15 January 2018

Martial Tea Arts

My friend Daniel owns a tea shop in Vancouver. Aside from being very knowledgeable about tea and teaware, he is also an accomplished practitioner of Wing Chun Kung Fu. He can size up another martial artist by the way they move. He intuits how good they are within just a few cycles of Sticky Hands. He can also size them up by the way they talk and what they say.

Experienced practitioners of many arts seem to be able to do the same thing. Tea retailers can start to size up their customers by watching where their customers focus their attention. In a pu’er shop, did the customer walk over to display case with the pricey cakes, over to the sale bin, to the for-display pu’ers with images stamped on them, or to the small section of coffee beans?

When the customer asks a question, what kind of tea are they looking for and what’s their budget? A customer looking for a 15+ year cake for $20 bucks or less is probably not an experienced drinker and has no idea what the market price for a quality aged cake is. Someone who says “what do you recommend” without telling the merchant what she’s looking for probably doesn’t have a very good idea of what she really likes; an unscrupulous merchant may find such a customer to be easy to deceive.

Does the customer watch how the tea is brewed? Take notice of the color, viscosity and aromas before taking his first sip? How does the customer sip and for how long? What does the customer do with the cup when it’s empty? All of these steps, and more, will tell an experienced tea drinker, teacher or retailer much about the customer.

Back in the day when I was more actively buying tea for retailers and wholesalers, I’d often have to visit new suppliers to source tea. I usually had little idea of the quality of the tea beyond the clues I could pick up while perusing the displays, gauging prices, etc. I’d try to minimize any "tells" or “kung fu moves.” I didn’t noticeably study the tea too hard, I asked basic questions to suss out the knowledge and character of the tea merchant, and I never talked about my background with tea. Not at first, anyway. The tea business is a business like any other, with merchants who are in business to make money. My responsibility would be to ensure that my clients would receive good and fairly-priced products.

I’d like to paint a picture of how romantic the tea buying journey is, and parts of it really are. Traveling by train, bus and car deep into tea country. Hiking for ½ a day surrounded by the fragrance of aromatic leaves as far as one could see. Meeting random farmers on their breaks who will treat you to a nice cup of brew and a little snack. But the process is also exhausting. More often than not, the teas were overpriced and sub-standard. As the market for premium Taiwanese tea has grown, prices have gone up and the production of inferior product has gone up, too, driven by growing demand...and greed. Many countries import tea that is then mixed with domestic production and resold as domestic tea.

I learned from several of my tea teachers that the world of tea relationships is interconnected. Each person and each "link' of the tea chain must trust the immediate relationships that they both rely on and serve. An oolong roaster, for example, must have great faith in their supplier, while also trusting that the distributor or buyer in turn trusts that he put his heart and skill into making the best tea he could. This is the ideal world of tea, and while it is changing like all other things in life, these precious relationships still exist. It makes me happy to think of all the joyful, good-hearted people that I've had the opportunity to work with over the years.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

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