Nestled throughout rural China, secret wild tea trees (from when now-defunct villages cultivated trees centuries ago) house rare, high-quality teas. Acquiring them requires tapping into a local network of knowledge about their location and then bushwhacking through swamp and forestation while fending off leeches to pick each leaf. For many in the tea industry, this is far too much dedication and labor for sourcing tea, but for NYC-based Shunan Teng, founder of Tea Drunk, this is a typical day at the office—at least in the spring, when Teng hikes throughout China to work and camp with farmers to find prime tea leaves.
It is precisely this exacting eye and tireless effort that makes Tea Drunk one of the world’s most authentic and quality purveyors of Chinese tea. Founded in 2013 and headquartered in Manhattan, the company—which sells wholesale and through their online shop—stands apart from the rest of the massive industry by handpicking tea leaves from historical lands in China where tea has been cultivated for over 1,000 years. The team commissions or works directly with heritage farmers to pick and handcraft leaves into tea, producing unique and often exclusive batches of green, yellow, white and black teas whose taste cannot be replicated.
Helming the company is Teng, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese tea history, culture and production. Realizing during her 20s that she was unhappy with her career in finance, Teng, who lived in the US, went back to China in 2006. To her surprise, the narrative around tea had changed. China was undergoing a renaissance of tea. As someone who always drank and appreciated tea growing up, Teng was inspired and turned to farmers and texts to learn about the history of tea more deeply.
Even now, Teng is constantly learning more—and her immersive approach is something few in the industry dare to do. “When I go to China,” she tells us, “I live with the farmers. 5AM, you wake up, pick the tea and make the tea until very late in the evening. I live this life for at least a couple of months every year and it’s pretty hard, because most teas—the top, top teas—are harvested 10 to 15 days of the year. So for a lot of farmers that’s 10 to 15 days with no sleep, but because I have to go visit so many different places that time of no sleep is about two months.”
When it comes to determining the quality of teas specific leaves and location are vital factors. Teng looks at everything from the amount of sunlight the leaves get to their altitude and latitude on the mountain in order to ensure quality. Sourcing in China, as she explains, is also an integral component to the taste and uniqueness of the tea, a process that’s similar to growing grapes. “People talk about the old world wine and the new world wine. China is the only old world tea region. China, for the longest time, had a monopoly on the actual tea plant. The rest of the world didn’t have the actual tea plant up until about 150 years ago when Robert Fortune went to China and stole tea,” Teng explains. Having indigenous, continuously cultivated tea plants that are centuries-old endows China’s terroir with unique taste.
“We have about 6,000 years of history cultivating tea,” continues Teng. “But we also acknowledge that tea culture didn’t start until about 1,500 years ago. And even 1,500 years ago, when the first definitive book on tea was written, the structure of understanding tea was already set: location, cultivar, processing. Where the beverage comes from, that’s the number one dictator of quality and price; you want to attach the location of where the tea comes from with the name of the tea. That tells you how special that tea is.”
In working with generational farmers and selling tea from historic lands Tea Drunk keeps the heritage and traditions of China’s tea culture alive. Through workshops and other programming, the brand makes this knowledge and practice accessible for everyone through great content, casual and immersive tastings, even joining Teng for part of the harvest.
Just last month Tea Drunk hosted a week-long tea course in Argentina (sparked by a previous tea club created in Mexico). This latest initiative came out of a desire to empower farmers in the region. As Teng explains, “There’s this tea farmer collective in northern Argentina. These are third-generation tea farmers and they have these tea trees that are over 80 years old. They said 80 years ago when their ancestors first got here, they used to know how to make tea and over time, they keep getting bought out by these large tea corporations and keep getting more and more marginalized. So, by now, all they can do is just plant the tea and harvest to sell the raw leaves to these manufacturers, who turn them into very bad quality tea. They are making very little money on tea that they have, and most importantly, it turns them into unskilled farmers.”
To help the farmers learn how to make tea again, Tea Drunk hosted classes that were open to anyone in Latin America who was interested in the process, with the money from course fees going to help fund the farmers. “It was the first time artisanal tea was made in that area, and I was told it was actually the first time yellow tea was made by a Chinese person in the region,” Teng says. “Everyone was so excited. Their local media and their town mayor all came down.”
As more and more large corporations threaten tea farming, homogenizing and depreciating the quality of tea, it becomes increasingly important to continue the historical practices of tea processing. On one hand, it preserves nuanced, layered tastes, as one tea from an eastern mountain tastes distinct from tea harvested in its western counterpart. On the other hand, it honors the generations of work from past tea cultivators, because, as Teng notes, good tea is made by hand: “You’re not only taking the original flavor of what nature is giving you but instead we apply the human touch to it, to manipulate the flavor of the tea. With one plant you’re able to make one type and then another” by using leaves from the same plant in different ways.
“I think that’s why key preservation is so important,” she concludes. “It is to not lose sight of this accomplishment that we have had as humans.”
Images courtesy of Tea Drunk