The crew is finished and gone home.
The teahouse is quiet.
I stand transfixed in the darkened main tearoom - amazed - how can all of this be?
When I reflect on our own little personal merchant's journey with the benevolent LEAF over these past fifteen years I am reminded again and again of the quickening that tea culture in America has experienced.
The amount of people who now come through the door with a pre-existing knowledge of pu-erh tea and gung fu cha for example, compared with our first year of doors open (in a brick and mortar setting) eleven years ago, is staggering. Maybe it was one in a hundred then. Now maybe about one in ten. Granted this town wasn't thought of by many in "the tea community" (pardon the elite term!) as a destination for good tea. Now Santa Cruz is often spoken of as a pu-erh town!
So what has happened in the interim? What has transpired in America that allows for the support of an esoteric teahouse like the Hidden Peak Teahouse in Santa Cruz?
The Pace of Modern Life
It seems to me that a great need has arisen in this country for devices that slow you down! A very simple concept but one, when you go into it, that gives insight to this topic. When things reach a tipping point, nature responds with counter-balances. This is the basic arithmetic for the cultural short-circuit that is occurring due to the fast pace of most working peoples' daily lives - and the response from the human nature in the members of society whispering, then proclaiming, then screaming, "I've gotta slow down!"
Tea, I believe, is an allied plant teacher of humanity whose basic message is always, "slow down. You have a beating heart right now and for how long you might have it you do not know. Slow down. Be here. Really be here."
So lets see, more observations. Okay, here is one - pu-erh tea information. The people who initially introduced us to pu-erh tea taught us that you could take any pre-existing tea and, through some "secret process", turn it into pu-erh!
This was actually a story that we got from a few reputable tea folks early on, for the simple reason that there was virtually no information in the printed world about pu-erh tea in the English language.
2006 saw the first translated work solely dedicated to pu-erh tea. Now the amount of info on the internet is so immense, so varied - and often contradictorily so that I have to help people come back to square one - the tea itself - before beginning a comprehensive discussion. Western culture often puts informational learning at a higher priority than experiential learning.
Leading, in this case, to a whole heap of confusion - too much information! So there we go - in fifteen years - from nothing to too much.
There is a book on my shelf from the late 1990's (by a noted tea authority) that classifies pu-erh tea as a semi-fermented oolong! This is a lovely and enjoyable book with great tea info but there just wasn't anything available at that time for even a well-connected tea expert to go on.
Starting to get the picture?
Puerh Boom Reaches America
We had some old vintages available back then, as it was just the beginning of the pu-erh bubble in China and people had already brought these teas to America (they hadn't been hunted and reclaimed to the homeland yet).
I would take bricks of really old tea and cut them in quarters on a board with a hand-saw out in the parking lot!
Well, I knew nobody would pay $100 for a brick of this tea they'd never heard of, but maybe $25 a quarter (no charge for the labor of cutting these granite-like bricks and carefully wrapping them in handmade paper). I thought that then possibly they might sell.
I've seen this vintage come up for sale at about $20,000 US per piece in recent years.
This is a true story and those are the real numbers! Things basically changed overnight for pu-erh, and most people getting into it now feel it to be a well-established tea genre in this country.
Tea, Itself, Is Heating Up
Starbucks just bought Teavana. What does this indicate?
Tea is hot (pardon the pun) in America.
The fact that Teavana exists in mall-land USA is amazing unto itself, but the coffee king proclaiming that its time to push tea to the forefront of the American marketplace is phenomenal!
In my opinion, anything that will propel tea into the mainstream is a good thing. Pu-erh teabags (flavored or otherwise) on the shelf in the supermarket is a thing I never thought I would see, but there they are.
Another change of note is the explosion of gung fu-type tea service at outdoor festivals and fairs. We got our start in the tea business at west coast summertime festivals and fairs so the phenomenon is especially interesting to us.
At the turn of the millennium we were doing a tour that brought us up through California into Oregon and Washington state. Having spent about a decade and a half prior attending festivals we thought that a tea booth might be a hit, being that we had NEVER seen tea served at these weekend long gatherings. Nobody coming to the events had ever heard of the aged bricks we sold or seen the little clay teapots we used to serve tea - some folks had seen the yixing-ware but most thought them to be just for decoration.
The amount of tea served at festivals now is so overwhelming - it's hard to believe that just 15 years ago it didn't exist! The neo-tribal culture in this country is brilliant at showcasing ancient ritualistic methods for coming home, or being present if you will. I think it's a beautiful thing that so many folks are sharing tea in this arena, even if I've been irked at times by the trendiness.
The Way Of Tea
So changes... yeah, it's on the wind. Tea is re-appearing in our country as a healthy, sustainable alternative to coffee, soda, energy drinks, and the like, but I'm looking a bit deeper under the surface of this cultural phenomena and seeing a tide turning. For those fortunate enough to "get it" the potential of the tea leaf to inspire remembrance, coming home and slowing down, is endless.
The life of tea, creates the mind of tea, allows the way of tea. Tea when you're drinking it - tea when you're not. Slow down and enjoy.
- to be continued -
Happy New Year,