It’s true! Everything you know about tea is wrong—or at least, if you’re me. I grew up on tea bags; I can still see them right now, a yellow box of Lipton tea bags, hanging out in the back of the middle shelf of the bank of cupboards in my mother’s kitchen. Maybe this article should have been titled “Everything Jordan Knows About Tea Is Wrong”—I apologize for making assumptions by using the royal you.

Until a very short time ago, tea was this very ancillary, secondary, overlooked thing in my life. I usually drank it (if I drank it at all) served as iced tea, sweetened of course if I was in the American South, or served dry as a bone over great hulking chunks of ice with a lemon wedge on that rare hot day in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. I didn’t take tea seriously—I ignored it on coffee shop menus, I didn’t make it for myself at home, I couldn’t really tell you anything about the various styles and varieties. I didn’t own a gaiwan or any tea-making gear, even at the entry level. I was oblivious to its many cultures and subcultures and rich history.

I was fucking up and I didn’t even know it.

And then very suddenly, everything changed. It started, like literally every major event over the last decade in my life, because of coffee. More specifically, because of a story I was assigned to write for Sprudge. We had noticed an uptick in tea quality at high-end cafes, specifically here in Portland, where the San-Francisco-based tea company Song Tea was showing up on the menu at a couple of the good local coffee bars. We started following Song and realized they were being placed in several well-respected cafes around the country. A hypothesis emerged.

In the early days of Sprudge you could tell if a coffee shop was any good just by the gear. If you walked into a coffee bar in 2009 and they had a La Marzocco and a Mahlkönig, you knew they likely gave a shit. Nowadays it’s harder to tell quite so easily, as the third wave coffee movement has exploded and things like gear and interior design have become more copycat. But maybe this tea brand was on to something; maybe Song was sort of like a third-party quality control vetting system, and that by only going into good coffee shops, we could look at them as a kind of hack. “If a cafe serves Song, they must be good.”

Photos from our 2016 interview with Peter Luong by Zachary Carlsen.

And so I went to San Francisco and interviewed Peter Luong, Song Tea’s founder, who grew up in his family’s tea shop and has been traveling for tea sourcing since he was a kid. You can read the interview here—it’s an okay interview, I think, and it helped turn more people on to the good work Peter is doing. But the subtext of that interview is what leads us here today. Because throughout it, while I asked Peter rudimentary questions about Song’s approach to tea in a coffee context, he was making tea the entire time. Teas like I had never, ever tried before—wonderful buttercream oolongs and chocolatey roasted tieguanyins, Cypress smoked black tea like a campfire jujube and endlessly complex Sichuan greens, all of it served in a procession of simple, stunning, utterly pleasurable teawares. Peter was serving me his own personal take on gong fu cha as I interviewed him, and honestly, it changed my life.

I left high. Floating. Tea drunk, tea stoned, whatever you want to call it. (Although if we really want to get into what psychotropic most mimicked by a sizable consumption of tea, I think it’s closest to a gentle microdose of psilocybin.) Blowing like a feather in the wind around Pacific Heights, with a laptop full of notes and no particular place to head next, clutching my backpack now full of teas for steeping back home.

And steep back home I did—pot after pot, with a strict 10:00pm cutoff so as not to mess with my sleep schedule, chasing the sensory memory of that incredible experience in San Francisco. I love a rabbit hole, a new world to explore, and tea—like coffee, and like natural wine—offered a vast and never-ending beverage culture to soak up like a sponge.

Tea quickly became a daily part of my creative and personal life. I found myself writing better, or at least writing more voluminously (which I know should not be mistaken for “better” but often feels like it) while consuming an ever-growing raft of teas. I started exploring different brands, seeking out interesting tea accounts on Instagram, pouring through websites big and small, from tea purveyors based in China to tea purveyors based a few blocks from my house. I started collecting teawares, began following talented ceramicists from around the world, and started—slowly at first—to begin making tea for others, as a form of expression for this new passion.

I also began traveling with tea in mind, seeking out tea experiences in different parts of the country and digging out time for tea alongside Sprudge’s busy travel schedule. An hour here, an hour there, ducking out of a festival on my lunch break or landing with an extra day to explore tea shops across a city. Along this path I started talking with the people who run these tea shops and bars, asking them about their own journeys with tea, their own perspectives on the drink and the multitudes it contains.

And through it all, I learned a couple of surprising things.

First, tea people are by and large kind to each other. I learned this first by haunting the Instagrams and Reddit forums for tea drinkers, and by taking on some local tea writing for the alt-weekly here in Portland, which got me into more and more local tea bars, begetting more and more happy, sunshiney, tea-stoned conversations. On the internet, and IRL, tea conversations appear at least to this outsider to be mostly full of positivity and kindness. It’s one of the nicest Reddits, which is really saying something, and on Instagram you have to look hard to find tea people being shitty to each other. I can assure you this is not always the case in coffee, and it is really not the case in wine.

Tea scoop and rest inside Floating Mountain. Photo by the author.

The notion of tea’s inherent kindness landed while I was sitting in a tea bar on New York’s Upper West Side called Floating Mountain, whose owner, Lina Medvedeva, escaped the world of Manhattan finance to open a serene, meditative, beautiful little second floor tea bar and gallery above W 72nd Street. Over a single pot of Phoenix Dan Cong (I can still taste its warm red comforting flavors now, months later writing this) we talked about her past life, her upbringing in Russia’s far east, near Vladivostok (“We grew up drinking tea like water”), and how Floating Mountain came to be. It was once a tailor shop, and today is imbued with the most glorious Manhattan light, streaming in through floor to ceiling windows, like an oasis of energy and calm in the middle of the city, just blocks from The Dakota and Central Park.

Lina’s gong fu cha is minimalist, with everything just so—nothing extravagant, nothing loud. A tea scoop from the Czech Republic, made from vitrified bogwood. A simple porcelain gaiwan. A glass water kettle. An hour became two, and I was then hopelessly late for my next appointment, but I remember asking: “Is it just me, or do tea people seem rather content? Like as a culture, it seems to be a pretty positive place…do you agree?”

“You can never know the inside of another mind,” she replied, “but the tea speaks. There isn’t much left to say.”

The house of Liquid Proust. Photo by the author.

A few weeks and a thousand miles later I sat for another tea experience, where I learned a lesson on tea’s power to transform our very souls. This time it was inside an unassuming house, on a nondescript street amongst a row of clapboard little boxes in suburban Columbus, Ohio. This is the home of Andrew Richardson, who goes by Liquid Proust on Instagram and runs a fast-growing digital tea company of the same name. His focus is on rare and aged teas, typically from Yunnan but also some truly remarkable oolongs from Taiwan and eastern China. His entire business and network of tea community happens online, and walking up to the house, you would never in a million years guess that inside it dwells one of the foremost young American collectors and distributors of vintage single-origin tea.

Nearly every surface inside of Andrew’s house is covered in tea: tuongs, satchels, bags, parcels, caddies, ceramic resting jars, wooden commemorative chests, boxes and boxes and boxes with China Post shipping labels affixed (oh, what the mailman must think!) and enough shipping material to ensure safe passage between here and Mars and back, Express Class. There is more tea in this house than one person could drink in a thousand lifetimes, though I suspect Liquid Proust would die happy trying. In his cluttered office (tea, tea everywhere) across an industrial minimalist metal tea table, Andrew brewed me a procession of increasingly rare and fine teas, and talked to me at length about his growing business.

Liquid Proust began as a side hustle from Andrew’s full-time job, which is as a business advisor and student in a corporate MBA program. He fell down a particular sub-section of the tea rabbit hole, chatting with tea purveyors in China and Taiwan and Malaysia using auto translate programs, assuming financial risk by purchasing lots–large and small–of vintage tea, and documenting all of it on Instagram. Today his website is an ever-changing array of tea offerings, collaborative buys and special lots, handpacked from his home in Ohio.

Tea has been a transformative force in Andrew’s life. “Tea has taught me to be accepting,” he told me. “I grew up in a very conservative religious family, and without tea, I think I be like… somebody totally different. A Christian conservative Trump supporter, most likely.” He grew up drinking Bewley’s tea bags with his family, he tells me sheepishly, and I can relate. As tea gained more and more prominence in his life, the old vestiges and relationships of his past life fell away. He fell into a new world of tea drinkers and tea lovers—diverse, international, accepting, kind. His doors are always open to fellow tea heads on the same journey.

“People come to this house from around the world,” he tells me, as we look over jar after jar, bag after bag, an entire living room given over to boxes to ship, every square inch of kitchen counter overflowing with tea from his remarkable collection. “We just start laughing together, and talking. It’s almost like drinking beer—if you drink enough tea you get silly after a while, and then you get to really hear about people’s lives, their views on religion and love, and who they truly are. I would have never had this conversation before—I would have never known you.”

Too soon I was back outside in the Ohio chill, waiting for a Lyft to take me back into the city, my bag and mind and heart crammed full to bursting with tea. I started crying in the back of the car.

As a Western tea drinker, tea doesn’t need me. Not economically, not culturally, and certainly not spiritually. Indeed, there is something almost comically absurd about obsessing over tea here in America, thousands of miles from where it’s cultivated and revered, separated by a vast ocean both literal and cultural, although I’d like to think it’s kind of modern and cool too—bridging language and culture gaps digitally over a shared love for something truly good. But the economy and language of tea is quite happily percolating along in the countries where tea is produced, a brisk market of sales and consumption and obsession. Tea is not, like coffee, primarily an export crop. It’s more like wine—the cultures that grow it most revere it, and typically keep all the good shit close to home.  Indeed, as I understand it is only relatively recently that truly great teas from China and Taiwan have even been available for mass consumption in the United States. General access to premiere quality tea in America is a fairly new thing informed by the opening up of China’s flexible take on communism vis-a-vis small business growth, the linking of our world through the towering modern marvels of online shopping, international shipping (thanks China Post!) and global free trade.

Tea prices, trade wars, globalism: all of this is made possible by international commerce and the free movement of goods and services and ideas through international markets. Like coffee, tea is an unexpectedly and explicitly political product to consume in the best of times. And today? When these trade freedoms are imperiled by tariffs and racism and shudderingly incompetent political leadership? Drinking good tea in America right now is a profoundly political act, more so than at any time since the American revolution.

Tea doesn’t need the West but I think we need it. I think we could all stand to sit with this stuff as a regular part of our lives; not to replace coffee in the mornings, or instead of wine at night, but as a bridge and a complementary force alongside the other drinks we already love. Tea is a vast, bottomless, endlessly complex world of styles, producers, history, modern expression, accoutrement and idiosyncrasy. It is a lifetime—indeed, many happy lifetimes—of culinary inquiry. Drinking good tea can make your life better. Drinking good tea has definitely made my life better, made me a happier person and a more creative thinker, a better friend and colleague and partner. It has comforted me in times of sadness and tragedy, and I have celebrated good news with it, and it has been there for me as alacrity fuel of the highest order on plain old boring work nights.

I strongly recommend drinking a lot of good tea to anyone who wants to better know their own mind. Bathe your brain in theanine any possible chance you get. Think of it almost as like a performance-enhancing drug for your life.

I will end this essay by telling you a secret. I’m “the guy from Sprudge” which means that every so often at an event (be it family or promotional) someone expects me to make coffee. And I can do it serviceably well enough. I’m okay at it, but I don’t think I’m particularly great at it, or that I approach it with the easy confidence and muscle memory of a champion barista or anything. My coffee brewing prowess is nothing special, and I always kind of dread being asked, because it comes with a lot of expectations that frankly I’ve done nothing to deserve beyond stringing lots of flowery words together.

But I love making tea. Adore it, really. I love making it for myself, for my friends and family, for guests at our Sprudge offices in Portland, at parties or brunches or pretty much wherever. I love (and I mean love) the ceramics; I love the tactile change from dry to porous; I love the flavor variation across a long session; I love the steeping rhythm; I love the intimacy it creates, the way you really get to know someone somewhere between the fourth and seventh cup. Some of the very best conversations of my life have taken place over the last two years, with friends new and old, across a gaiwan.

My dream is that someday I will be able to give my own personal expression of gong fu cha to someone else and change their life, too, by opening their eyes and mind up to what tea can be, just as Peter Luong and Lina Medvedeva and Liquid Proust have done for me.

It’s the least I can do.

Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge. 

Editor: Liz Clayton. 

All photos by Anthony Jordan III (@ace_lace) unless otherwise noted. The top image for this feature depicts a ceramic teascoop “chahe” from Russian ceramicist Anton Filonov, distributed in the United States by Liquid Proust

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