China Trip 2011
by Samantha Cappuccino-Williams
Cynthia & Suzette in Changsha
If you're a FaceBook friend of Adagio's, you've probably seen some of the posts about the 2011 China trip. If you're not, however, you may have no idea what I'm talking about.
Allow me to recap. In April, Adagio sent their three tea buyers-Cynthia, Suzette, and Lydia-to Eastern China to find some new and exciting spring teas. They toured China for only 12 days, but what a 12 days it was! Their itinerary was jam-packed, and featured stops in the cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai, as well as tea gardens in countryside destinations including Hangzhou and Zhejiang (the full itinerary and links to their awesome photo blog of the trip are available here). Their mission was simple: find great new stuff for Adagio customers, and meet the people who help make it all happen.
After their return, I caught up with Suzette and Cynthia to get some of the details about their trip...and when the rest of us can sample some of the things they found.
SCW: Welcome back! Overall, how did the trip go? Was it a success?
Sooz: The trip was amazing! Total immersion in another culture for 2 weeks and in that many cities/rural areas can be intimidating, but it was a wonderful experience.
Cynthia: The trip was definitely exciting, interesting, enlightening and hectic. But I think it was a success!
SCW: What was your official mission?
Sooz: We weren't necessarily on a buying trip, but more visiting some of our suppliers to further develop our relationships with them to get an understanding of what we need and what they can help with. Seeing a broad variety of the many teas they're able to produce was really exciting because tea innovation is constantly happening. They're always trying to better themselves by mastering the skills needed to craft classic teas, as well as push the boundaries and create something new. So, it's just as helpful to them to know what's interesting to our customers as it is for us to see them make it and pass on that knowledge.
For me specifically, as Adagio's Tea Educator, I was looking to bring back as much photo and video (and interesting items, like tea baskets and tasting sets) to share with our employees and customers. You can only "mime" the tea production process so much! Actual demonstrations go a long way towards better understanding here in America.
Cynthia: Our main mission was to check out the tea gardens and spring harvests, to see the picking and processing first hand, and get to meet our farmers. Also, we wanted to document the trip with pictures and video as much as possible and share with our tea friends back home.
SCW: Were you just searching for tea or did you scope out new teaware, too?
Sooz: There was a little bit of both. Many tea producers in China also have their own retail shops, so seeing the different crafts available only in China was helpful. Adagio has great relationships in China, so if something strikes our fancy, we can likely get it made special for our customers.
Cynthia: We also went to a cast iron teapot factory and saw a wonderland of designs! We were really open to anything we saw in China that might be interesting for Adagio.
SCW: So what did you find and bring back? Any surprises or bonuses you didn't expect?
Cynthia: We brought back some great green teas, some white teas and an interesting dark peony.
SCW: What was the best part of the trip?
Sooz: I don't know if there is any one thing I could say was the absolute best, because that implies that experiences after that were not as special. In Jingua, however, I was really touched by the kindness and generosity of Mr. Lu, our cast-iron teapot maker. He was such a wonderful tea friend! Mr. Lu was so excited to learn about tea, he accompanied us to the gardens and all the way to Hangzhou. He drove us everywhere, we enjoyed happy, lovely meals with him. Just so fun to see the same explorer's spirit in tea that we often see here in America. Not only that, but his factory was amazing. The care and love he pours into creating his teapots and teaching his workers to show that same respect and skill... it was so comforting. You left knowing you would LOVE that little teapot treasure given to you.
Oh, and also the fluffy white "tea goats" we met in Jingua (they live on an organic farm we buy from and eat the grass that grows between the bushes so you don't have to weed as much). Incredibly cute! Video will be available soon!
Cynthia: I think it was the people that were the best part. Everyone was so friendly and excited by our interest in what they do. So willing to show us around. One gentleman was so kind, he even went way out of his way to drive us to the next tea garden and then the next city so we wouldn't have to take a bus!
SCW: Naturally, I have to follow the previous question up by asking what the worst part was.
Sooz: I would have to say the Internet connection. It sounds so whiny to point that out, but it's frustrating when you want to upload photos, videos and travelogue narratives to people back home in a timely fashion (re: in real time) and it just... won't... go. Hours spent watching the "fill-y uppy bar" slowly inch toward completion on the simplest of tasks, only to time out over and over. This was particularly an issue on the tea mountains. Just the same, I think we did a really good job and I think I have some ideas on how to tackle it more smartly the next time.
Cynthia: The Internet was bad, but being so far from home was the worst part for me.
SCW: What was the best tea of the trip?
Sooz: All of the teas we had in Fuding were wonderful, and this was mostly white tea. Nothing can replace that fresh from-the-bush aroma. It's still very good once it reaches us in the store, but to smell and taste it hours after it was made is unbelievable.
Cynthia: For me it was the fresh Dragonwell... amazing!
SCW: What are you most excited for Adagio customers to try?
Cynthia: The Dark Peony. Can't wait to see what everyone thinks.
SCW: I certainly cannot wait to try Dark Peony. When will the new teas/products be available for customers to try?
Cynthia: Not quite sure. Hopefully about 4-6 weeks.
SCW: Are there any plans for visits to other tea-producing countries, like Japan, Sri Lanka, or Taiwan?
Sooz: I definitely am looking forward to the next adventure. It's important as an educator to have a tangible connection with origin to do justice to those stories. My job is to teach tea through hands on experience and enrichment. This encompasses sharing not just tea information and brewing techniques, but enabling people to really live it and keep it as their own. They should feel inspired as real participants in the discussion. The torch must always be passed to the next generation, through first hand knowledge and meaningful cultural exchange.
Cynthia: We were tossing around the idea of Taiwan and other regions of China we didn't get to see this time. Lydia and Sooz were also speaking of India, but nothing official yet.
SCW: Lastly, did you learn anything that surprised you? Anything you can pass on to the rest of us?
Sooz: I was humbled to fully realize the enormity of the challenge it has been to translate the information about tea currently available. It has taken decades for us just to get this far, and it's not because tea producers are not "scientific" in their endeavor (or that we are being too scientific); to the contrary, they fully know what they are doing on levels we can't even understand unless we lived with them. But when you engage in a 4-way interpretive conversation with fellow tea colleagues while standing among the bushes, you truly, humbly appreciate how hard it is to articulate information on this level of detail to audiences in your native language. The work will always need to be revised, yes, not because it wasn't completely accurate to begin with, but because better understanding of what is being asked is realized. So, tea lovers should embrace and appreciate this aspect of our shared passion. It can be frustrating at times, but it should also be awe-inspiring. Seeing the transmission and interpretation of wisdom take place in person is a beautiful moment.
Cynthia: There was a lot that surprised me but they have little to do with the tea! (Corn juice!) The tea gardens were much as I imagined them, though I was surprised by the color of the soil.
Many thanks to Sooz and Cynthia for chatting with me, and for going all the way to China so that us Adagio customers from around the world can reap the benefits! Keep your eyes peeled on FaceBook and the Adagio Web site for additional videos, pictures, and information about their trip.