharing the stories of the people who make us fall in love with tea all over again with each harvest. Verdant started when my wife Lily and I returned to America from our time living in China. We shared the stories of the tea farmers we met, first on a research grant and then through a residency at Qingdao University. In the beginning, we built a simple blog to start writing about our friends in China like Mr. He and Mrs. Li who have changed our lives. I taught classes at local schools on tea and poured tea at tastings across Minnesota.
My original spark came from the conviction that tea should be as much a part of our everyday lives as coffee, beer or wine. Meeting passionate tea farmers in China gave me the resolve to share their craft. Tea had made my life better and I wanted to give that to everyone I knew.
Tea encourages a thoughtfulness and an appreciation of simple humble beauty. It trains us to be perceptive, and gives us time to reflect. The finest teas in the world are made by farmers who want nothing more than for their tea to evoke a place and feeling that inspires those who sip their brew as much as it inspires them.
Yet, sharing the stories of tea and teaching friends how to brew tea at home wasn’t enough. No matter where I searched, the tea that was available in this country lacked the simple inspiration that real tea from passionate family farmers could have. I wanted tea to take its place with coffee wine and beer as something natural to our everyday lives, but tea in America wasn’t even close to on par with coffee wine or beer.
The tea industry was still an infant when I returned to America. All over the place, you could read about tea as the newest craze. It was (and sadly still is) being marketed as a health tonic or an exotic flight of fancy. The industry had all the trappings of the early snake oil salesmen. Lots of talk, but nobody actually bringing in tea from the devoted and passionate family farmers that make tea the incredible drink that it is.
I quickly found out that the export laws, the corruption in China, the lack of cultural understanding or language fluency outside of China, and the lack of precedent for high-end product were all barriers. Together, these made it next to impossible to bring in tea from people like Mr. He in Laoshan Village or Master Han in Qianjiazhai. Our first two years in business were largely spent learning how to reliably import from small family farms and get around the factory farms and brokers that prey on the infant industry.
At the end of the of the day, through fortune and resolve, we found a way to truly fulfill my promise to the farmers that took me in and taught me to love tea: the promise to share their stories and bring their tea culture to people around the world.
Aging Pu’er, Navigating Business
A pu’er can start with great leaves and a business can start with a great idea, but only careful and attentive hand crafting and pressing can coax out the best in the leaves and give it the chance to reach its full potential. In business, only a willingness to adapt and be flexible can bring out the best in an idea. What started for me as a blog quickly became teaching and tasting, which quickly became a website to share teas along with the stories of the people who grow them.
Once our website was up and running, we wanted to reconnect with people in person sharing tea so we started sampling at our local farmers markets. We thought it would be fun to catch people’s attention at the markets with chai, so we got to work building the first chai concentrate made from Chinese tea (Laoshan Black), local honey, classic spices and even some unique additions like saffron and elderberry.
What started as a fun outreach project became a business when all the best coffeeshops in town tried the chai and asked us to make enough for them as well. Suddenly we found ourselves outgrowing our communal kitchen space and renting out a full restaurant kitchen to keep up with both brewing chai and packing our looseleaf tea.
With a restaurant space in hand we felt morally obligated to open a tea room and start sharing tea in Minneapolis the way we drink it in China. Next thing we know, our customers are hanging out all day and wanting food, so we teamed up with the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis to offer rural Chinese street food cuisine, just like what we eat when we visit our farmer friends. Somehow the food program led us down the path of exploring tea infusions in cocktails, and tincturing sheng pu’er and Wuyi oolong.
With a full kitchen and more of our time spent working with the food and drink both within the tea community and outside the tea community, we ended up teaming up to start a Kombucha business and a botanical soda business in our space. Before we knew it, we were running an import business, an online tea shop, a restaurant, bar, kombucha and soda brewery and chai business. We outgrew our new space in less than two years.
In 2015, we moved our operations to a much bigger space to accommodate the growing need for high quality kombucha, soda and chai. We built out a new retail space focused back on our original goals of education with tastings happening all day.
We never expected to open a teahouse, but doing so allowed us the space to collaborate on kombcuha, chai and soda. That collaboration allowed us to move into our new space and allows us to spread out our expenses in a way that gives us an opportunity to dramatically lower prices for our online customers. Lower prices makes fine tea more accessible, which brings us closer to the goal of making tea a part of everyday life, and brings us full circle.
Appreciating What We Have
Our Farmers’ Coop and Yiwu both started out with great wild-picked leaves, they both had the benefit of caring and passionate craftspeople pressing the leaves. Stored in Yunnan, they have grown immensely as a result. Yet at the end of the day, they are beautiful because they are still honest to what made them great even years ago. The Farmers’ Coop still has its thrilling, numbing hazelnut flavor. The Yiwu still has powerful camphor and cedar notes.
Our team got together not only to taste two of our favorite teas, but to reaffirm our own desire to stay true to what makes us different, to the reason we exist. We are here to share the work of passionate, inspired small family tea farmers and in doing so, share the spark that gave us the chance to admire tea’s humble beauty and make tea a part of our own everyday lives.
This year, we are rebuilding our site to better feature the farmers who grow our tea. We will be giving them more space to sell whatever teas they want to sell and curate their own collection while sharing more of their stories. We will be spending more time in China filming and photographing, and as well as more time brainstorming with our farmer friends on new kinds of tea to produce and scouting more artists producing beautiful tea wares. We will also be working to become more efficient in our own business so that we can keep offering new teas at the dramatically lower prices we have been rolling out in the last few months. Our work sharing staffing and space with our other projects has helped us drop prices to make every tea more accessible. We will be spending even more time tasting tea, writing articles and sharing what we know.
Our hope is that in another five years, we’ll be able to break out the extraordinary new sheng pu’ers coming to us from Master Han – to taste them with our team and feel confident that we have been able to keep up with growing and improving our business the same way our favorite pu’ers continue to grow and improve. We are grateful beyond words for your support in letting us pursue this project. You make the movement towards quality and transparency in the world of tea possible, and you give hope to the next generation of small family tea farmers. Here’s to the next five years, and beyond.