INTERVIEW – In Conversation with Jeff Fuchs, The Tea Explorer (Part 2)

Interview jeff 28.Being from the west, you’ve good access to superior tea varietals. What did you feel was missing and what drove you curious?
JF: All of my tea instruction and mentorship began in Taiwan almost twenty years ago and I learned Mandarin primarily so that I could understand more tea vocabulary, so for me everything has its base close to where the tea has been growing for centuries..  Asia was my great instructor and remains so, and the culture and efforts surrounding tea are embedded so when I began to read and hear how tea was taking off in the west there was a kind of excitement in me.

Throughout the years I met with, sat with, sipped with…and sipped some more with locals who were bound to the leaf and cultivated, harvested and created teas and one thing that came through consistently was the lack of pretension and fanfare when they communicated about tea. Though many haven’t got the data, or the scientific names for flavours’ origins, they knew the soil and could explain the history that tea has had with mortals.

For me, I found these stories vital in any talk of tea but there was very little of it really being made available. You learn a lot from the people involved in creating a tea. Every good tea has a great tale, and great people that participate in making it available and those tales and people need some reverence and some recognition and that is, I suppose, one of my main drivers…and a driver that will continue motivating me…and my palate.

9. What is your ‘way of tea’ and how it is an important element of your life?
JF: Ahh….now into the belly of it all. My life is largely on the road so having rituals is vital for me to keep time and space relatively grounded. It is a way that is simple, repetitive and it is a time that I guard voraciously. I cannot do a lot of talk and ’stuff’ until I’ve quietly gone about my tea making and taking.

I’m never without either a flared cup or a clay tea pot, and of course the accompanying leaves. More often than not I’ve got two teas with me. One is inevitably a cake of ancient tree Puerh. This is my morning ritual and it is usually spent alone with a thought to where the tea is from and the hands and personalities behind it.

The preparation of the tea (and my prep is inevitably very simple) is a kind of meditation of sorts. I wake, stretch and then there is my first morning tea and then a second and then I’m ready (or convinced that I’m ready) for whatever the day brings. If I’m at home I tuck into my tea storage and decide which tea will merge me into the day and I prepare it on an old bamboo tea table that is stained with years’ of offerings.

10. What do you think is the biggest issue/challenge in the current global tea industry?
JF: a) There needs to be ways in which the little family run tea zones have an ability to get and continue to get their teas out to a wider public and profit. It is most often the teas produced by such little gardens that I consider to be ‘rippers’ – absolute stunning teas, who are not under the threat of minimum yields or over-harvesting schedules.
b) If hand-picked teas that are carefully made are to have a future, then the workers who pluck and produce the leaves need to have fair compensation and treatment, particularly by tea companies.
c) Changes in the climate are causing many huge alterations in the way food is grown and where it is grown. I’m a huge advocate of the principles of permaculture and bio-dynamics and allowing nature some time to adapt rather than us humans dictating through sprays, GMO’s and adulterations. Tea too can benefit from this kind of foresight.

11. How are the rare teas from the remote parts of Asia that you’ve discovered different from the mainstream commercial teas?
JF: Biggest difference is that with some of these small yield, small production harvests is that they are a kind of beautiful one-off that exists once in one vintage and then is gone. You’ll have a small hand-crafted yield that is unique for Spring, and then one unique for Summer, rather than huge industrial amounts of teas.  Yes consistency is great but I’m a fan of some of those little productions that exist in a small brief offering.

Another stunning part of these off-the-grid teas is that when you sample and sip, you can – after a while – start to feel and taste a master’s hands and preferences. One is able to begin to determine flavours that are inherent to a specific region’s soil, precipitation and to a specific set of hands and preferences. This for me is something that touches the soul aspect of a tea. The same principles can be said of other foods and consumables.

Trying to negate an inconvenient flavour isn’t the right of any industry. Trying to funnel the masses into consuming or enjoying the same family of flavours isn’t something I see as good, though perhaps it might seem more convenient for some mass producers. It is in the slight differences and nuances that the magic happens and that the palate can develop.

12. Tell us about some of your favorite high mountain teas that you’ve discovered.
JF: I’m a big fan of a few teas, with raw Puerhs being my favourites so I’ll start there. Naka produces some wonderful ancient tree tea offerings from southern Yunnan. Fresh vegetal bite that ages beautifully.

He Kai is another favourite of mine from the Bulang Mountains of southern Yunnan Province and it is one of my go-to teas to take on expeditions into the mountains. It never fails to keep me zinging and it grips the teeth with its force before gently letting go. Though I’m astounded at the prices being charged, a good Lao Banzhang always seems to impress, though it depends on who is producing it. There is a Mr. Gao who taught me much who makes teas that spoil the palate.

My formal tea education began in Taiwan, and I’ve always loved the teas from Dayuling in the mountains of central Taiwan – true high altitude Oolong that is not always simple to find. Gorgeous tea. As for Darjeeling, though there are many stunning teas, I’m partial to Jungpana for its utterly warmth and butter.

13. Which are some of your favorite teas and your personal morning favorite?
JF: The above teas I mention are all favourites but right now I’m really enjoying a He Kai old tree raw (Sheng) Puerh offering that was produced in 2008. Seven years has developed it into something absolutely wonderful and I can drink this tea all day, every single day…anytime.

Another current masterpiece is a 2010 Bang Pun raw Puerh from ancient trees that again, has hit some wonderful notes. Jing Mai Mountain also seems to offer up sumptuous Puerhs season after season.

The latest favourite though is a new Spring 2017 He Kai from Man Mai Village – it is a potent fresh and almost explosively green Puerh that lights up the blood and system. It is a beam of light every single morning for me. I wake, do some breathing and then prepare a Man Mai every single morning and for the last months it has been this raw He Kai.

14. The tea culture globally is way progressive and advanced than the tea culture in India. What tea experiences do you feel people are missing on?
JF: What has always shocked me about Indian tea culture is how so very few Indians I’ve met are able, or have access to, their own wonderful teas. Darjeeling was built up to export but we’re so far past those days that I think that India could well develop a real domestic love of its very own Darjeeling brews. Assam teas dominate the spectrum of what is available but there are so many aspects that could be built into a new Indian chapter of tea enjoyment of its very finest. The leaves are present, the skill sets are available and the terroir exists so why not develop some white teas, more Oolongs, and some greens or heavily roasted offerings even. The industry in India I think could do with some re-evaluating of values and perhaps some young blood to take a few risks. Tea can be taken in new directions directed by and influenced by Indians with some risks.

Having just said the above, the first thing I do when arriving to India is track down a potent offering of Masala Chai….I’m entirely hooked when in India and I do understand the love of a traditional cup local chai. But, I’d love to see India enjoy some of its very own superior teas and have it available to a wider range of people.

15. Being in the industry for so long and having explored the unexplored, what would you like to share with the urban generation of tea lovers?
JF: Ultimately a deep wish is that more people realize that great teas are and can be very ‘simple teas’. Simply made, with a minimum of manipulation where the leaves taste not of something concocted or synthetic but of the soil and the minerals themselves.

One thing that has always encouraged and delighted me with tea is that the great teas are never far from the hands, nor should they be. Great teas need human hands and touch at every stage. They need the intimacy of the masters and dedicates who don’t simply shove the leaves in one end of an industrial machine and collect it at the other. Teas should be the domain of the small curators and the large and there should be enough audience and sippers for all models. We shouldn’t expect that every single year a tea will be consistent – we should expect and encourage characteristics that are unique to seasonal variations. Though I like consistency, for me the magic in tea always lie in variations and experiments.

16. Travelling gives us liberty and making new friends on the way makes it enriching and worthwhile. How have your experiences changed you as a person?
JF: Experiences can and should, I believe, refine and develop the mind and heart and in my own time I’ve edited down the ‘basics’ in my life and learning to enjoy with less. To enjoy a moment deeply, the mind needs to be ready and willing to open and receive, so in preparation, I suppose I try to be as mindful and present as I can.

My life has been particularly affected and moved by many of the elders of the Himalayas, and those who still live in communion with the land and who haven’t forgotten how to live with and within the elements.

I’ve learned too, that there are very few moments that do not improve with a good cup of tea and the mountains nearby.

Don’t miss the Part-1 of the interview