The Mavericks of Tea

Ahmed Rahim, David Lee Hoffman, Kevin Rose, Joshua Kaiser and James Norwood Pratt
Ahmed Rahim, David Lee Hoffman, Kevin Rose, Joshua Kaiser and James Norwood Pratt

SAN FRANCISCO

Tea Journey first came to mind in September 2010 during an invigorating panel discussion on the bright future of specialty tea – it was one of those rare light-bulb moments in life.

Animated, boisterous and collegial, the five panelists were introduced as the Mavericks of Tea. They were as different as different can be – yet each spoke passionately of their love for tea, describing how the beverage had whet their taste for adventure and yielded riches from the ventures they had founded.

I discovered the economics of specialty tea following the disastrous puer bubble. Previously, I had written about tea as a grocery item in Natural Food magazine, and the Certified Organic Food Directory that I had founded. Later I learned about tea as a retail beverage, while editing Specialty Coffee Retailer, a trade magazine for professional coffee retailers. In 2009 I had penned The Placid Path to Profits, one of several cover stories I wrote on the emerging tea retail segment.

James Norwood Pratt, Joshua Kaiser, Jesse Jacobs and David Lee Hoffman
James Norwood Pratt, Joshua Kaiser, Jesse Jacobs, David Lee Hoffman and Ahmed Rahim

But it was the Mavericks who revealed the essential role that storytelling plays in the selection and enjoyment of fine tea.

The discussion lasted an hour and a half. By then my head raced with visions of exotic lands, exquisite teas and the semblance of a magazine that could tap the enormous reservoir of tea knowledge in the tea lands for tea drinkers in the west.

Jesse Jacobs, founder of the Samovar Tea Lounge, hosted a video recording session. As a successful entrepreneur from the tech community, he had established trend-setting tea lifestyle lounges that were popular with folks like the Dalai Lama. Jesse had been featured in Forbes for the millions he grossed while earning a rank among Inc. Magazine’s 500 fastest growing companies.

In those days I worked in the old Hearst Building at 3rd and Market in downtown San Francisco, just up the street from Jesse’s Yerba Buena Gardens location. The Samovar Tea Lounge seemed appropriately situated near a placid rooftop reflecting pond and fountain across the street from the bustling Moscone Convention Center. Meals were pricey but no one tossed you off the bench for loitering, and there was a big open space to catch some sun. Conversations flowed like the endless supply of tea from the spigot of the namesake samovar, a Russian urn that keeps the tea hot for hours.

Jesse explained that he had recently enjoyed tea “with some amazing guys, jointly responsible for making the tea market what it is today.” He had invited them to “share their experiences, insights, and their take on why tea is taking off.” He wanted me to cover the event.

Jesse was joined at the table by athletic Joshua Kaiser, co-founder of Rishi Tea and Ahmed Rahim, co-founder of Numi Tea in nearby Oakland. Kaiser and I once conducted an interview in snippets from mountain top to mountain top in Yunnan and whenever he was able to find an Internet connection. At night he would send 1,000 word explanations by phone. He was seated beside Kevin Rose, founder of DIGG and Revision3 (and later an advisor to Google Ventures). Kevin explained the fascinating relationship between tech and tea. Late-night code sessions, it seems, require an intense level of concentration similar to a monk reciting 2 a.m. prayers.

Tea retail pioneer David Lee Hoffman, founder of Silk Road Tea, was by then managing the Phoenix Collection of rare puer from his eccentric Marin citadel near Lagunitas — jokingly known as the “The Last Resort.” Jess was moderating but the legendary James Norwood Pratt, author of the Tea Lover’s Treasury in 1982, was the witty master of ceremonies. Pratt is revered for his breadth of knowledge and eloquent oratory on reasons to drink tea. He is one of the only three winners of the World Tea Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jesse Jacobs and James Norwood Pratt, author of the Ultimate Tea Lover's Treasury
Jesse Jacobs and James Norwood Pratt, author of The Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury

I took notes, I took pictures. I took it all in.

When they turned off the camera the discussion didn’t end, the recording simply stopped. I introduced myself to the panelists and taking them aside one by one, I asked them which magazines they read to learn about tea.

“There are none,” I was told. Pratt said he had dabbled with the idea of launching “Leaves” but it never came to pass.

He explained that there are a few good books on tea (many more today than at that time). Overseas publications occasionally translate an article or two; but no publisher is tapping the vast amount of knowledge about the many loose leaf teas in China or the science-based medical advances involving tea at overseas universities. You have to learn Japanese to read about processing a Japanese temomicha from gardens in the shadow of Mt. Fuji or read Mandarin to describe a method for throwing artisan Yixing Zisha pottery that dates back centuries.*

Consumers are at a big disadvantage compared to wine lovers, said Pratt, a noted wine writer in his day. There is nothing authoritative like the Wine Spectator for tea lovers to read — just marketing collateral — most of which is inaccurate, exaggerated or simply hype, churned out by countless online tea vendors to exploit the connection between storytelling and sales.

The Mavericks’ complained about the sorrowful quality and scarcity of information about tea — and mind you these guys were willing to pay for that information — it just didn’t exist in English. Rishi Tea, Numi Tea, Republic of Tea, Mighty Leaf Tea, Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas, Camellia Sinensis, Two Leaves and a Bud (Two Leaves Tea), Adagio Tea and even grab-and-go Argo Tea financed their own information gathering on how tea is harvested, how it is made. Adagio’s Michael Cramer sponsors forums (TeaChat), recipe blogs (TeaChef), tea reviews (TeaCritic), a weekly newsletter and the all-purpose TeaMap that has guided tea drinkers to the finest shops in the land. Retailers led by Austin Hodge and Tony Gebely formed the International Specialty Tea Association to press for quality standards and produce superior content on this website.

No matter how valiant the retailer’s intent, customers view the information as marketing purposefully crafted to sell tea.

Tea Journey has a complimentary mission, a simple mandate: drink better tea. It does not matter which tea or style, or whether the tea comes from old tea lands or new.

Discover your tea destiny

Tea Journey delivers value by presenting detailed, authentic, elusive, and exclusive stories about tea. A third of the content originates in the native language of the tea lands. Correspondents living there are better able to tell these stories than reporters just off the plane. The editors at Tea Journey then retell these stories in nuanced English and in a relevant way that makes sense to Western readers. Our cultural common ground over tea permits us to cross over the language barrier.

When writers approach me with an idea I ask them to first query Google. “If you see it,” I say, “don’t bother. Who wants to pay for content that is free for the taking?”

That is how I know that Tea Journey will quench your thirst for knowledge.

On a return trip to California last fall I climbed up the rocky steps to David Lee Hoffman’s lair for a cup of Puer. This week I talked to Jesse about Teavana’s decision to close its Fine Tea +Tea Bars in New York City. The reason is simple, he offered in his Zen-like way: “It likely doesn’t make any money!”

The Mavericks are still around and they are every bit as excited about tea as the day they first discovered fine tea. Together they have introduced millions to artisan tea.

That’s why I’m dedicating the inaugural issue in their name.

Dan

*Subscribe to read all these features and more in the inaugural issue.

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