Too often, I walk into a tea shop only to be confronted by hundreds of tins lining the walls. I will ask for something I know and love like Tieguanyin and be presented with six different grades to try. Of course, I will politely settle on a tea, sit down and sip my cup, and content myself with my decision, but regrets are racing through my mind, “I should have bought the monkey-picked special supreme, rather than the monkey-picked supreme A”, and the like.
Why must I be subjected to so many choices? Whenever I ask the person helping me which tea I should choose, they usually have a favorite. What I want to ask next is “why not just offer only your favorite one?” This is where curation comes in as a tea vendor. I find that it applies especially to pu’er teas. Pu’er is an incredibly difficult thing to get right. Shu pu’er can be fishy, murky, or too sweet. Sheng can be dry and bitter. Why should I, as a customer, be exposed to such dramatic risks in flavor? When I trust a company enough to pay them money for something, I expect them to deliver a product that they stand behind, and that they say must exist for some reason or another. With this in mind, I apply strict curation to Verdant’s collection.
Curation is a very significant word for me. My mother is an artist, and I grew up wandering the halls of the Minneapolis Institute of art while she was in classes. Through the years, I’ve attended art openings across the country and seen a vast range in quality of curation. I’ve been to shows that blew my mind and left me speechless, and others that fell apart with the addition of one poor piece. Basically, the idea of curation is that at a fine museum, or an art gallery, every piece of art in an exhibit should be of high quality, and also every piece should be complimentary to the others. They need to exist together. They are all different facets of some theme being examined. For me, every tea I source must have an absolute reason for being, and it must fit into the theme, or mission of the collection.
You will notice that Verdant Tea is missing some common big-name tea types, like Bilochun, Alishan, or jasmine pearls. So often the mentality that I see in the tea industry is to pull out a grand checklist and get at least one representative from every kind of tea. I try to think not in terms of lists and names, but in terms of flavor profile. I want equal representation of all the different elements of flavor that tea has to offer.
There are plenty of tea companies out there, and many of them have some pretty interesting selections. In reviewing what other businesses offer, I make a point to only source teas that I find have not already been fully represented outside of China. This means seeking out small family-farm and wild-harvest operations producing teas of a complexity and depth of flavor never before available. It means seeking out green teas like Laoshan and Jingshan that have not yet been offered outside of China.
With this in mind, there are three main criteria that I believe should be applied to sourcing tea. First, of course, is quality. I would venture to say that “grades” of tea could be eliminated from the high end tea market. A company should not carry standard, premium, and ultra-premium. They should carry the tea that they love the most. Of course, affordability is a concern here, and quality needs to be considered with price in mind. I have tried samples that would have to go in the price range of 80-200 dollars per ounce, but that is unacceptable. Instead of being lazy as a sourcing agent, and just buying three price ranges, it is important for me to taste with the utmost care and find a tea within the range of affordability that presents the most value and the greatest experience. This is the trick of finding quality. It is not acceptable to compromise. If an agent cannot find a tea within the range of affordability for their customers, they need to seek other sources.
Second, once quality is established, harmony is the next step. This is going to be very subjective to the goals of each supplier. For Verdant, it is about representing the immense variety of flavors and sensations that a tea leaf provides. This means that I look for teas whose flavors are absolutely unique. They need to do something special, create surprise and suspense in steeping. They also need to support the other teas. I have to imagine any of Verdant’s teas grouped together at a tea tasting. They should be compatible. They should offer something distinct from their relatives. I think this is forgotten most often with pu’er. Many vendors seem pressured to carry dozens or hundreds of pu’er teas, but many of these choices are going to taste similar. I want to be sure that there is a specific reason to buy each tea that I offer.
Finally, I recognize the hard work that others are doing sourcing teas. This means that I don’t want to carry something that any other vendor is doing in a comparable way. Often that leads me to small family operations and villages that have never before exported. For teas like Big Red Robe or Tieguanyin where many vendors carry some version, I need to feel like something about the one I source has not been seen before. A unique aftertaste, a texture, notes of something utterly unexpected. These are all necessary. It is a gimmick to simply rely on branding to sell tea. It is not as honest as relying on the tea’s inherent qualities.
This idea guides what I do. Our new website is meant to make the inherent qualities of each tea apparent, to provide as much information as we can, and to step back. It isn’t about us. The starring role goes to the tea itself and the farmers who grow it.
These are just a few personal thoughts gained from my work sourcing in China. They are a set of ideals. I work constantly to get closer to these ideals, sometimes making the tough choice to cut a tea from the collection to make room for something that works better. I suppose I have pretty strong opinions on what I think is good and what is not, but hey, that’s why I am in the business. I understand that other companies have different goals, and ultimately I am happy to see tea in any context working its way into daily life outside of China.
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