It’s not that I write a lot of newsletters; the last one was in 2010! But so much has happened in the last three years. I suppose the biggest news is that for the first time in 23 years, I did not travel to China for my annual tea purchasing.
But we did get some really good teas this year, and thanks to my long time trusted suppliers, there is something for everyone. Although we’re only featuring a few teas here, you’ll see in our enclosed tea list that the selection is quite extensive.
For those who are just beginning their tea journey, we have added an Introductory Tea Sampler that will give you generous portions from all categories of the five types of tea: white, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. As with all of our teas, they’ll come packed in a resealable airtight bag labeled with the name and type of tea to make it easy to reorder. Also included with the sampler are detailed brewing instructions that cover all styles of teamaking. INTRODUCTORY TEA SAMPLER Catalog No. 9600 $50 each.
All is well here. We are so fortunate to have Jeannie in the office. She keeps the wheels turning smoothly, and after 3 ½ years, her favorite tea is still Golden Bi Luo. This tea has been very popular for us, and we are happy to have it in our permanent selection. It is one of our flagship black teas. It comes from Yunnan Province and has the classic full-bodied taste that goes so well on its own, and milk tea drinkers won’t be disappointed either. GOLDEN BI LUO Catalog No. 4401 ¼ lb @ $30.
As a thank you to our loyal customers, we are offering a 20% discount on all orders of $500 or more (sorry, accessories are not included in this offer). We will honor this discount until the first day of Spring, March 21st, 2014. Please mention this special offer with your order.
Post Office Box 287 Lagunitas, California 94938
415 488-9017 Tel 415 488-9015 Fax
A CHANGING CHINA
I have been working in China for 23 years and traveling throughout Asia for nearly 50 years. I never cease to be amazed at the rapidity of changes taking place. It seems that every time I return China is changing and developing at a faster pace than ever before. For the first time in 2012, China set a new record of wealth, with over one million millionaires! And that’s not one million Yuan, but one million dollar millionaires.
A survey taken in China last year showed how the nouveau riche are spending their money. Top of the list was travel; the Chinese love to travel. Second was shopping for luxury goods. With two thousand dollar purses, eight hundred dollar belts, and thousand dollar bottles of Bordeaux, the extravagant malls are packed with shoppers eager to keep up with the latest trends. Cell phones, one of the biggest status symbols, seem to become obsolete overnight as demand rises for gadgets with the very latest bells and whistles.
We all know the Chinese are avid tea drinkers, but the amount of money that changes hands over tea was quite astounding. Billions are spent annually for the dried leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. Not only are record high prices being set, but the demand for good tea has now far exceeded the supply. Not that all Chinese would recognize quality, but lavish packing, along with great marketing and a very high price tag, have made any tea sell quite easily. With some of the more popular teas, competition from too many buyers has driven up prices to stratospheric levels. There is so much money available for investment that speculators with lots of cash on hand – and the hope of making a quick easy profit – are jumping into the business of tea.
Arriving in their fancy BMWs and Mercedes, single investors have bought up entire mountaintops of tea farms.
Some of the most prolific buyers of tea are government officials eager to impress their colleagues and win favors. New teahouses are blossoming throughout China, and the demand for tea art education has created schools with tea culture curriculum.
Buying tea anywhere in China is now really quite easy; small tea shops can be found in any neighborhood. And to meet the growing demand, major tea markets have emerged in places such as Guangzhou, Kunming, and Beijing. From a modest several dozen shops just twenty years ago, these markets now occupy vast neighborhoods packed with thousands of individual tea businesses. I’m often asked how buying tea in China has changed over the past two decades. True, it’s far easier to get tea out of China now, but frankly speaking, I’m nostalgic for the old days. Even during the first six or seven years which were particularly frustrating and painful – and put me on the verge of quitting the business more times than I care to remember – there was something pure and innocent about this time. True, I was the only dance in town.
There’s an expression in China that says, “When the lion is away, even a monkey can be king”.
By default, I had become valuable property for those who believed they could benefit from their association with me. Tea farmers who had heard of my reputation would bend over backwards to find me and show off their proud harvest. I was in newspapers, magazines, even on boxes of tea. I’ve been on Chinese national television at least half a dozen times, including a grandiose staged event in Taishun, Zhejiang Province, with TV crews, and a host of news reporters, all there to watch me put my signature on a piece of paper for a joint venture project with myself and the National Tea Research Institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.
Embarrassingly, I was picked up at the airport, chauffeured around to several tea farms, met with government officials, all with a police escort, siren blaring and lights flashing. There always seemed to be a sense of urgency to reach each destination; but we’d arrive and then leisurely sit around for hours drinking tea. The signing was followed by a big banquet. The banquet hall was filled with the mayor, governor, and every other official who loves to eat and drink to excess, and all at the government’s expense. The evening ended with fireworks over the city, and all of this was over me putting my name on a piece of paper! Looking back at this event, the highlight was not somewhere under the camera lights or the feigning of being an important successful businessman honored for a major joint tea venture blah blah blah…rather, it was the opportunity to meet so many of the local tea farmers at the big tasting that was arranged and tasting some of their finest teas with the judges. There were some twenty farms alone that produced a Snow Dragon, a popular green tea from the Taishun area in Zhejiang Province. If you want to taste a Snow Dragon green tea, try ours. SNOW DRAGON Catalog No. 2105 ¼ lb. @ $30.
These were great teas to be sure, and I brought back some small quantities of the winning teas and some of the runner-ups. But they were just too expensive. If taste were the sole criterion in judging a tea, I did much better in the street markets where farmers, sleepy-faced from being up all night making their tea, had their labors laid out before them. This is how I got my start in the tea business. It was the procurement of single-day harvests, bought directly from the farmers who made them, that provided me with some of the finest handcrafted teas in the world.
If I liked a particular tea, the farmers were always more than willing to invite me to their farms. One of the benefits of doing business this way was the establishment of relationships with small farmers. I have so many fond memories of their kindness and hospitality.
When I got my start in the tea business, there were over eight million tea farmers in China.
Is it time for a tea break?
How about a rare Taiping Houkui green tea? I used to buy this tea years ago, but haven’t had a good source without having to travel back to Anhui Province. This one just came up, and I jumped on it. It has all the great taste and aroma that I remembered from many years ago. I love the beautiful handpressed leaves of this flavorful tea. Enjoy it for the appearance as well as for the taste and aroma. No need for a teapot, strainers or filters, as it can simply be steeped in a tall glass. TAIPING HOUKUI Catalog No. 2301 ¼ lb. @ $40.
For teapot lovers and those looking for a more elegant presentation when serving this tea, try our GLASS TEAPOT, 20oz. Catalog No. 8110 @ $30 each.
Fresh in from Yunnan is a new green tea that is quite tasty, and a great value.
HEI MAO JIAN Catalog No. 2705 ¼ lb. @ $15
For those who are price-conscious and want to have a decent everyday green tea, we have added just that: GREEN TEA – A DECENT EVERYDAY TEA Catalog No. 2609 ¼ lb. @ $8.
Good news for all you pu-erh drinkers. We are opening up our pu-erh cave with many rare pu-erhs collected over the past two decades, and are offering a nice discount on these teas for those looking to add to their collection. Once these teas are gone, they’re gone; I will not be returning to China to restock my inventory. The rarest of the collection will be given to The Tea Museum, which I will tell you about in my next newsletter. Please don’t ask me for detailed information on these teas. I am not a pu-erh scholar, nor did I have any interest in the academics of pu-erh. I was, and still remain, simply a tea drinker. I have been enjoying pu-erh teas since 1967, and I collected these teas throughout Yunnan Province because I liked the taste and thought they were a good value. I can vouch for their authenticity. All these teas I personally collected beginning in 1992, and all have had provenance in my custody ever since. They have been well-stored under ideal conditions for aging.
As most of these teas are pressed (cakes, bricks, mushroom-shaped, bowl-shaped, etc.), we will begin dividing up some of them for sampling so that you can taste before investing in a purchase. Sample most any tea in our inventory, up to three different varieties per order, $5.00 per sample. We want you to be sure you buy a pu-erh that you’ll enjoy for years to come.
Our first offering of these very special pu-erhs will be the Fu Lu Shou Xi, produced in 1992 from the original Xiaguan Tea Factory. If you have seen Les Blank’s documentary All In This Tea (it is still available for instant watch on Netflix and Amazon), there is a scene at the Hong Kong tea shop where I had tasted and purchased this very tea in 1996. I thought I had sold out, but a few years ago I found an entire unopened chest buried in the cave. The only other source I knew for this original issue (beware of copies and fakes on the market) was in a tea shop in Malaysia, where it was priced at more than US$600 per piece, but they have since sold out. I know our price, at $250, is quite reasonable for this highly collectible tea.
We’ve already sold out half of this chest; so if you’d like to purchase one, don’t wait too long. If you want this tea in original packing of 4 x 250g, the price is $1,000.
Sorry, maximum four pieces per customer. FU LU SHOU XI 下關 – 福祿壽禧 Xiaguan – 1992 Catalog No. 580 250g @ $250 each.
I’m also very proud of my Silver Bud White Pu-erh.
This tea has been aged a full ten years in my cave here in Lagunitas, using techniques that I’ve learned over the years from my travels throughout Yunnan. I will proudly say this is the first American-made white pu-erh. A very sweet and friendly tea that’s easy to brew. Try it, you will like it. SILVER BUD WHITE PU–ERH – Catalog No. 5810 ¼ lb. @ $30.
By the way, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the best place to buy tea is not mail-ordered from The Phoenix Collection as we’ve always been mainly a wholesale company. Though we do have good tea, you need to buy at least ¼ lb at a time, there’s a $50 minimum, and you must pay for the shipping. The Good Earth, in nearby Fairfax, is our main retail outlet. They have a fabulous selection of our tea where you can open up the canisters, smell the freshness and character of the tea before buying, and there is no minimum so you can try small amounts of many different teas for very little money. Good Earth Natural Foods, 720 Center Boulevard, Fairfax. And also look for us starting in 2014 at Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom Street, San Francisco.
It seems almost un-American to not want to grow a business. But to me, small is good. It allows me the time to talk personally with you (but please speak loud and clear, my hearing isn’t what it used to be!).
The reality is I’m going to be 70 years old next year. Physically, I can’t keep lugging 30 kilo chests of tea around.
Though I do want to remain connected with tea, I need to keep the business small enough so it’s manageable and my time commitment is no more than three days a week. For me, traveling to China is not so much a glamorous adventure anymore. It’s getting time to turn that part of the business over to the younger generation.
One reason I’ve been trying to get the tea business down to just three days a week to allow more time to indulge in some of my other passions such as growing heirloom wheat (grew out 25 varietals this year), and rare potatoes (just came back from my second trip to Peru with more than 80 rare varietals of seed potatoes and will be returning again in the spring for another college-sponsored potato project). I’m still raising earthworms, as I have been for 43 years.
And I’m writing two books on tea. So many projects and so little time!
I also still have a permit from the USDA to bring Camellia sinensis tea plants from China into the United States.
Let me know if you are interested.
Thank you for bearing with my verbiage, I’ve done my best to bring you up-to-date with the current state of affairs. At the end of the day, my goal is really just to provide you with good tea. My tea inventory is far too vast to talk about each one separately, but if you’ve enjoyed reading this newsletter, please let me know. It will provide some incentive to do another sooner. I so appreciate all your support and confidence in The Phoenix Collection. As the tea industry continues to grow and our inventory continues to shrink, please indulge in our tea while you can. There is so much more I would like to say. I could fill up a whole newsletter just talking more about the organic tea movement, which is so dear to my heart, but alas, at another time.
In closing, hats off to a dear friend and legend, filmmaker Les Blank, who passed away on April 7th, 2013 after a “well-spent life”. His last documentary, which he made with Gina Leibrecht, was about my tea journey in China, All In This Tea. I know that many of you have learned about me through this film. He did get his last wish fulfilled, however; his body was vermicomposted using my earthworms and ten pounds of his favorite tea, Golden Bi Luo! But that’s another story for another newsletter…
David Lee Hoffman
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If you want to talk by phone, the best time to call is Tuesday to Thursday, 10-5.
PS. Some of you may have heard about my struggles with the Country of Marin. Unfortunately, greywater and other very sustainable systems are still illegal in Marin County. We are hopeful to have a resolution that will allow the structures and systems to remain intact and functioning as a model of sustainability. The application process for our Historic Landmark Status has been submitted by John Torrey, City Planner, and we have been encouraged with all the positive support. For further information or if you want to make a tax-deductible donation, please go to www.thelastresortlagunitas.org