Welcome to Tea Partners,
our new wholesale project from the team behind Verdant Tea.
For our first blog post, we have an interview with co-founder David Duckler for a behind the scenes look and the full story behind this new project, from where we started to our plans for the future. No matter how you’re sharing tea, we’re excited for the opportunity to partner with you!
How did you get into the tea business?
Like many of the great things in life – entirely by accident.
I went to school for international relations, and got a State Department grant to do a research project on anything I could dream of as long, as I gained fluency in Chinese as part of it. I had already studied at Qingdao University (where I’d later meet Verdant Tea Co-Founders Weiwei and Qingqing), and walked by tea markets every day on my way to class. I was there to absorb the good the bad and the ugly in equal parts, but tea was this bastion of civility, hospitality and aesthetics that felt like an untouched living culture continuous from the ancient history I was devouring at the time. I chose to research tea because I felt most at home, most happy and most engaged when talking to tea people.
My grant work took me all across China. I was welcomed into the homes of community leaders in tea villages, pioneers and innovators. I was welcomed as the 18 year old student that I was, not a business person. This cultural connection sparked lifelong friendships, ones that would have been near impossible to forge if I went over today as an importer. I collected tea folklore, wrote down old stories and learned firsthand what the best tea in the world tasted like.
I came back to the United States in love with tea culture, and excited to share and engage with a tea community stateside. I searched and searched but couldn’t find real tea. Everything I drank suffered from the problems I later learned are inherent to factory-farmed catalog-order tea: bitterness, astringency, weak flavor, no aftertaste, and acrid chemical notes.
After meeting some of the best farmers in China, and learning about their challenges and dreams, all I really wanted was to share the feeling of inspiration I felt being welcomed into their homes, and the awe I felt tasting their tea. These were pre-digital days for China, so I got myself a phone card and started getting back in touch. I was nervous to bring commerce into the friendships I had forged, but all of my friends in China were actually excited for the chance to share their teas beyond their village. My first tea partners were the He Family, Wang Yanxin, and Li Xiaoping, all of whom I met as a student. Qingqing (of the He Family in Laoshan) and Weiwei who went to class with me in Qingdao teamed up to open our first office in China where they could pack up tea and send them to the United States.
We all knew that it was a huge risk to try to introduce a totally different class of tea outside of China, but we thought at the very least the effort would be worth it for the cultural exchange. We were hoping to inspire even just a handful of people to see how incredible tea could be. It turns out our friends’ tea could speak for itself, as it became an instant hit, garnering some of the highest reviews and most buzz of anything out there back in 2011. The tiny quantities we were bringing over soon became nowhere near enough to meet the demand. We realized that we were onto something truly important, and I got tickets back to China to meet up and regroup.
We decided that if this was going to be more than just a cultural exchange, we needed to make history. We needed to be the first foreign company in Shandong to get an export license for small family tea farmers. Export licenses and inspection certificates are a necessary part of getting anything more than a few dozen pounds of tea out of China, and it turned out that the government was not keen to grant licenses to anyone competing with their state-owned factory farms.
It ended up taking years of groundwork in China, and several miracles, but we succeeded in gaining the precious licensing that allows us to bring in tea from individual farmers, not brokers or factories. We kept at it because of the people behind the tea.
While working on our licensing, I kept going back to China several times a year for months at a time. Over the years I met Master Zhang, Huang Ruiguang, Master Zhou of the Dongsa Cooperative, Li Xiangxi, and many others whose passionate contributions to the industry, innovative farming, and honest pure hospitality were an inspiration to become an advocate of their work.
Every farmer I’ve met over the years who has become a lifelong friend shares the same challenges of a precarious and unstable market in China, threats of development, and competition from factory farms. These friends have all united together for Tea Partners to achieve the same dream of being representatives of their culture as their work is shared across the world, and to use the stability and income to invest in their communities and their workshops
I got into the business for the culture, but what keeps me at it day after day are the people I’ve met along the way.
Why wholesale now?
When I first started bringing tea over to share in the United States, it was on the smallest of scales. We didn’t have any investors, and we were pioneering a new way forward in tea. Each shipment we brought over from China was an epic challenge to get in. I packed every order as they came in, filling little 25g bags one at a time, and walking boxes to the post office to ship them out. My main goal was sharing the stories of the people behind the tea. Writing articles, sharing videos and offering their teas online with a simple website seemed like the clearest way to do that.
I met Geoffrey at a teahouse in Minneapolis, and he came on as a partner to help put together a website that really gave our partners the chance to share their teas properly.
Over the years, things have changed.
Our site has become a virtual farmers market for nearly a dozen families in China whose work we want the chance to advocate for. We’ve leveraged our years in China to get the licensing we need to bring tea in at a bigger scale and at better prices to our customers. As we’ve changed, the industry has begun to evolve, too. People are finally starting to hold tea as accountable as coffee, asking where a tea comes from and whether the people picking it benefit. Coffee shops and tea houses have been leading the way, one community at a time, working to bring on better product with greater transparency.
As the industry is finally dragged out of the dark ages, our partners in China are excited for the opportunity to be some of the first families to have a direct hand in bringing the tea they picked all the way to market. Our capacity to represent and advocate for our partners has grown parallel to demand for tea like what they produce.
This year, the two growth curves have met up. We want to take the lead with our partners across China in moving the whole industry forward, enabling a true shift to transparently-sourced and sustainably-farmed hand-picked tea.
What makes you guys different?
Relationships. At the end of the day that’s it, true and simple.
You’d think at first that wouldn’t be unique or defining in the industry. You’d think that you could just pop over to China and go on a whirlwind tour to find the best tea out there, but you can’t. It takes decades of building friendship and trust, common language, and bonding through good times and hard times with the people we care about. The best tea in the world isn’t bought on the open market. It is a gift of sorts, an expression of trust to share the very best without reserve. If a tea is hand-picked, and hand-finished by small family farms, grown with care using sustainable agriculture on biodiverse plots for the best flavor possible it isn’t just going to end up at a commodity auction house or pushed off to a broker.
Craftsmen have options.
They don’t need to work with the first person that walks by.
Between owners Weiwei, Qingqing, Wang Huimin, Lily, Geoffrey and myself, we’ve been at this for a hundred years. Our tea partners trust us with their tea because they know that we are here to present it just the way they would present it themselves if they had the time, resources, English language and export licensing to go it alone. We are here to share a good piece of our lifetimes and the relationships gained along the way, not just to represent the finest teas, but to actually get them out of China and into the United States without compromising control to a Chinese state-backed wholesaler.
It might be easier for us and for you to all just buy from catalogs, from alibaba, from expos. It might be easy to pretend, but that isn’t what we are here for. We are here to share a good piece of our lifetime opening up the market so that we can work together to make sustainable small family farming a model for a better future, not a trampled buzzword.
What are your plans for the coming year?
We’re just getting started here.
We launched our new wholesale program in May of 2018, and we have big plans for the months ahead. Every cent we make goes straight back into expanding the collection and doing what we do better and better. We are excited to bring in 2018 spring harests for wholesale, along with a wider selection including white teas, Dancongs, and an expanded line of pu’er from Xingyang and the Dongsa Cooperative. Once we are happy with our bulk line-up, we’ll be bringing in retail-packaged bags of our most popular offerings for you to put straight on the shelf
Beyond just looseleaf tea, we are excited to share our decade-plus of work in tea ware with an expanded in-stock tea ware selection for both service and retail sale.
We are lucky enough to represent some wonderful teaware workshops in China, and we can’t wait to bring in the best of their collections.
We are also excited to help with both custom printed and stock tea packaging for companies looking to package their own tea and blends. We are sick of seeing such incredibly expensive packaging in the US with such ludicrously high run minimums for custom work. When you are paying more for packaging than you are for tea, it is impossible to run a business. We want to help with that.
As always, we are listening to what our partners in China want and to what you want.
Help us set our priorities by getting in touch with a request. If we don’t have what you need in stock now, we’ll do whatever is in our power to get it in for you.
We are here for your custom requests, direct shipping, and more. We remember getting started – it wasn’t that long ago! We respect the smallest client, we respect the power of your dreams to change the world, and we are here to help you like our partners helped us.
All you have to do is ask!
What do you want to see change going forward?
We hope that as we are lucky enough to work with great folks like you, we can educate consumers to the point where they ask about sourcing and standards wherever they are. We hope it becomes an expectation to know where a tea comes from, how it was made, and whether the growers benefited from the transaction.
We want to cut the red tape and make it less scary to work with Chinese families and entrepreneurs. We want to make it easier for you to represent their craft.
We want to see tea as a whole become less scary, less snobby, and less intimidating. We want to see tea come back to its roots as a plant, grown and cultivated in the dirt by human hands. Our friends in China grow tea for people to enjoy. Our friends grow tea to be approachable, hospitable and graceful.
Let’s make a tea culture worldwide that makes tea as easy to incorporate into everyday life as coffee by stripping the industry bare of excess and nonsense. Let’s bring it all back to the joy we feel when we taste something wonderful made by good people.
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