Every so often, I get people asking me if I would get into the tea business. After all, I’m well located for it, I spend a lot of time hunting for teas anyway, and I always talk about things that people can’t buy easily in the West, so if I don’t provide it, who would? I’ve always refused, because I don’t want to become a vendor, which would compromise my ability to speak freely on my blog here, and it also simply isn’t what I want to do.
At the same time, I do want to send people tea to share, especially if it’s something they can’t find easily. I send samples to friends often, but usually only in a limited capacity. My last attempt at a big tea distribution, which took place in 2007, taught me to not do it again. It’s a real drag – spending a lot of time, effort, and money. I did get feedback on both samples, but I felt the experience underwhelming and ultimately rather superficial, so I never did it again. Buying things for people can often end badly, so I don’t usually do that either.
Recently I’ve been thinking about what’s useful in terms of learning about tea. And then, at a recent tasting I hosted for two friends in Portland, it hit me that comparative drinking is really at the core of what we do when we try to learn more about teas. You can’t know what is good without knowing what is bad, just like you can’t be aware of the range of possible tastes among shuixian if all you’ve had are light roasted ones. Sampling is about broadening horizons, and it is a low risk way to stretch into areas that you might not be familiar with.
So with that in mind, I think there’s something that I can do here that’s both intellectually interesting and not devolve into just merely selling tea. Working off the idea of having flights of tea, I am going to try and organize what I call Curated Samples. These are teas that I have found that I believe, together, will hold some educational/learning value. In other words, I think the samples, together as a group, will have more value than merely sum of the parts. They are going to be limited in quantity – perhaps 20-30 sets at a time. They are also going to happen pretty infrequently – currently I am thinking perhaps 2-3 times a year, depending on whether inspiration strikes or not and whether it is practical or not. Some will take a considerable amount of time to gather – for example I want to do one with age Taiwan oolongs, showing what I think are the four or five standard “types” that exist out there, but finding the right teas in sufficient quantity will take a good amount of time, so that will be ready when it’s ready.
These samples will have to be sold, to pay for the tea, the material, and the time and effort to acquire them. What will not happen is that the samples will not be sold separately – it’s either all or nothing. Also, there will be no more of the teas, even if you love them. If they are acquirable (sometimes they are) I am happy to show you around if you come to Hong Kong, but as currently conceived, at least some of these are not going to be found anywhere. If you liked them, well, I’m glad, and I hope you took good notes so next time you run into a tea like it, you’ll know. Of course, because of the nature of the Curated Samples, I am not going to say you’ll love them all. Some will be placed in these sets precisely because they make a point, rather than because they’re enjoyable, although I’d imagine at least a few teas each time should be pleasant. Pricing of the samples will differ depending on the teas we’re dealing with. Since this is an educationally minded project, if you can prove to me you’re a current student somewhere, I will give you a discount.
Having said all that, the first set of samples I want to provide is going to be around roasting. Specifically, it will be the same tea, a tieguanyin, repeated five times, but with 0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 hours of roasting by the seller. Only the 60 hours version is what the shop sells – the rest I requested with a special order for him to do for me, and are teas that he doesn’t think taste very good but will do anyway, because I asked for a favour. I just got a call two days ago that he’s about to start roasting them, so they’re being roasted as I type this, and I should get them by the end of the week. There should be a total of about 25-30 spaces.
I’ll write more on the teas when I have them in hand. In the meantime, if you are interested in this, please let me know via the comments. This way I can gauge if people actually want this sort of thing, and, should there be greater interest than I have space for, I have to devise a way to make sure distribution is fair.