Roy Fong: A Master in the Art of Artisan Tea

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Between the leaf and the cup are many important steps on the path of artisan tea production. Roy Fong is one of the few people in the US tea industry today who works actively in every part of the process. He is owner of the Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco and is a retailer, wholesaler, importer, grower, teacher and author.

Looking back, he realizes that his passion for tea began as a six-year old boy in Hong Kong. Walking to school, he was happily distracted by the day laborers brewing gong fu cha while they waited for work. Squatting beside them at the edge of the road, he began his lifetime tea education. Returning to the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong at age 21, it was the smell of fresh tea being roasted over charcoal that drew him back to the old tea shops and into the company of tea merchants, spending his vacation going from one tea shop to another. It was not until 1993 and the opening of the first Imperial Tea Court in Chinatown that his career began.

“I don’t know what I would be doing now if I wasn’t in tea. I can’t imagine. When I think about it I believe that I wasted thirty years doing other things and not doing tea.” Most tea people have that experience of looking back, connecting the dots between events that lead them to their life with the leaf. “Many moments. A little bit at a time, until you’re so deep into it you can’t get out. — There was a moment in Yunnan, waking early in the morning, walking out into the field of tea in the mist and seeing the girls already out there picking. There was also my first experience with Bi Lo Chun – throwing the leaves on the top of the water, letting them infuse, the leaves twisting on the surface of the water. Before that I wasn’t interested in green tea.”

He now has two retail locations in The Bay Area, one in The Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco and one in Berkeley on the East side of The Bay where he meets curious newcomers to tea and those who have had disappointing experiences with loose leaf, artisan teas. “I listen to their impression and experience and then I serve them a tea that is prepared correctly and explain what they should be looking for. Especially a well-made jasmine tea. Most people have no idea how much craftsmanship there is in a really great jasmine tea. Even experienced tea people have a prejudice about this tea and don’t realize how much work it is to create a truly fine jasmine tea. Most people have no idea how much work is involved in creating all fine artisan teas.”

The master teachingWhat may sound like a simple formula for introducing the beloved leaf is built on an intense study. “Being a tea merchant is different from being a tea lover. We cannot just rely on our own taste. We have to understand more than what we need to know for ourselves.”

His education is one that he created for himself. He targets tea to investigate in depth. He travels to the area in which it is grown. Before visiting the farms, he studies the local culture; the climate, history, food and beliefs.

”Knowing what the people of a region eat and drink, understanding soil and weather conditions, and participating in the harvest and production all yield a deeper understanding of what gives a tea its unique character and how to prepare it in a way that fulfills its potential.” Finally, he visits the fields, spends time with the growers and observes the complete processing.

Once, in Taiwan, he had the experience of an all night processing of Tie Guan Yin. At each step the tea was cupped and he could better appreciate the importance of each step in the long process and understand how the flavor develops. “Each step is critical. One mistake can destroy the entire batch.”
The Bay Area is becoming known as an active tea community. Signs of growth in tea appreciation here are that he can mention pu-erh without people looking surprised and that more of his customers seem to understand how to brew green tea. Business is growing. People are seeking out the information and appreciating the health benefits and the artistry of making tea.

Along with this popularity he voices one concern, “Some people are teaching with incomplete or inaccurate information.” One example he gives is the story that white tea is only picked by women wearing white gloves. “When the stories are exaggerated it can hurt the whole industry. “What we (the tea industry) need is to develop industry standards with quality information that is vetted and correct and make this easily available to those who want to teach.”

Roy Fong FarmHis new farm in northern California, about an hour from his businesses in the Bay Area, is one way he hopes to be able to create the farm experience for tea people who cannot travel to the countries of origin. With at least six different varietals that will thrive in this climate, he will be able to give visitors the experience he has when he studies tea around the world. The soil and water source are now being prepared for planting later this year or next spring. It may be three to five years before a productive harvest but there is much to be learned during the preparation.

In the meantime, his book, “The Great Teas of China” offers his personal relationship with ten great teas, the culture of those teas and growing and processing as well as infusing suggestions for the tea lover. He generously shares his passion for and commitment to tea for the newly intrigued and those of us for whom there is no turning back.

Babette Donaldson is a presenter at this year’s World Tea Expo and a frequent contributor to World Tea News.