In his 20s working in the tea growing region of A Li Shan, Taiwan, Jason Chen discovered, and never forgot, the joy that sharing tea brings.
Chen, 60, is the son of a Hangzhou tea grower who was raised in the West Lake region famous for its Dragon Well tea, but it was Taiwan where “I fell in love with tea,’’ he said. “The high mountain lifestyle, the memories of my family working together to make tea,” spoke to his destiny.
Years later in Seattle, Chen established a wholesale tea business supplying loose leaf varieties and teaware. TAZO, a newly established brand in the Pacific Northwest came to rely on his expertise and exceptional tea. He soon began supplying Numi and Rishi Organic Tea.
Chen insisted on a few basic principles, the most important of which is to insist on “authentic processing and pesticide clean tea,” he said.
Variety is also essential to retail success, he explains, “but in the end it must taste good!”
In 1999 when Starbucks bought TAZO, Chen began supplying great quantities of tea. He traveled to origin on four buying trips a year visiting Taiwan and mainland China where he secured the critical volumes demanded by a client that grew to $1.4 billion in annual sales. Chen eventually acquired six gardens, one in each of the major tea producing regions within China.
This commitment “means that our Phoenix oolong is from Phoenix Mountain and our Dragon Well is processed in West Lake.” The teas he offers are “real tea” which he describes as authentic styles prepared in the traditional manner and sourced as the right variety from the right region.
In September 2013 Chen took another big step in his tea journey by establishing Smacha Tea. He chose the name “smart” “cha” to distinguish his business from Victorian tea rooms, Teavana mall shops or coffee vendors selling tea.
In his deliberate and mindful way Chen expanded on the lessons learned as a wholesaler. He cites the company’s pillars in sequence. “No. 1. Smacha sells only real tea, not flavored tea and herbals, and we take the time to explain why,” he said.
“No. 2. I sell only useful and reasonably priced teaware. No. 3. I innovate, serving what is popular with customers: Tea espresso and tea lattes are popular with workers at local tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon.
“I serve young and old, attract about the same number of males as females and I stock American and Asian favorites,” he said. Convenience is important so the shop has a quick-serve line where tea-to-go sells for $5 per cup. Those who want to sit and chat pay $10 to $15 for a pot of tea.
Half of the company’s sales revenue is from loose leaf with 30% of revenue from food and beverage. Teaware accounts for the difference and ranges from a few dollars for bone china cups to $450 for exquisite pottery. A pu-erh cake might bring $100 but most tea is sold in smaller for under $35.
Next on his list are foods made with real tea. Pastry chef Yana Bacheva on this day is serving melt-in-your mouth matcha short bread shaped as hearts. She offers a several different tea-themed snacks using a variety of teas.
Chen’s staff is well trained and eager to answer questions about the more than 60 teas offered. Proper advice on preparation is very important, he said.
He saves his best advice for last: “make good tea better.” He then serves a remarkable 2006 golden House Roast Golden Osthmanthus from his family’s garden. His most prized teas are roasted on a schedule that can span decades.
In addition to the osthmanthus he offers a roast Golden Lily and a Dong Ding style roast oolong that each sell for $39.95 for 150 g.
High-mountain oolongs possess complex aromas and flavors that appear layer upon layer as you enjoy each sip. Certain teas benefit from gentle application of heat in a small roaster, said Chen. Roasting also has the practical effect of drying the tea to extend its shelf life. “Taste follows aroma,” explains Chen, “aftertaste follows taste.”
Roasting takes four hours at different temperatures, a tea might begin at 200 degrees for 1-2 hours for example followed by another few hours at the same or slightly lower temperature. The tea is then cooled.
Knowing how to roast is challenging but knowing when to roast demands a master’s skill.
Learn more at www.smacha.com
14603 NE 20th St., Bellevue, WA 98007