One of our tea enthusiasts at Meimei Fine Teas, Derek Elliott, arranged a phone interview with Victoria to discuss her tea sourcing trips and learn more about them. Where do our teas come from? What makes them so important? Why can they sometimes be expensive? If you’ve ever wondered about these topics or just simply wanted to learn more about tea sourcing trips, we decided to share this informational interview with Victoria in which she discusses the sourcing process, sourcing philosophy, and the perspective she has gained along the way.
This will be posted in our blog section in two parts.
MeiMei Fine Teas was founded by Victoria Wu in 2014. Moved by her intense passion for tea, she bravely turned away from her professional career and resolved to find the highest quality, most authentic teas in the world. This project has become a labor of love, requiring her to travel far and wide on annual tea sourcing trips that, at times, prove physically and mentally demanding. But in spite of the obstacles encountered along the way, these trips have empowered her to visit some of the most beautiful locations in Wuyishan, ascend some of the highest peaks in Yunnan, and taste some of the most legendary teas in the world. As a result of these efforts, MeiMei Fine Teas has won many global tea championship awards, covering a variety of tea categories over the past four years.
It is these kinds of personal experiences that have guided Victoria’s vision for MeiMei Fine Teas. Dedicated entirely to this wonderful beverage that unites so many of us, MeiMei Fine Teas is the medium through which Victoria eagerly shares her treasures and discoveries with fellow tea enthusiasts, hoping that people everywhere can taste for themselves such amazing cups of tea without having to travel straight to the source.
Derek: First, I would like to say thank you for participating in this interview. As someone who really appreciates a good cup of loose-leaf tea, I have always wondered about the sourcing process. I think many loose-leaf tea drinkers take comfort in the idea of a curator directly sourcing teas, but I don’t think we really understand how involved these trips can be. Would you mind walking us through a typical tea sourcing trip? How far do you travel and how many places do you visit?
Victoria: Well, I have traveled extensively throughout mainland China, exploring some of the most famous and legendary tea regions, such as Anxi county for Tie Guan Yin, Fuding county for white tea, and Anhui province for green teas and Keemun black tea. For the past several years, I spent more than two months traveling annually in China.
Clearly, there are many places you can go for teas, but when you’re interested in only certain kinds of specialty teas, such as high mountain or legendary ones, this greatly limits the options. For example, if I want Keemun black tea, then I will go directly to Keemun; whereas, if I want pu’erh, then I’ll need to make sure I visit Yunnan. But even then, the best tea will mostly be found growing in traditional core-producing areas, and more specifically, this most often will be in these remote, high-mountain areas that feature some of the cleanest environments in the world.
Did you know that in Yunnan, for instance, about 95% of pu’erh teas are grown on plantations with very dense, crowded growing conditions? These teas are sold for the mass market at a lower price. Even though the weather is less than ideal on these low-altitude farms, agricultural technology has come such a long way that the finished tea leaves look perfect. The reason is that these tea cultivars are genetically modified to help meet this massive demand, and a lot of times this requires using fertilizers and pesticides to combat the poor growing conditions. All of this is closely monitored to meet the state-regulated industry standard. This is sort of like what you might find in the produce section of a grocery store. We can see the genetically modified fruits and vegetables, even with the label of USDA, and not only are there so many of them, but they all look the same and somewhat lack in flavor.
This isn’t the kind of tea that I want, and so I’m not interested in sourcing these pu’erh teas. I am looking for authenticity, tradition, quality, organic. When it comes to pu’erh, for example, this means you have to look for the 5%, the ancient trees growing in the remotest of areas. But even of the 5%, I’m more specifically looking for that 1%, the skillfully processed tea grown in the cleanest environment, truly special teas.
To access these special teas, you have to travel far, and sometimes this even takes me to the borders of Laos and Myanmar. For example, I might go to Yiwu Mountain where the tribute teas of the Qing Dynasty were grown, and in this area, I’ll go as far as Gua Feng Zhai or Wan Gong Zhai, two villages where on one side of the mountain lies China and the other side Laos.
When I visit these areas, I’ll try to make sure that my teas are coming from the national forest or at least the surrounding areas outside of the villages, and I’ll further choose the teas that come from the first harvest. I want my teas to be as natural and organic as possible. It is important to me to source the most ecologically friendly, sustainably grown teas I can find.
Once, for example, when I stayed in Yiwu in the ancient town of tribute puerh tea, I had to walk several hours on foot in these hot, humid conditions through a heavily forested area, climbing the mountains just to see these tea trees. No matter how exhausted this can make you feel, when you get there and pick the leaves, when you see exactly where the teas are coming from, how natural and clean their environment is and how they’re crafted, it makes it all worthwhile.
Derek: You mentioned that some teas are mass-produced on large scale farms. This touches on something I’ve long considered. Sometimes when I think about all of the tea companies worldwide attempting to source and sell their own teas, it’s hard to believe that all of them source high-quality tea. Just how rare is it?
Victoria: Depending on how you understand quality, I would say that high-quality tea is not as easily found in the market as one would think.
For example, Teavana was a huge tea company, and when you consider scale — the more than 300 stores, the number of customers they served on a daily basis — it’s impossible to secure the amount of quality tea produced in a village like Gua Feng Zhai, which is known for ancient trees that yield teas with amazing flavor. Here, the production is so limited; there just isn’t enough tea to meet that kind of demand. And so the reality is that in China, only a very limited number of tea factories and merchants have had the opportunity to source tea from Gua Feng Zhai; and yet, it is not uncommon to see teas everywhere in the pu’erh tea market labeled, “Gua Feng Zhai.” There are many copycat, inauthentic and fake teas, and some blended by all sorts of means. But since they are all named “Gua Feng Zhai,” they can be sold for a premium. Unfortunately, advertising this kind of tea as high-quality is just an exercise in marketing and branding.
When a company is expected to accommodate such a large pool of customers, they have to find ways to not only meet the demand but also make the product less expensive to maximize profit. One common way to do this is to just blend the teas with multiple harvests, origins, and even different varietals. Hypothetically, a company could mix high-quality tea with inferior tea from the same region, stretching out the product, and if they’re large enough with enough resources, they can just hire professional tasters to blend the teas and make sure they taste like one would expect.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest that blending tea leaves makes for inferior quality or necessarily bad tea. Companies can do this for all sorts of reasons, both good and bad. My point is simply that truly great tea leaves are so very limited, and as a result, some of the companies want to find other ways to serve the tea market. For me, though, that is neither an option nor even my desire. As a small boutique company, we instead strive to serve the tea community with high-quality, authentic tea — the real deal, no blends, no mixes, no warehouses or wholesalers. The sourcing trips, usually a minimum of a couple of months each year, help me monitor our tea from the leaf-plucking to the finish, survey the local resources, and guarantee that my teas are 100% single origin, single harvest, pure teas that are ecologically grown in core-producing areas.
All of this is why it is necessary that I spend a couple of months each year in these tea regions, especially in the Yunnan pu’erh regions. For example, when it comes to white tea, the production areas can be found throughout Fujian province, with the main areas primarily in Fuding County and Zheng He County. Now, even though white tea from Zheng He County is priced cheaper and is more easily available, we will only source white tea from Fuding County because this area is regarded as producing the best, highest-quality white tea available.
- To be continued