By Peter Surowski
Tea importer Taylor Drye and his company Mad Monk Tea are profitably stocking the shelves of third-wave coffee houses.
“Demand for specialty and single-origin coffee is growing, and this presents a big opportunity for tea importers who are willing to put in some leg work”, says Drye who runs a small tea company from a 200-sq. ft. office in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego, Calif.
The space reflects his love for Chinese culture; Pu’er teas sit on wooden shelves along with growing bamboo stalks, Asian statuettes, and prints of photos he’s taken during his travels in the country.
Drye keeps limited office hours. The shop is only open from 2-7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, during which time he serves a small clientele of locals who come in to share a cup of wet tea — he doesn’t charge — and buy their monthly supply of whole leaf.
These sales represent about 40% of his business. The rest of his tea — about 800 kilograms — is shipped to third-wave coffee houses in Southern California and across The States.
Drye explains, “These coffee houses are the perfect venue for our product. Shop owners and managers subject their own coffees to the same scrutiny that we do with our teas, every day”.
“The essence of my game is quality over quantity,” he says as he prepared a pot of black tea at his desk, carefully steeping with thermometers and timers.
Drye sells only 12 types of tea. His selection, sourced in China, Taiwan and Thailand, includes black, oolong, and green teas with one light oolong scented with orange blossom.
This dozen took Drye about three years of meticulous research and travel to find.
When Drye first began learning about tea he encountered a lot of myths, legends and hyperbole surrounding the products.
“These stories are nice, but they don’t really tell anything about the quality of the product”, he said.
“I was trained as a technician, and things weren’t linking up between what everything and everyone was telling us (about the products) and what was actually going on”.
Drye wasn’t interested in the fabled origins of the teas. He was interested in how it stacks up under scrutiny when compared to like products.
Before taking up tea, he worked in fine liquor retail in New Zealand. He has a refined palate and acquired a vast knowledge of the products, and he made a great living. But he wasn’t happy.
“I was living on borrowed enthusiasm,” he said, because he had no great affinity for liquor — and even less for the party-hard lifestyle that went along with it.
So Drye left in search of something that meshed better with his active, healthy lifestyle.
And search, he did.
Drye spent a growing season working on a tea farm in Hawaii learning every step, from planting to growing to harvesting and processing. He spent the next few years traveling the U.S. and China looking for the best ethically and sustainably grown teas.
“I had to find out what really is world-class tea and how you make it,” he said.
He visited tea farms in China and discovered a farming style called “ziran nongfa,” which uses complimentary planting and emphasizes natural solutions to growing problems.
It took several years, but he found five farmers who use this style and produce premium products.
After settling down in San Diego in 2010, Mad Monk Tea was born. Together with his wife Katie and their son Bodhi, Drye opened up his modest shop in a location that had previously housed other tea shops for almost 7 years. You could say, ‘tea was in the air’.
Because his overhead was low, he was turning a small profit within two months from sales to local tea lovers.
“We built a really strong community of tea lovers,” he said. “My days are full of drinking really great tea with really great people.”
Finding the niche
“We like to think of ourselves as innovators that stand on the shoulders of tradition,” said Drye. Though some retail clients might find his limited selection thin, his third-wave customers typically offer a very select number of coffees, so it’s a good fit.
Like the coffees these shops carry, the price of his loose leaf tea is higher; typically a cup retails for about $4.50.
Now, when Drye isn’t sipping tea with his local tea aficionados, he’s looking for more retailers who have a passion for high-end, premium tea and, like him, want to share that with their own local connoisseurs.
Mad Monk Tea
4966 Santa Monica Ave.
San Diego, CA 92107