Over a year ago, I came in contact with a particular gal through another gal. (And I just like using the word “gal”; I don’t care if it sounds old-fashioned.) Tea MC Tiff – who I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions – made a trip to Kyoto, Japan and visited the Obubu Tea Plantation. While there, she also made contact with one Elyse Petersen – then an intern for Obubu. Elyse was also instrumental in hooking me up with some of the plantation’s sakura blossom tisane.
She found me on Twitter, and we began networking a wee bit. In one such twitversation, she mentioned how she and a few others were starting up their own tea company – Tealet. In passing, she pointed me in the direction of their Kickstarter campaign. I paid it some attention, but…I had no funds to pay. (Perpetually broke and all.) However, I filed them away in my mental archive for future consideration.
Their business model was a unique one, and – I’ll confess – one I didn’t fully understand. (I majored in English, not Economics.) As far as I could comprehend, their goal was threefold – act as an auction house, a monthly subscription service and a wholesaler. Representing whom? This was the kicker: Small farmers.
We on the snootier end of the tea community (and/or circus) always speak in glib terms like “estates”, “farmers”, and “gardens”. Funny thing is, though, most of us haven’t made a whole lot of contact with growers themselves. We rely on larger e-commerce wholesalers and retailers to do the sourcing for us. Even at our most esoteric, we’re lazy like that. In short, we know nothing about the tea except for what’s provided by the middle-folk.
Tealet’s mission was to establish a more direct link between the grower and the consumer, as well as acting as an intermediary between retailer and sourcer. The best part being, the farmers themselves would see a greater share of profit from their wares through Tealet’s business model.
Image mooched from Tealet.com
At least, that’s how my tiny, tea drunk brain understood it.
Fast-forward to World Tea Expo in June – the Tea Bloggers Roundtable, to be precise. There was a woman in the audience dressed in a hot pink wig with furry green antennae. The sight made me wonder if the Las Vegas Convention Center was also home to a cosplay event as well. It wasn’t until I was within earshot of the conversation that I learned it was Elyse. And, so, I made my actual, IRL acquaintance with Tealet’s Tea Fairy. (A masterstroke of mascoting, I might add.)
In the ensuing months following the Expo, we remained in cursory contact. Nothing big, nothing small. But then I watched an interview podcast she did for Nicole “Tea For Me Please” Martin regarding Tealet. That gave me gumption to check out Tealet’s website again. I was particularly impressed how all the growers Tealet had come in contact with had their own in-depth profiles. The sheer diversity of regions they covered also left me slack-jawed.
I don’t recall exactly how it happened – I may have been tea drunk when I did it – but somewhere down the line, I inquired about the Indonesian teas they’d featured for auction. One was a curled black tea (dubbed Black Pearl) from Mountain Tea; the other was an oolong from PT Harendong. A week or so later, I received samples of those and a few others.
Since I was on a bit of an oolong kick that month, I dug into the PT Harendong one first.
The leaves were traditionally ball-fisted, dark to the appearance – ranging from brown to…uh…browner. By sight and smell, it reminded me of a dark roast Ti Guan Yin, exuding a nutty (if burnt) smell like chestnuts lit on fire. (I like using that term – “lit on fire”. Very apt.)
I treated this as I would any other oolong, as gongfu (or gongfoolishly) as possible. Several successive infusions – each for twenty seconds or more. The first infusion was somewhat roasty and a wee bit floral. Subsequent infusion took on a roastier, woodsier profile. My favorite was probably the second (at thirty seconds), which took on an almond note on the finish. The whole shebang was very Ti Guan Yin. There are worse teas to be compared to. Generally, I liked it.
The second was a confusing beast of a tea. At first, I thought Mountain Tea (a Taiwanese based grower/retailer) had merely sourced their Black Pearl tea – given that it was from Sumatra. Elyse quickly set me straight, informing me that Mountain Tea had a garden in Indonesia as well. Color me corrected.
When I originally tore open the bag, the first thing I caught a whiff of was chocolate candy. I looked down at the leaves. They were chocolate-colored and ball-fisted, interspersed with bits of stem. The visual and aromatic presentation reminded me of a heavily oxidized oolong from Taiwan.
I used a teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan, and infused them for two-and-a-half minutes in boiled water.
On the grower’s profile, they said that this tea had a distinct flavor of Washington Red Apples. Yeah right, I thought. Well…color me impressed when I got a sense of apple-like sweetness in the top note. The flavor started with a typical black tea-ish wood-sweet, maybe malty lean – similar to a few Taiwanese blacks, and then just…grew. I’ve tasted teas with nuance, but not very many that changed flavor as I was sipping them. Very beguiling.
If this was merely a prologue of what Tealet had to offer, then they were now permanently on my list. I hear the term “direct-from-the-grower” a lot, but I don’t necessarily believe it until I run into weird s**t like this.
Recently, Tealet finally went live with their wholesale catalogue. Some familiar faces were on the roster, as well as some unfamiliar ones. American ones. Elyse and Team Tealet have been on the forefront of the coverage given to U.S. tea growers, both in Hawaii and beyond. In fact, they just recently finished a cross-country tour of U.S. tea growing regions.
They also put the bug in Jason “FiLoLi Farms” McDonald’s ear to allow participants to adopt tea plants in states not associated with tea growing. Too bad Oregon already had a tea garden. I would’ve been all over that like a stripper to a pole
Bad analogy? Oh well…I didn’t say I was a good English major.