A Timely Sip of Shaanxi Tea Changes the Course of Destiny

My flight from San Francisco arrived in Beijing at night. I dragged my luggage out of the arrival terminal only to find that my wife, Grace, got lost coming to the airport. After the long flight I sat and waited over an hour! Although exhausted, I was excited about this summer's tea trip. I finally get to spend a little time in my Beijing house with my family. My older daughter, Courtney, is going to NYU's affiliated summer program at famed Beijing University, while my younger daughter, Emily, is with me. It’s my hope that I can impart a little Chinese culture into this US-born kid. I arrived home well past midnight, then Grace and I chit-chatted until 3:00 AM before we finally went to bed.

The next morning Grace, Emily, and I caught an 8:00 AM flight to Xian, in Shaanxi province in Northwest China. Local officials of a nearby county invited me to visit their tea-growing region. Xian, as you may know, is the now world-renowned city where the first Qin emperor's tomb and the famous terracotta warriors are located. After a 2.5-hour flight we were met at the airport by my friend Mr. Frank Liu, whose parents are retired high party officials of the province. Mr. Liu was instrumental to my visit here; he’s urged me come to Shaanxi on many occasions and I’m glad I finally made it.

Many things attract me to Shaanxi and Xian, including their "hand-stretched" noodles. The noodles now being served in our Berkeley teahouse were inspired by them. Over 10 years ago, I tasted a very good green tea from Shaanxi. I didn’t try to procure any of it due to the high price and the fact that my focus then was on famous tea regions such as Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui, Yunnan, etc. At the time there was no compelling reason to pursue tea from a region I didn’t know when there were plenty of opportunities in better known places. However, times have changed. With rapid development and economic growth in the tea regions mentioned above, pollution, quality, and pricing are all daily issues I must deal with. That combined with having to compete with a Chinese population looking for better tea mean the time has come to think out of the box. So here I am in Shaanxi!

Frank told me it would be a "short drive" to Hanzhong City and the Ning Qiang prefecture. Although the drive was on very nice highways, it was more like five hours instead of the "about 2.5-hour drive" he promised! I was surprised that the entire area is so lush. In almost five hours of driving, I can't remember seeing a bald spot on any of the mountains and certainly no dried, dead vegetation. Upon arrival we were fed a big feast and taken around the small township to meet all the local officials. It was refreshing that the officials are all young men around 30-40 years old, anxious to see economic growth and prosperity in their jurisdiction. Recently, the Chinese government has had a policy of encouraging development in the Northwest. Money for economic stimulation as well as general development has started to pour into the region; roads and highways are being built at breakneck speed. One stimulus plan is to revitalize the tea industry.

Bordering Sichuan Province (which has been producing tea for over 1,000 years, since the Tang Dynasty) Hanzhong and Ning Qiang prefecture have surprisingly good tea-growing potential, with ample rain, fertile soil suitable for tea, and most important, not a lot of population or industry by Chinese standards. Ning Qiang boasts 10,650 mu of tea farms (3,000 acres or so). The next morning I visited some of those farms first-hand.

The trip to the tea farms was difficult. We crept along dirt roads for what seemed an eternity before arriving at our first target. It was extraordinarily badly managed. Clearly, the farmer operating this field looks upon tea-growing as an afterthought. Other crops had taken root between rows of tea and some areas were so full of weeds that we needed to chop our way in! However, two things caught my eye: despite the neglect the tea was still growing well, and the soil didn't display the hardening commonly seen in high-growth areas where too much chemical fertilization has been applied. In fact, almost no one fertilizes around here. They pick whatever the tea plants yield in early spring, then turn their attention to other crops, leaving the tea to fend for itself.

The entire tea production of this region is only around 400 metric tons, according to officials here. From my estimation, it should be much lower than that! Local farmers I talked with said their yearly harvest is around 20 kg/mu, (around 80 kg per acre), much lower than the high-growth areas' production of 80-90 kg/mu. I was beginning to have reservations about this area after visiting the second farm of the day. While it was better managed and was by a horrible road, the local official assured me a new road would be built within the year. Being near the road didn’t interest me much and my inner self was ready to call it a day and go home!

The second day of my visit brought good news. I was taken to a mountaintop with a dirt road that connects directly to an incoming paved road. The government has spent massive amounts of money to help the farmer shore up the hillside with stone terraces. Tea seedlings were planted a year ago and the soil looked good. However, the farmer was growing rows of corn next to the seedlings for immediate profit, which of course retarded the tea plants’ growth. The farm is on a hilltop surrounded by other mountains, with potential for further tea field development. After our visit, all the county and village officials met with me. I voiced my concerns and the issues I felt would make it difficult to achieve success. Finally the mayor and the head of the county office both asked me to seriously consider making my tea home here. Not only would they cooperate to remedy as many of my issues as possible, they were willing to provide a farm at no cost and make a 30% contribution toward machinery as well as many other incentives.

I left the meeting feeling pretty good about myself. The fact that they were willing to go all the way to get me to come here told me the last 20 years of hard work wasn't wasted. However, I still wasn’t convinced.

I went back to the small guesthouse and had a discussion with my Supreme Leader (my wife). She wasn’t so crazy about this area, either. After having visited first-rate farms in Zhejiang and Fujian, she didn’t find this place very attractive. We talked and couldn’t reach a solid conclusion. Rushing to catch the plane I forgot to bring tea, so we had to make do with tea that was a gift from local officials. Not paying any attention, we put some into a glass (no other equipment was available) and poured hot water over it and continued to talk. Finally, I took a sip from the glass and stopped talking. I handed it to Grace. She sipped and looked at me and said, “maybe you should take another look?”

We decided to come up with a wishlist for the local officials and begin planning and seriously considering growing tea here and making it our home base in China!

After two days in Ning Qiang we returned to Xian, where I talked with provincial officials who also pledged support. The Ning Qiang officials had already filed reports with higher-ups at the provincial level. Everyone was eager for us to get started! Grace, Emily, and I took a day off to sightsee in Xian, where the Silk Road was established in the Tang Dynasty. It’s also the only city in China where the ancient city walls have been entirely reconnected. Even my twelve-year-old daughter--who’s now in "I can't be seen with my parents, that is uncool” mode--had a great time visiting the terracotta soldiers!

I’m back in Beijing, enjoying a bit of down time with my family and trying to catch up on a bit of sleep. I’m planning to visit Wuyi Shan for more oolong; Yangzhou, where another possible tea farm awaits; Guangxi for jasmine tea; and Yixing for teapots. It doesn't look like I’ll be enjoying much more down time on this trip.