From Tech to Tea

Stephen and Ann Chien.

Mountain View Tea Village’s owners Stephen and Ann Chien.

By Janis Hashe

It might seem a long way from an optical communications network to a classically styled teashop in Mountain View, Calif., but for former JDS Uniphase production manager Stephen Chien and his wife and partner Ann, it’s a dream come true.

The Chiens, originally from Taiwan, immigrated in 1980, initially to Minnesota, then to California’s Silicon Valley in 1989. Stephen’s career in high-tech was flourishing. But work-related stress had him more and more turning to the tea culture he had loved as a child. “I began making tea when I was 5 or 6 years old,” he recalls.

His love of tea finally won out. In 1999, Stephen retired, sold his corporate stock, and opened the Mountain View Tea Village with Ann, a former bookkeeper, as CEO. Since that time, the shop has moved a couple of times until finding what the Chiens see as the ideal 415-square-foot home in the heart of Silicon Valley’s Mountain View.

Taiwan comes to Silicon Valley

Stepping into the shop is a little like stepping back in time. The long, narrow store, which also sells Chinese antiques, contains shelves of green, black, white, jasmine, oolong, Formosa, fragrant, and puer teas—all are whole-leaf teas. Stephen is passionate about educating customers on how tea should be grown, harvested, and prepared. One flyer in the store depicts, for example, how some tea is grown in areas where pollution from passing vehicles will damage it. The Chiens import all their teas directly from Taiwan and are obsessed with quality. It’s sold in various quantities from 50-gram vacuum-packed packages to pounds of loose tea.

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Chinese antiques are displayed alongside shelves of green, black, white, jasmine, oolong, Formosa, fragrant, and puer teas.

Prices begin at $9.99 for 50 grams of best-selling Lychee Green Oolong Fragrant Tea, or $13.99 for the same size of Jasmine Pearl White Dragon Fragrant Tea. Fragrant teas, in fact, are very popular overall, say the Chiens. Stephen mentions Drunken Princess Oolong, starting at $17.99, as another bestselling tea.

The exception to Taiwanese teas comes in the form of Stephen’s antique puer collections from China. These range from a block of 1938 puer, carefully preserved and displayed in glass, to “vintages” from 1949, 1960, 1970, 1978, and others. “I started collecting in junior high school,” Stephen recalls. He notes that one customer in Washington D.C. paid “$20,000 for one ounce” of a particular puer.

Mountain View Tea Village’s clients aren’t limited to local tech geeks. According to the Chiens, its customer base is international and includes people from all over the United States and Europe. “Many people from the yoga and meditation communities buy their teas from us,” says Ann. One of their frequent customers is a qi gong master. The store does a brisk internet business, with many sales in the $2,000–3,000 range, says Stephen. 

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Part of Stephen Chien’s puer collection.

The Chiens pride themselves on providing detailed information about tea; an entire page of the website, for example, is devoted to tea preparation using Yixing clay teapots, which the store sells. On the back of the store’s business card is a list of temperatures at which various teas should be brewed and for how long. An email newsletter is distributed once a month that notes which teas are new and any that are only available for a short time. And special customers are treated to tastings at the beautiful, antique draining table at the front of the shop. “Good tea is expensive,” says Stephen, “and we help to educate people about it.”

Stephen pulls out an image of Kuan Yin, goddess of compassion, that he wears around his neck. “Kuan Yin has saved my life three times,” he says. “Now, I like to help people.”

Mountain View Tea Village & Gallery, 361 Castro St., Mountain View, CA 94041. (650) 282-5690, www.mvteavillage.com