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.

13 Responses to “The Role of Curation in Tea”

  1. Joely (Azzrian) Smith

    Thank you for this article. I often wonder about this topic. Why I should purchase from one vendor over another. The curation process sounds daunting, yet wonderful. I also enjoyed your writing style. Good topic!

    • Thank you so much! It is certainly a challenging process to lay out, but I think it is necessary. Every tea usually has a ‘who, what, where, and when” but not very many teas being presented in the West have a “why.” I hope to be part of the movement changing that.

      Thanks again for the comment,

  2. Jacob Tepper

    I really enjoyed this article as it made me think about tea vendors in a new way. I had not considered this idea before, but it is questionable as to why vendors may carry so many grades of one tea and so many types of tea. If I were to run a tea shop it would be in the way you are saying, only selling the teas that I personally think have something to offer the buyer. That is extremely important and for you choosing to do this I am grateful! Thank you.

    • Thanks Jacob,
      I am glad that you see the point here- the “grades” of tea is always so strange to me. You see it in China too, but the most reputable vendors didn’t present something bases on grade and cost, but on flavor profile. I hope you do run a tea shop some day, as the responsibility to present tea in its best light is an important one. I am grateful for your comment.
      Best Wishes,

  3. Bonnie

    Verdant does take the confusion away for the buyer. You provide the best tea at a price point that is affordable. What I appreciate the most though is the sourcing from small farms and the respect for the land and the farmers. I love the ever changing lineup of choices. The quest for new gems. You remain full of creative energy. This is key for me.
    I can’t understand the grading system used by other companies and most of the time the employees have no idea what the grading means either. Only a few companies feel as you do and keep the experience honest and simple for the consumer.

    • Such high compliments! I thank you for your kindness Bonnie. To see people like you enjoying the tea so thoroughly is enough to keep us full of creative energy for years to come. I look forward to sharing some of the newest acquisitions in the coming weeks.

  4. I really appreciate this article. It’s very heartwarming to see someone running a vendor caring about more than just flavor and prices. A tea leaf holds so much more than just the aroma and tastes it produces. The history, origin, respect, and care involved in every tea holds a very important role, and it’s a shame so many companies in the West pass this off as unnecessary, while overloading descriptions with frivolous details and ambiguous grades. You really convey a sense of trust in what you provide to tea lovers, and for this I thank you.

    • Thank you so much Cody,
      I really appreciate the feedback, and I am honored that the way we are presenting teas conveys the level of trust that we owe it to the farmers to convey. Taste alone is only a tiny fraction of why I love tea. I actually wrote an article “Rebelling Against the Tyranny of Flavor” to express my frustration with our flavor-centric society ignoring the other elements of tea. I am glad you found the blog.

  5. Santini

    Wow! David you did a great job on this article. All these grades are very confusing that is for sure. You never know what grade is better.
    For example is a superfine better than a AAA+ rating or is superior better than special grade. It’s just a hot mess. I think vendors need to sell the best they can get their hot hands on that offer great value from price vs taste profile (quality)
    Thank you for this teaching. I think more vendors need to be honest instead of being sneaky because their real concern is your money not give you great value for an amazing tea they may never been able to enjoy without that certain vendor.
    David keep caring about value and good tea to provide to your customer. Your doing great!

    • Many Thanks!
      I feel pretty strongly about the issue. It just seems wishy-washy to not just make the call and decide what is the best value and flavor possibility. I would like to see other vendor move away from the grading system to help create more trust in the tea industry. I think people grow tired of all the “superfine” labels. I sure do!

    • Thanks! Sometimes it is tough when you really want to carry a certain kind of tea, but in the end waiting for the perfect opportunities is best. Often the teas I end up importing surprise me. They tend to be more experimental- not what I would be carrying if I were trying to fill out a checklist of famous teas at all. Some great selections are on their way from China right now. Very excited to be sharing them soon…

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