Ever since returning from China last month Roy has been hard at work finishing up his forthcoming book, Great Teas of China. Here's an excerpt in which he shares the unlikely beginning of his life in tea. Expected publication date is Q4 of this year. If you'd like to be notified when the book is available, send us an email.
I didn’t recognize the significance at the time, but my destiny with tea began in childhood, in Hong Kong. I had a boring forty-five-minute walk to school and often detoured past a group of day laborers waiting to be hired. They passed the time by making gong fu cha on a makeshift table, and when curiosity got the better of me I’d squat alongside them to watch the ritual that offered one of the day’s scarce pleasures. Occasionally they would offer me a cup of what, to a six-year-old, smelled and tasted like the most wonderful tea on earth.
I’ll never forget those memories, and I am sure this experience is the seed that blossomed into my passion for tea. After emigrating to the US and spending my teenage years in San Francisco, I dropped out of college and started working as an auto mechanic and tow truck driver. After a few years, I planned a month-long vacation back to Hong Kong. One day I happened to wander through the Sheung Wan district, where old teashops were still in abundance. There was an irresistible aroma, the smell of fresh tea being roasted over charcoal. I was drawn into a teashop and, without realizing it was a life-changing decision, decided to learn more about tea!
I spent the rest of the month going to every single teashop I could find. There was no tea too expensive or too unique to try at least once. In those days tea was purchased with virtually no instructions; buyers were expected to know what they wanted. In Hong Kong tea is almost a fact of life. Everyone drinks it, often with little conscious thought or care given to the details.
For me, that month in Hong Kong was spent in nine heavens. I visited and chatted with teashop owners, made friends, and learned trade secrets such as re-firing tea prior to sale, a practice that would later inspire me to fire my own Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin. I bought so much tea that I discarded all my belongings in order to fit more tea into my luggage. Back in San Francisco, I returned to my towing business and continued to buy tea from my new tea friends in Hong Kong. These relationships proved very important when I finally started to sell tea for a living. At that time, I regarded myself as a serious tea drinker but nothing more. I never imagined that tea would one day be my vocation.
It was not until a month-long visit from Mr. Luo Qi Liang of Yunnan that the door to tea as a career was opened. I entertained this elderly gentleman by taking him to local restaurants and teashops without knowing that Mr. Luo was one of the most knowledgeable and influential tea persons I’d ever meet. We discussed tea constantly. I showed off my precious stocks of tea, and exchanged tea stories over many sessions of tea-drinking. Finally, prior to returning to China, Mr. Luo asked a simple, life-changing question: “You love tea so much, why aren’t you in the tea business?”
Mr. Luo soon sent a full container load of puerh tea. My wife Grace and I started selling to Chinese restaurant distributors and my new career as a tea merchant was underway. Some of the inventory from this original shipment formed the nucleus of my precious puerh collection.
When the concept of our first Imperial Tea Court was being developed in 1991, I called on my tea friends in Hong Kong to support me with their best products. This they did with very favorable terms and I am still grateful for their support. After we opened, however, I found that the standard practice of going to a tea broker to purchase available stock didn’t allow any input from me, and I decided that in order to procure the best tea possible, I would have to understand each phase of tea production better. As my tea knowledge grew, I developed a practice that I continue even now: I target a tea that I am interested in and travel to the region where it grows. Instead of going right up to the farms, I spend time learning about local customs, food, and climate. Knowing what the people of the region eat and drink, understanding soil and weather conditions, and participating in the harvest and production all yield a deeper understanding of what gives a tea its unique character, and how to produce and prepare it in a way that best fulfills its potential.
My passion for tea continues to grow and I maintain my practice of doing something new each time I visit. I can’t help but smile at the thought that this life in tea was set in motion when a six-year-old boy squatted beside the road in Hong Kong, hoping for a sip of tea...