Verdant Tea Room: Partners in Progress

Tea Business Boot Camp is an educational experience designed for entrepreneurs starting a tea retail business and includes the World Origin Tasting Tour.

By Maura Keller

The Verdant Tea Room is a peaceful, vibrant space in the heart of Minneapolis. Teeming with lush plants and wonderful photos of the farmers with whom they work, there are no intimidating walls of tea tins. Rather, the Verdant is a safe place to learn and discover.

brewing_gongfu_teaDavid Duckler, president of Verdant Tea, keeps the environment of his teahouse simple so that the work his partners in China do can be the real star.

“The center of our space is a community table for group tastings, and the back is dominated by a large tasting bar for people to hang out and chat with one of us,” Duckler says. “The walls are adorned with photos of the farmers we work with and, keeping in the family, with my mother Lisa Nankivil’s abstract paintings.”

Verdant Tea started as a direct importer, working with six small family farms that they have known for almost a decade. Duckler met their farmer-partners on a research grant collecting the folklore of tea and interviewed each farmer as a leader in their community long before working with them as business partners.

Tea_Shop_samplebar“The complexity of their tea got me so interested in flavor that branching out into other food and drink made a lot of sense,” Duckler says. “Our first project outside of online retail was brewing chai concentrate for coffee shops and for farmers’ markets using our Laoshan Black tea and a complex set of spices and herbs.”

The expansion of the chain led Duckler to take on a larger commercial kitchen. With larger space at their disposal, Duckler wanted to take the opportunity to share tea in the spirit of the simple rural tea houses he fell in love with in China.

“We started serving rural Chinese street food that evoked the places that each tea comes from,” Duckler says. “Tea-infused cocktails became a great way to play with flavor and get people thinking about tea in the context of savoring a beverage.”

ProhibitionKombuchaRecently, Verdant has been expanding its product offerings further with the founding of Prohibition Kombucha and Tree Fort Soda, both carefully brewed high-end beverages that are made with tea, spices or herbs.

“These businesses and our growing wholesale program eventually forced our hand to move to a new bigger warehouse space with a tap room in the front for people to visit us any time and taste as many teas as they want and all our soda, chai and kombucha, free of charge. This new format has replaced the restaurant business and has brought us back to our roots in sharing the culture of tea.”

Duckler says people’s favorite thing to do at Verdant’s new tea shop is to hang out with them and try a lot of different teas, to learn about the families who grow each one and to learn more about their preferences.

“It is a fun activity to come and discover things you never new about tea culture,” Duckler says.

Verdant Tea Room president, David Duckler

Verdant Tea Room president, David Duckler

Verdant’s tea business is unlike any other. The business is founded on the principle of representing the real people behind tea. “We don’t work with brokers, we don’t work with exporters or factory farms. We have come to know six families who we trust completely and they trust us. We sell only teas from these families. Each family we work with owns their own land, picks their own tea and does their own processing. Their plots are 10 to 15 acres or they wild-pick in the old growth forests of Yunnan,” Duckler says.

Because the families own their land and plan to pass the business onto their children, their farming is sustainable, careful and thoughtful. Their teas are free of pesticides and chemicals. Duckler have two partners in China who pick tea up at the farm when he is not there himself and they air ship the tea back to sell it fresh after picking.

“We are pushing to make the industry honest and transparent, and adhere to higher standards to benefit innovative small family farms that are leading in sustainability,” Duckler says.

Because Duckler has direct relationships, is fluent in Chinese, has lived in China and has staff in China, Verdant is are able to source in a completely unique way that gives their customers the very best product, while connecting them with real farmer families across the world that benefit from their purchases.

Wang Ziamen and Lily Duckler enjoy dim sum

Wang Ziamen and Lily Duckler enjoy dim sum

Verdant’s most popular tea is Laoshan Black, a new kind of malty, chocolately, rich tea and a great example of innovation. The He Family pioneered this tea just three years ago and have since shared the technique to produce it with every farmer in the village of Laoshan.

Also rising in popularity is their Prohibition Kombucha, made with the Li family’s Big Red Robe Oolong from Wuyi. “We are working to make really clean and crisp kombucha that appeals to a wider audience and so far the reception has been tremendous,” Duckler says. “I enjoy working with our farmer partners in China. Every time I go back to visit it brings joy to my heart to see them innovating, growing and succeeding. My business exists to serve the families in China who place their trust and their precious harvests in my hands. To see them thriving and to see their children excited to learn the craft makes me think that tea has a bright future.”

2009 E 24th St, Minneapolis, MN 55404