HANGZHOU HAS THOUSANDS OF TEA HOUSES. HERE IS AN INTERVIEW WITH ONE OF THE BEST. MS. CHENYING, THE OWNER OF YAYEJI TALKS TO US ABOUT GROWING UP WITH TEA IN CHINA, GETTING A DEGREE IN TEA, AND HOW CHINA'S TEA INDUSTRY IS CHANGING.
Note: Interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Danielle Hochstetter.
Q: When did you first become interested in tea?
Actually, when I was young, my grandmother and grandfather both drank tea. Since I grew up with them, I lived with them, every morning when we woke up, my grandfather- the first thing he would do was steep a huge cup of tea and drink it throughout the day. So that was my first impression of tea. Then, in the summer, we would play outdoors in the heat and come home very thirsty. My grandmother had clay teapots steeping tea and I would come in and get a cup of tea. I remember at the time feeling like, as soon I would drink that tea, I wasn't thirsty anymore. So I've always been drinking tea and had some interest in it.
Q: Did your grandparents also grow tea?
No, they would buy it and drink it everyday. This was before I went to elementary school, when I was living with my paternal grandparents. Now, my father also drinks tea everyday. When I started elementary school, I went to live with my parents and sometimes I would take my father's tea and make it myself. So, since I've grown up around tea-drinkers, I've always been interested in tea.
Q: Did they drink green tea?
Yes, they all drank green tea. Then, later I went to college, and since my major in college was tea, I finally learned about all the different types of tea. Until then, I only knew about and drank green tea.
Q: Why did you decide to major in tea in college?
At the time, well, on the day of the college entrance exam*, I was sick and didn't test well. So, I was limited in which schools I could go to. So, one school I choose on the application was Zhejiang Agricultural University (now part of Zhejiang University) and for a major, I chose three majors, one was environmental protection, one was landscaping, and one was tea. As it turned out, I was accepted by the tea department. Since I had an idea of what tea is all about since I was small, I filled in those choices.
Q: Since American universities don't have tea as a major, could you talk about what a tea major entails?
Sure. When you study tea as a major, it's very systematic study of everything related to tea, from growing and processing tea to tea tasting and the tea trade. There's even an English class especially for tea majors and tea plant pathology classes, how to care for the plants, etc. You could say that most of my theoretical knowledge about tea was learned in college, but since then, after working in tea for all these years and meeting people who also work in the tea business, people who like tea, and people who study tea, I think I have learned more about tea from this time than from college. For example, how to steep a good cup of tea.
Q: You have been in the tea business for more than 20 years, right?
Just about. I graduated in '93, so almost 20 years.
Q: China has gone through a lot of changes since then, and I'm guessing the tea industry has as well. What changes have you seen in this time?
When I first graduated, and, since I have been in Hangzhou this whole time, I think you could say that when I first started, people's understanding of tea and customs, stopped at Longjing tea (the locally produced green tea). Tea drinking was limited to that one tea. Later, with the development of transportation and media, people started to come in contact with tea from other areas, for example oolong tea and pu'er tea. So, looking at it now, people in a place like Hangzhou can accept many different teas. They don't just drink local Longjing tea, they will choose tea based on their own preference, on their physique, on their palate. For example, some people think that Longjing, after steeping two or three times, is too weak. So they might choose to drink Anxi's Tieguanyin since it's more fragrant and you can steep it for longer. But some people find Tieguanyin too lightly oxidized and want something heavier or it gives them a stomachache, they might choose something with heavier oxidation, like an oolong like fenghuang dancong or yancha, or even black tea or shu (cooked) pu'er tea.
Q: Since you mentioned pu'er, I think that's one tea that's experienced a huge change the past few years.
Yes, the past few years, pu'er has become very popular because of it's health benefits, like being able to lower cholesterol levels, make people loose weight, etc. So, now people are interested in it because they are afraid they will have these health problems. So, the pu'er market has been very active. But since the end of last year it has started to slow down and not been as active as in the past.
Q: Do you sell pu'er in your tea house?
Yes, but it is not our main product. In the spring we mostly sell Longjing and some other green teas. In the winter, Tieguanyin oolong and Dancong oolong sell well.
Q: It seems that your tea house really has a lot of variety in the teas you sell.
Yes, we sell many different types of tea.
Q: In America, right now, organic tea is very popular. do you see this in the Chinese market?
We do have some organic tea. We carry a tea from Qiandao Hu (Thousand Island Lake) where one of my college classmates does organic tea. Truthfully, we all hope that we can buy and drink tea that does not have pesticides and where they use organic fertilizer- tea that will only be beneficial to your health, have good side effects, and won't have a negative influence on one's health. But, since the cost of growing organic tea is higher than conventional tea, the price is comparatively expensive. Based on current consumer habits in China, and here in Hangzhou, I think you could say, most people are not ready to accept the higher price of organic tea. But I think organic tea is a trend that will continue in the future, as people pay more attention to their health and more attention to the tea business, I think it will become more and more important.
Q: How did you start out in the tea industry? Doing retail, or wholesale, or something else?
I have always done work related to tea culture. Especially training. Now, at Yayeji tea house, customers can taste tea, buy tea, and accessories so we do more retail here. Of course, we do have customers that are tea houses or other establishments that buy a lot of different kinds of tea all at once. So we do have some business that counts as wholesale. But I like retail myself, because every customer will sit and chat with me about tea and things related to tea, so we become friends through tea. I also understand the customer and their palate from selling tea, as well as understand their perspective on tea. By communicating and interacting like this, we become good friends. From a business standpoint, the profit margin when selling tea in a retail environment is higher than in wholesale.
Q: In the U.S., a lot of time is spent teaching customers about tea. Do you find that here?
Yes, it's a long process. For wholesale, you need quantity, big quantities, since the profit margins are not very high.
Q: Why did you decide to open a tea house?
Working at a tea house, you can meet a lot of different people. We have a saying in Chinese called "meeting people through tea" (以茶会）so I enjoy making friends this way. Working in, say, a wholesale tea market or other tea-related work, I just don't think it's as interesting as in a tea house, where you meet people from all walks of life. Also, customers you meet at a tea house are usually of a different sort than the ones at a tea market or a tea shop, so I like working at a tea house more.
Q: A lot of Americans may think that all Chinese drink tea. This, of course, is not true.
Right. A lot of Chinese people don't drink tea as a habit. I think it's still a habit that older Chinese people have, while 20-somethings are attracted to more convenient, quick beverages like coffee or tea bags. They don't want to put in the time required to steep and taste tea. We get some younger customers here, but they usually order teas like Jasmine tea, teas that have some fragrance added. Flower teas or fruit teas. The teas like oolong or black tea, things that are considered traditional teas, they don't enjoy drinking. They grew up drinking beverages like Coke and fruity drinks. They like sweet or tart flavors, drinks with more stimulating flavors. Tea, however, has a slightly bitter flavor to it, so younger customers don't choose tea. Older people, on the other hand, choose tea because of the health benefits and because they don't want to consume things with a high sugar content.
Q: Green tea is gaining popularity in the U.S. in part due to it's health benefits.
Yes, in fact, of the six traditional types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and hei/dark), green tea is the most nutritious. So, I personally like green tea the most. Because the polyphenols haven't been oxidized.
Q: So, do you like white tea?
Yes, I also like white tea. It is especially good for when you have a cold, so I like that. It makes the cold less severe. Since it is dried right after plucking, it is classified as a "slightly oxidized" tea and therefore, it still has a high nutritional value. Actually, fully oxidized or post-oxidizing teas (like pu'er) aren't as a nutritious as green or white teas. Truthfully, a couple years ago pu'er tea was very cheap, not like the past few years where it's been hyped and sold at very high prices.
Q: Why did you choose the name "Yayeji" (lit. "Gathering of Elegant Leaves") for your tea house?I have always thought of tea as a plant having a certain "intelligence" as well as being very refined, elegant. So that's where the "yaye" (雅叶) comes from. Then "ji" (集) refers to gathering different types of tea and not just selling one kind of tea.
Q: Do you do any work educating customers about tea?
Like you mentioned, a lot of Chinese don't know about tea and just drink whatever is available. So we are doing some work guiding and teaching people about tea. For example, we have these "tea saloon classes" where we give people a basic understanding of traditional Chinese tea and let them find what kind of tea they like as well as, after purchasing that tea, how to go home and steep it the best way possible. So, I've always wanted to do this kind of work drawing people into drinking tea and sharing how multi-faceted tea culture is.
Q: Do you ever study coffee or wine the way you have tea?
Because tea was my major and is my work, whenever I go to another city or country, I pay special attention to stores or anything tea-related. If I see a tea I haven't tried before, I can't wait to try it. But when it comes to coffee or wine, I am not as interested as I am in tea.
*In China, all seniors in high school country-wide, on the same 2 days, take a college entrance exam. Their score is used to determine what university they can attend.